High school graduation has come and gone, and the gift cards most likely have been rolling in. Things are starting to get real, and the excitement is palpable. For many girls and moms, there’s equal parts fun and fury wrapped up in dorm room shopping. For moms of boys, well, tamper your expectations; it’s a different ball game.
But whether you are dorm shopping for a boy or girl, the list of “essentials” can be overwhelming, and quite frankly, not always necessary. So whether you are heading out with your soon-to-be college freshman to collect all those dorm room essentials or hunkering down for an online shopping spree, below, you’ll find some dorm shopping tips from parents who have “been there done that.”
College Shopping List: Freshman Dorm Essentials
Recently I surveyed my subscribers, as well as friends on social media, and asked a variety of questions related to preparing your child for college. So let’s talk dorm essentials, always top of mind.
Of those who recently had prepared a teen for college, I asked for feedback about the unexpected essentials—those things their child either bought or received as gifts for their freshman dorm—that turned out to be a surprise blessing during college move-in and freshman year. The items listed below were the ones that bubbled to the top.
But first, let’s be clear about what this list is and isn’t. This list isn’t intended to be comprehensive. You can find college shopping lists at any number of retailers, like Bed, Bath & Beyond, Target, and The Container Store, as well as your child’s respective university. But this is a “Girlfriend’s Guide.” Consider it words of wisdom from those who have gone before you.
So as you and your child consider the question, “What should I buy for my college dorm?” I’m hopeful this list will add some food for thought as you work through that college shopping list. Remember, you know your child best, and together, you can make thoughtful decisions about what will be most helpful for that freshman year and what can stay at the store.
#1: Tool Kit
When my daughter graduated from high school, she received a tool kit similar to this one. We didn’t think much of it, but it was a gift from a parent who already had sent kids to college. She assured me it would come in handy, and boy was she right! We put that toolkit to use when we moved her into her freshman dorm, and six years later, it still finds plenty of use.
An Essential Toolkit Add-On: Throw some Ziploc baggies and a wide assortment of Command Hooks and Strips into the toolkit for when you move your child into the dorm. You can always return what you don’t need or use, but these will be lifesavers. More importantly, you DO NOT want to have to make a trip to the store in the middle of your move-in. Better to be a Girl Scout and always be prepared!
Apparently, we aren’t the only ones who found the toolkit to be a dorm room essential for that freshman year in college because it was the one item most people also recommended! However, it’s one that seldom makes retailers’ Dorm Checklists. I guess if Home Depot ever gets into the “College Dorm Room Checklist” business, that will change…LOL!
#2: First Aid/Medicine Kit
Several people recommended this item, and it’s a good one. As you probably know from experience, it stinks to feel bad and not have the medicine you need at home to help ease the symptoms. Your student probably won’t put first aid and cold relief at the top of their college shopping list, but they will thank you when allergies, an upset stomach, or a cold strikes. As one of our readers shared, “[There is] nothing more miserable than trying to get out to a store when you’re sick.”
College first aid kit:
- Your family’s “go-to” cold medicine, both night and daytime relief
- Anti-diarhhea medicine
- Allergy relief medicine
- Antibiotic ointment
- Anti-itch cream
- Cough drops
- Emergen-C and/or Zicam
#3: Collapsible Pop-Up Laundry Tote/Laundry Duffle or Bag:
Even if your college freshman doesn’t consistently do his laundry, a soft-sided or collapsible laundry bag or duffle is actually essential. If nothing else, it provides an easy way for them to bring home their dirty laundry. ?
Both my son and daughter received laundry bags for their high school graduation, and it’s a gift they each continue to use post-college. They also make great solutions for storage and travel, depending on the style you end up getting.
You can find many options at all different price points, but flexibility and durability do matter. My son used to have a mesh collapsible laundry bag like this at home, and it was fabulous. It would be a good option for college, as well, but because of the mesh, just know it won’t be there for the long haul. However, he received a nylon laundry bag as a high school graduation gift, and it’s still going strong.
Favorite laundry bags for graduation gifts
- The buckheadbetties brand is one of my favorite laundry bag brands for girls. It’s what my daughter received for graduation and what I’ve since given as graduation gifts. I found the brand locally at a gift boutique here in the North Dallas area. Personalize it with a name or monogram, and Voilà!, you have a perfect graduation gift that will be used for years to come.
- Jon Hart is a classic and has so many different options for luggage, totes, etc. However, I especially love their laundry bag for boys. I recently gave this as a gift, and hopefully, the graduate likes it as much as I do! My son received a laundry bag similar to this one. The person who gave it to him had his name embroidered on it, and it’s held up well.
