illustration of woman surrounded by clothes that reflect a philosophy of minimalism

Minimalism in College: How Embracing a Capsule Wardrobe Made Me a Better Student

Having too much clutter in my physical space directly translated to my mental state.  
February 18, 2020
10 mins read

“I just have too many things, I’m so sick of it!” I told my mom one evening during one of our lengthy phone chats. She was back in Indiana, where people own homes and kids grow up in backyards. I was in my apartment in Brooklyn, where a rod is supposed to pass for a closet and people with living rooms are considered lucky.

Conversations like these had become all too regular in my life before I embraced minimalism. Ever since leaving the Midwest to attend college in New York City, I was constantly running into the problem of space. There just wasn’t enough of it. Subway cars are packed door-to-door with commuters, apartments are too small, streets are filled lane to lane with impatient drivers, and even the open sky is overtaken by skyscrapers and high-rises.

Don’t get me wrong: I love New York; it might be my favorite place in the world, but there’s no denying that almost every inch of Manhattan is packed to the brim in one way or another.

At some point, I started to feel claustrophobic, but not in my physical state — in my mental state. It felt like my mind was as packed as Times Square in the summer. I couldn’t think straight. As Marie Kondo says, “Tidying your physical space allows you to tend to your psychological space.” I knew what I needed to do.

I felt compelled to minimize what I owned so I could maximize other areas of my life, most importantly school. I’ve often found it very hard to work in a messy room; it seems impossible to concentrate. I started to feel like my entire life was messy and disorganized, making it really hard for me to be the student I wanted to be.

While I wanted to dive headfirst into minimalism, I decided to start with my closet because that’s where I felt a lot of my anxiety was coming from. Quite frankly, I had too many clothes that I wasn’t using, and too little space to keep them all.

I started reading about capsule wardrobes. The term refers to a closet filled with simple pieces (the number is up to the owner but a lot of articles suggest between 20 to 40 items) that can be paired interchangeably. The idea behind it is that even though you may be wearing the same things over and over again, your outfits are always different.


I won’t lie; as much as I loved the concept of minimalism, I was still scared to take the plunge. When it comes to your wardrobe in college, there seem to be hundreds of different events that require you to present yourself differently. What you wear to a party on Friday night is very different than what you wear to an internship. Don’t even get me started on what you wear to class, clubs or other on-campus events.

I’ve also noticed that every school has its own culture when it comes to dress codes. Sometimes it’s leggings and a sweatshirt and sometimes it’s business professional. When you add in the emotional ties I had to some clothing items, it made it that much harder. With all of this in mind, the idea of not having options was terrifying.

Although it wasn’t easy, I knew I would feel better once I did it. I was honestly surprised at how good it felt. Getting rid of clothes was like getting rid of anxiety, stress, fear and confusion. With every item I said goodbye to, I felt more and more in control of my life.

I ended up with about 30 different clothing items. There was definitely something to be said about being able to see every piece of clothing I owned all at once. I didn’t quite know how to describe what I was feeling until I read this article in Harvard Business Review. The author of the piece, Barry Schwartz, discusses choice in the context of business and marketers and the different ways consumers react to it.

However, I found it extremely relatable to what I was experiencing with my closet. While it used to be assumed that more choice meant more satisfaction, researchers actually found the opposite. He writes, “More of it [choice] requires increased time and effort and can lead to anxiety, regret, excessively high expectations, and self-blame if the choices don’t work out.”

Leading into my closet clean out I was worried about not having enough options. It turns out that psychologically humans are attracted to less. Minimalism embraces this concept. It teaches us to stop focusing on the choices in material things and focus our attention on decisions that matter more.

My capsule wardrobe has significantly changed my quality of life. Since clearing out my closet, I realized why it had been such a source of anxiety for me. I used to feel a lot of pressure in the clothing I put on and the way it would reflect who I am. Clothes are an outward representation of our inner selves, and I had so many different versions of myself I didn’t know who I really was. After minimizing my collection down to my favorite items and things I actually wore, I found the authentic version of myself.

Furthermore, having security in knowing that all of my clothes match and that I truly love how every item looks and feels means one less “wrong” choice I can make in the day.  Now, when I wake up and get dressed in the morning I’m not worried about what I’m going to wear because I don’t have much of a choice.

Instead, I’m thinking about the test I have later or the paper I’m writing. I’m focusing my energy on who I am and what I need to do to succeed, not how others view me. I’ve since adapted this approach to many other areas of my life including my desk, drawers and decorations.

It’s crazy how such a small change has made New York City feel like wide, open country. Not feeling so consumed by material items has cleared my mind and allowed me to see everything in the context of a much bigger picture. The subways are still crowded and the streets are still packed, but I exist in such a large psychological world now that it doesn’t feel so cramped.

Whether you’re in New York City or not, minimalism translates beautifully to so many aspects of college. In general, college spaces are small. Dorms are tiny, social circles are mini and even the biggest college campuses are nothing compared to the real world. The reality is, students’ lives in college are narrow to a very specific experience. If you’re reading this article, it’s possible you’ve also felt overwhelmed and claustrophobic in college, physically or mentally.


I encourage you to try minimalism in some aspect of your life and see what changes. For me, the area I needed to cut back on was clothes. For you, it might be shoes, video games, books or just general clutter. Try picking something that you feel you identify with, even love. I thought I was in love with my clothing when actually I was being controlled by it. The freedom and confidence I feel now is what I truly love and minimalism had everything to do with it.

Katherine McLaughlin, The New School

Writer Profile

Katherine McLaughlin

The New School
Arts Communications

Katherine McLaughlin is a junior at The New School in NYC studying arts communications. When she’s not studying or writing she enjoys reading, watching rom-coms and drinking iced mochas.

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