TikTok Sparks Inspiration—And Pressure—As Students Shop For School

4 minute read

Like most teenagers, Aarya Potti frequently scrolls TikTok, finding inspiration for outfits or learning life hacks. But as the incoming Elon University freshman has begun preparing for college this fall, she's been struck by the high volume of videos showing students moving into their new dorms equipped with elaborate room decorations. From ornate headboards and bespoke furniture to luxurious bed linens with matching throw pillows, videos featuring these decked out rooms often go viral on TikTok—and the more ostentatious, the better.

It's a far cry from what Potti expected to pick up for her dorm room, but she says the TikToks influenced her nonetheless.

“TikTok videos definitely have an impact on the expectations of what dorms should look like,” she told TIME. “It did play into me wanting to buy some more stuff.”

With its proliferation of “Get Ready With Me” and shopping haul videos, perhaps it should come as no surprise that back-to-school shopping has become rich fodder for the TikTok content mill. Like the viral sorority "Bama Rush" outfit videos that preceded them, where PNMs showed off arms full of David Yurman bracelets and designer sneakers, TikTok clips about elaborate dorm room decoration or fancy campus fashion hauls are fascinating, endlessly watchable and a shameless plug for brands. But while the videos can provide inspiration, they add pressure or an expectation that incoming students' college experience should look a certain way.

Read more: Why the U.S. and Other Countries Want to Ban or Restrict TikTok

Potti noted that many of the videos feature dorm goods from a site called Dormify, which sells home decor packages with aesthetic and color themes like “Preppy N Pink” and “Cottagecore.” While Potti didn’t outfit her room completely in a Dormify set, she did purchase many of her items for her dorm from the online retailer, which has a strong TikTok presence. Potti notes its level of curation comes at an elevated price.

“I got so many things from there and my mom definitely thought some of it was unnecessary because I could have found it on Amazon for cheaper but I was definitely influenced,” she told TIME. “Some of the things that I saw on TikTok and decided I wanted to buy were a headboard that was pretty intricate, a comforter and pillows, which I didn’t anticipate doing until I started seeing what other people’s dorms looked like.”

Natalie Henry, an incoming freshman at the University of Pennsylvania who will be studying communication and marketing, says she finds the shopping hauls and dorm move-in videos on social media to be at times overwhelming. It's an unnecessary stress, she says, when starting college already comes with so many changes.

“Sometimes it's a little bit discouraging because you think, ‘Is this what this is supposed to look like?’” Henry tells TIME. “I have to remind myself that social media isn’t real and it isn’t everything, but sometimes it gets to me.”

Henry prefers finding inspiration for back-to-school shopping from apps like Student Universe and Unidays, where she has been able to access discounts and get affordable items for her dorm. And talking to other students on her college's incoming student forum has offered a great place to get ideas for her dorm and to connect with others.

Read more: How America Started to Fall Out of Love With College Degrees

“College can be really, really expensive,” she said. “I got almost a full ride to my college, but even preparing to leave is expensive, so I can't imagine people who have to pay tuition, room and board and then have to pay to furnish their rooms.”

Paige Lyles, an RA and fifth year engineering student at UC Berkeley, says that she’s noticed an increase in incoming students who are interested in creating elaborate dorm setups. She attributes it to the fact that incoming freshmen are often now relying on platforms like TikTok to give them an idea of what student life might be like.

“There’s this glamorized idea of moving to college from home and that’s facilitated by social media,” Lyles tells TIME, noting that her own walls are currently bare. “I think that it's definitely more impactful for people who are freshmen or transfer students.”

For Potti, keeping perspective on why she’s moving into the dorm has been the best way to stave off expectations of what her dorm should or shouldn’t look like.

“Most things you don’t actually need because it’s not pertinent to the education itself,” she said. “I’m mostly excited for meeting new people.”

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Write to Cady Lang at cady.lang@timemagazine.com