Regardless, the soft-sided or collapsible laundry bag is a solid tip for sure. As one reader shared, they’re great for moving in and out of the dorm (or apartment) and provide excellent dorm room storage, but they also work just as well as a “quick pack to head home for the weekend.”
#4: Good mattress topper
It’s been a long while since I’ve slept in a dorm, but I feel confident in saying dorm mattresses have not become more plush and luxurious! Spend a little extra to get a good mattress topper. A good night’s sleep makes all the difference, and while I think there are some places to cut corners, this is not one of them.
Here’s a roundup of top-rated twin XL mattress toppers:
- ViscoSoft Reflex Gel Mattress Topper – This topper is super affordable and was ranked “Best Value” by the Sleep Foundation.
- Sleepyhead Gel Topper – The Sleepyhead brand also made the Sleep Foundation’s “Best of” list. This gel-infused memory foam topper was designated the best for dorm room mattress toppers. It’s pricier, but not outrageous, and it comes in a 2” and 3” option.
- Best Price Mattress 4” Memory Foam Topper – I learned about this one from a recent college student (bysophialee). It’s the mattress topper she used and loved.
#5: Portable guest seating
Some people think about this; others don’t. However, socializing in a dorm room can be awkward if the only available seating is the bed and a desk chair. While lofting the dorm bed and utilizing the space underneath for a small futon or sofa is a popular option, your student might not care to climb into bed each night. And remember, this is their space, so let them make the decision.
One reader recommended folding chairs. But another option could be one or two ottoman cubes. Depending on how your student configures their dorm room, this might be a consideration for that college shopping list. They’re small and portable and should transfer easily into the design and style of your student’s next home or apartment.
Bean bag chairs like this also come highly recommended, particularly because they have loops that enable you to hang them in a closet or on the back of a door when not in use.
#6: Clip-On Light and/or Small Portable Fan
If your student will be in a dorm with a shared sleeping space, I would say these two things—but especially the light—are a must. However, in this instance, the style of dorm room makes all the difference. Many of the newer dorms offer separate rooms, and if that’s what your child soon will be moving into, then having a light and/or fan that can clip to the bed may be a matter of preference.
However, as one of our readers pointed out, even if your child has their own room, portable fans provide some white noise that can be helpful for sleeping, particularly in noisy dorms!
#7: Photos of friends and family from home
They may act like they can’t wait to leave, but they will miss you and the simple luxuries of home. For those of you with girls, options abound, but you do need to be aware of campus restrictions for affixing things to the walls of dorms. My daughter draped a simple string of twine on the wall by her bed and attached a few of her favorite photos with small clothespins. Command Hooks like these will be your best friend, particularly if your child also wants to add a string of lights!
But even my son had a few desktop frames with family and friends. Once again, remember this is your kid’s room, not yours, so let him/her take the lead on how to decorate. However, if you don’t see a family photo making its way into the college packing list, then I’d say take one yourself and leave it as a parting gift along with a sweet note. ?
Here’s a fun idea from Marian at How Clever!, on behalf of our boy moms (although girls would like this, as well): Gift them a Polaroid camera to capture summer fun and final farewells. Polaroid photos are fun to share and easy to display. Marian added a keepsake box as a place for her son to store his memories, and it’s something he still uses and keeps on his nightstand.
So, that about does it! As you are helping prepare your soon-to-be college freshman for dorm life, I hope this list serves as a useful resource knowing that it comes from parents who have been in your shoes not so long ago.
In considering college move-in day, I’ll leave you with this tip from one of our readers:
“Water, snacks, toilet paper, soap and towel, simple first aid kit and a tool kit handy—these should be the first things you carry in. You will need them!”
Here’s a printable label for “Box 1” so that you know which bin includes the move-in essentials.
You might also enjoy: Advice for Parents of College Students: What I Wish I Would Have Known
What You Should NOT Bring to College
We’ve covered the “Dos,” so now let’s talk about the “Don’ts.” It’s tempting to want to send your child off to college with everything he/she could possibly need for living life away from home.
Before we dive in, though, let’s remember the camp days. If you ever sent children away to camp, then think back to that first-year experience when you neatly organized everything into a trunk to prepare them for being “on their own” for a week. You probably bagged each day’s clothes in a separate bag marked with the days of the week and labeled Every.Single.Item with that sweet child’s name. You just knew that by doing this, they would have clean clothes to wear each day, an assortment of dry towels, and no chance of misplacing their toothpaste.
But when you picked them up, expectations met reality: some of those clean clothes looked untouched, everything was slightly damp, and items that went weren’t always the ones that returned.
