How to Decorate Your First Grown-Up Apartment

You’ve scoured Zillow, visited “roomy” (for Thumbelina) studios with a “view” (of a dingy alleyway) and finally signed the lease. Congrats! Now comes the really hard part: decorating. If you’re fresh out of college, you no doubt have remnants of your dorm room lying around, and it can be tempting to simply pin up your old Audrey Hepburn poster and call it a day. While you might not be ready to clean out West Elm, moving into your first adult apartment gives you a chance to revamp your home décor. Life completely changes after graduation, which means you need a mature living space to match your new grown-up existence. We’re going to walk you through how to make it happen!

Choose a color scheme


Your college dorm was likely a mish-mash of colors and patterns—especially if you didn’t coordinate décor with your roommate—but moving into your own place gives you the opportunity to create a cohesive design and color scheme. First step: find matching furniture. While this can be tricky when you’re putting together your first apartment, especially since you’re likely to buy used furniture or collect pieces from home, it’s best to aim for neutrals when it comes to larger pieces, like your couch and bed. If you’re worried that doing so makes your living space look too drab, you can always brighten it up with colorful accent pieces.

“You can still use most of your college things if you use them the right way!” says Charlotte Lehman, a Union College 2014 graduate who lives in Rochester, NY with a roommate. “It’s all about accenting—it’s easier to get away with loud prints and colors in a dorm room, but in a bigger apartment, if you mix those floral pillows and striped comforters with some new neutral grown-up furniture, they make a nice focal point to the room and aren’t overbearing or too ‘college.’”

Turn the shoebox into a palace


Chances are, you don’t live in Monica and Rachel’s apartment. It’s tough to find a spacious place when you’re first living on your own, but simple décor hacks can make your new digs look bigger. Try adding mirrors to the walls of your common area or in your bedroom to keep them from feeling too closed-in. This has the added bonus of making a room look brighter and more expensive than it actually is. Curtains can help with this as well; if you opt for longer ones to frame your windows, you can make the room feel taller.

Let there be light


The lighting in your college dorm room likely consisted of fluorescent lights, which does nobody any favors. Your new place gives you a tad more flexibility.

“Lamps make good mood lighting, more so [than] overhead lights,” says Clara Boesch, who lives in The Bard Graduate Center’s student housing in Manhattan.

Keep a floor lamp in your living space, and a table lamp next to your bed—they don’t take up much space, but brighten up your home so much more. And since your apartment isn’t policed by RAs, you can do cool grown-up things like use matches.

“I'm a huge fan of candles. It's amazing to me how much more cozy—not to mention great-smelling—a room can feel with even just a few candles lit,” says Elise DiMeo, a Union College 2014 graduate who moved to Sevilla, Spain last fall. “I don't think I'm ever in my bedroom without having at least one burning nearby. Plus, we're not in college anymore, so they're no longer illegal contraband!”

Candles look even fancier in clusters, so try grouping a few together—matching or not—on your coffee table, fireplace mantle or on your windowsill (your neighbors will appreciate the last one).

Dress it all up


Once you’ve nailed the basics, you can express your creativity through smaller decorative pieces. In organizing your desk, for example, opt for lacquered trays in lieu of plastic magazine holders and cute jars or cups to contain your pens.

In your living room, lay out coffee table books that speak to your taste and coasters to keep your surfaces safe. These can make for a fun DIY craft as well; find colors or prints that complement your space and make your own out of cork squares.

As anyone who has ever given Pinterest a cursory glance could tell you, wine, champagne and liquor bottles make for great vases or other decorative pieces, too. You can also drill a hole in the bottle and stuff it with Christmas lights, which you most certainly were not allowed to have in college, giving you a cute DIY lamp.

Revamp your furniture


An entry-level salary probably won’t buy you a high-end bedroom set, and the furniture that lives in your first apartment might not seem that different from the old wood frame that campus housing called a “bed.”

“I bought cheap IKEA furniture that I dressed up,” says Arielle Siniapkin, a New York University College of Nursing student and member of the class of 2015. “I went to Anthropologie and purchased these drawer pulls…I'm obsessed with.”

Now, fortunately, you have the freedom to spruce up the pieces in your new place and add a personal touch. If you go the IKEA route like Arielle did, you have the option of staining or painting your furniture to match the pieces you already own, since a lot of IKEA furniture comes with naked wood that is easy to work with.

Frame your favorite wall pieces


Nothing says “freshman” like a Sex and the City poster surrounded by photos of you and your best friends. Such décor doesn’t exactly scream “grown-up graduette.”

“Instead of just plastering posters and pictures with tape on the wall, put them in frames you can get at Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie,” suggests Meghan Kupiec, a Georgia Southern University graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in Sport and Exercise Psychology.

You don’t have to toss your treasured senior spring pictures or artsy posters since you can instantly class them up with inexpensive store-bought frames, or even ones you decorate yourself. Try arranging a montage of different-sized frames featuring a variety of images—some old photos, some simple posters, some postcards from places you or your friends have visited, some new pieces of art—in your living room to create a personal, artsy vibe. Mixing the old with the new will allow you to cherish your college memories while giving your new space an updated feel.

Think inside the box


So many of your college trinkets don’t have an obvious home—where are you supposed to keep your deflated boom sticks from the championship hockey game?—but you can’t bring yourself to part with them. These, too, can come to your new place without being scattered aimlessly around your apartment.

Pick up a small chest or storage ottoman and use it to house little odds and ends. You’ll be left with a cute, decorative piece that keeps your place clean.

Know where to save and where to spend


While it’s obviously best to save as much as you can while you’re starting out, that doesn’t mean you should fill your apartment with shoddy furniture. Items like shelves, dressers and coffee tables can certainly be purchased for cheap and be fixed up or decorated, but consider investing in nicer couches, chairs and bed sets. Nothing distracts from an otherwise well-designed room more than dingy cushions—to say nothing of how uncomfortable these can be—so it’s worth focusing your spendings here. This way, you’ll have a few durable pieces of furniture that you can bring with you as you move from place to place.


Ultimately, transitioning from dorm life to adult housing doesn’t have to be an overwhelming—or expensive—task. Moving into your first apartment gives you a great opportunity to blend your old life with your new one. You can revamp the pieces you loved in college and start fresh, cherishing your memories while creating a more mature living space.

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About The Author

Samantha is a National Contributing Writer for the Real World section of HerCampus.com. She is a 2014 graduate of Union College, where she majored in English and minored in American Studies. At Union, Samantha served as the Arts Editor of the Concordiensis, Union's weekly student newspaper, and was a sister of the Gamma Phi Beta sorority. She now runs a lifestyle and entertainment blog, The PostGradiensis, with two other Union alumnae.