Well, dropping your child off at college for the first time can be a lot like that initial camp experience. Their freshman year may be messy—although hopefully not smelly!—and way less organized, but they’ll survive.
Just remember two things:
- Dorm rooms are not that big.
- Your child is not moving to the wilderness. Even if their college town doesn’t have abundant shopping options, Amazon delivers!
On this list of college essential “don’ts,” you’ll find items survey participants considered a waste of space or money.
#1: Fancy, expensive bedding
Ok, this is primarily for those who are sending girls off to college. I know you’ve seen photos on social media and Pinterest of over-the-top dorm rooms, and no doubt, they are beautiful. However, spending an excessive amount of money on bedding is a complete waste of money, and yes, I’m speaking from experience. While we didn’t go down the path of matching monogrammed duvets and custom upholstered headboards, we did spend more than we should have on bedding for my daughter’s freshman dorm.
Most dorm rooms include either twin- or full-size beds. For the majority of students, dorm life is contained to one year. So whatever you spend on dorm bedding for her freshman year probably will be useless after that first year in the dorm.
If you want to splurge, I would suggest spending your money on things that will last beyond dorm life. And since cute and inexpensive bedding is widely available, it’s not like you have to sacrifice charm for reason.
Clearly, I’m not alone in my thinking because this was a top rated Dorm Essential “Don’t” from our readers.
#2: Iron and ironing board
Every college dorm checklist you find will include an iron and ironing board, and while your kids do need a way to de-wrinkle their clothes, chances are the iron and ironing board will seldom be used and mostly just take up space.
Most suggested a steamer in place of an iron, although some people think even this is pointless! As one reader commented, “He found the dry cleaner pretty quickly!”
Whatever you decide, though, please…Please…PLEASE don’t judge your parenting by the wrinkles in your son’s (or daughter’s) clothes; it will crush you!
#3: Extra Sheets
I know you want to believe your student will wash sheets weekly, but it will not happen. And even if they do, they will not make their bed with that second set of sheets. If your child puts the extra set on their dorm shopping list, then praise the Lord, but if not, just take a deep breath and go back to read the camp scenario above.
You think they need this because you use yours at home. But, your college student does not need a printer. For one, it takes up an enormous amount of desk space. And two, they’ll submit the majority of their work online. If they do need to print something out, the campus has plenty of available options for that.
This one probably deserves a caveat. Bikes can be a great addition, so maybe it’s not fair to add it to the “don’t” list. However, it landed on the list based on feedback from seasoned parents, so I’m sharing it. Ultimately, it depends on whether you think your student will use and care for one.
Our freshman bike experience wasn’t great, and apparently—based on the responses I received from others—it’s a shared sentiment. My husband and I didn’t send our son to college with a bike; it’s something he bought for himself once he was there. So why wouldn’t I advocate for a bike if my son decided to get one? Easy. It got limited use and didn’t make it to sophomore year: mysterious disappearance, abandoned, who knows.
If your student does plan on taking a bike, don’t send an expensive one. You’ll have less heartburn if it gets stolen, forgotten, or ends up rusted.
If your student is attending college out of state, then luggage might be a necessity, but as one of our readers said, “Just a simple large duffle bag will do.” Bulky luggage will take up precious space, so plan accordingly.
#6: High School Spirit Wear and Letter Jacket
I kind of feel like this goes without saying, but all the high school memorabilia should stay put. In fact, they probably should keep their t-shirt stock to a minimum because first-year college students fill that space quickly with new college spirit wear and t-shirts they get from the student organizations they join.
So there you have it! A quick and easy list of “dos” and “don’ts” to help you and your student as you begin shopping and packing for college. From me to you, and on behalf of those whose feedback helped curate these lists, we wish you well!
You might also enjoy: 12 Encouraging Bible Verses for College Students
College Packing List
Here’s a printable college dorm checklist to take with you as you shop. We’ve kept it primarily to the basics. There will always be more you can add. And if you want those monogrammed headboards, then, by all means, have at it! But the college packing list you’ll find here is one that comes from personal experience and the advice of others.
Fluff not included?
Enjoy! And remember, dorm shopping should be fun, so relax and let your student lead the way.
Once they’re all moved in, you can start thinking about all the other fun stuff like creating college care packages!
P.S. Once you’ve made it through college move-in—or perhaps you’re new here and didn’t get a chance to participate in the survey—we’d love to hear your feedback. Contact us by email and let us know what you’d add to this list of dorm shopping Dos and Don’ts!
Be sure also to read:
- How to Pack for College in 6 Simple Steps
- How to Create an Amazon Wish List
- Show ‘Em the Love | 30 Ideas for Creating College Care Packages They’ll Love