Dorm Deets: What to buy for college freshmen

By Mir
January 11, 2016

Lovely reader Dena wrote in and said:

Could you do a “what to buy for college/dorms list”? With links to good stuff, maybe?

My daughter is actually a 2017 but I’m trying to get a head start on dorm shopping as sales come up (and soften the financial blow of next year) and have absolutely NO idea what she will need. For instance: how many sets of monogrammed towels (deep south colleges; all things must be monogrammed, right?) do most people send with their little darling? Does she really need that toaster oven she has been quietly coveting since 8th grade? Paper, plastic, or china? Will she need a memory foam topper for that dorm mattress? How about a bedbug bag for the mattress? She’s ocd neat -– will she need a vacuum? Cord or corded?

Are you sending your kid with a car to keep herself in things like paper towels and toilet paper? Should I just consider providing mine with an Amazon Dash button for necessities?

Help a sister out, please.

I love this, because my oldest is graduating in just a few months (*gulp*) and her younger brother is just a year behind, which means I’ve been hip-deep in dorm shopping/research for a few months, already. I’ll cover your questions as best I can and then I bet some other folks will chime in, too. Buckle up!

In my opinion, there are a few “must”s and a lot of “maybe want”s when it comes to outfitting your kid for the dorm. Some of this depends on your particular kid and the particular dorm room, too, so take it all with a grain or two of salt.

Must: Bed Linens
I cannot stress this seemingly obvious point enough, but I’ll try: Do not start shopping for bed stuff until you know what size bed your student will have. Obvious, yes? And yet! Yes, most freshmen dorms will feature twinXL mattresses, but not all. Don’t buy until you know what size. Assuming you know what size bed, here’s what you must buy:
* 2 sets of sheets
* 1 or 2 pillows
* 1 mattress encasement (I bought this one, not because I think the dorm will have bed bugs, but because it was a cheap “now you don’t have to think about how many people have done who knows what on this mattress before you” option)
* 1 mattress pad/cover (the encasement is to contain yucky stuff; the pad is to make the mattress more comfortable and/or protect a topper, if you use one) (we picked one up using Kohls Cash at Kohls)
* Some sort of comforter or blanket of your student’s choosing (we like a duvet with a cover for ease of washing, but this is personal preference).

If you buy only the above-mentioned items, your kid will be fine. In fact, if you were totally strapped for cash, you could probably get away with a single set of sheets (wash and replace), but I think a spare set is a good idea just in case of… who knows. Illness, a spill, whatever.

Consider: Bed Linens
The following are wants rather than needs, and will depend on your individual kid:
* a foam or gel mattress topper (this will make the mattress more comfortable, and you can spend anywhere from about $30 to $200 on such a thing) (I think ours came from Kohls) [Pro tip: If you go whole hog on the bed stuff, this is how you make up the bed: Mattress encasement, foam topper, mattress pad, then sheets. This way if you have a spill, the (washable) mattress pad protects the foam topper, and the encasement means the topper isn’t touching the mattress]
* a set of flannel sheets if they’ll be someplace cold or are otherwise delicate flowers
* throw pillows (I almost said this was purely decorative, but in a tiny room, they can also serve as additional comfort for floor seating, so figure out the goal)

Must: Bath Towels
I’m still giggling over your monogramming comment. (Note to self: Get everything my kid owns monogrammed before she leaves.)

Obviously the college-bound kid needs towels. There are a million lists out there telling you to buy a full set, to buy this many of that and that many of this, and my feeling is this: Do an honest assessment of what your kid wants and needs. My daughter, for example, likes to wrap up in a bath sheet and use a regular bath towel for her hair. A “normal” set of towels isn’t going to get me the bath sheets she really wants, plus she needs a stack of washcloths and she’s much more likely to wipe her hands on her bath towel than a hand towel. So for us, I got a great deal at JC Penney a while back on a couple of bath sheets and a couple of coordinating bath towels. A little while later I picked up a whole bundle of washcloths at Kohls for maybe $3. For us, that’s perfect.

If you’re the sort of people who use a towel just once before washing, bear in mind that this may not be practical for a student. Not only will the amount/frequency of laundry likely be overwhelming, most dorms do not offer a ton of storage space, which means they may simply not have room for all those towels.

A quick word about “bundles”
There are all sorts of places which will sell you a “dorm package” with your complete bedding bundle and such, and I know some people like the relative ease of these services, but if your kid is picky or you dislike paying for things you don’t need, these services are not for you. Most of them include microfiber sheets, for example, because those are cheap and pretty hard to destroy. Personally, I’d rather sleep on a porcupine than on microfiber. And remember the towels thing? Those bundles will give you a “set” of towels—maybe not the towels you actually want/need.

Must: Laundry Supplies
You can fall down the rabbit whole of laundry products for your college student and spend months down there, trust me. Really, all your kid needs is some sort of bag or vessel for transporting laundry back and forth, plus cleaning supplies. They may also want a rigid laundry basket—or may prefer to have a plastic basket rather than a laundry bag—but again, remember that space is usually at a premium in a dorm room.

After more research than I care to admit to, I bought this tote for my daughter. (It regularly drops to around $12.) It’s an oversize, 2-compartment laundry tote made of study canvas. To me, it was a good compromise between bag and basket; it can be shoved into a small space if needed, but is rigid enough that if she wants to fold clothes in the laundry room and tote them without everything getting squashed, she can. Two compartments means she can sort on the fly, if she wants, and the front pouch is large enough to hold detergent, dryer sheets, etc. She’s using it now (practice!) and it stands well on its own and holds a ton.

In terms of cleaners, of course this is personal preference, but I’ll cop to having fallen hard for the convenience of laundry pods (we mostly use these) even here at home, and in a dorm, well, no more lugging your giant tub of powder or bottle of liquid—just grab however many pods you need and go. Also? Buy your student some stain sticks and thank me later. Train them to hit those stains when they undress and it won’t even matter if they take two more weeks to remember to do the laundry.

Consider: Appliances
Again, do some research before you buy anything. Some dorms allow microwaves in rooms, others do not. Some dorms have kitchenettes and allow small electrics, others do not. Find out. A toaster oven would not be allowed in a conventional dorm room, but I think you mentioned later that your daughter will have a kitchenette, so I’ll leave it to you to sort that out.

Most dorm rooms allow: a small fridge, a small microwave, an electric kettle, televisions. Most freshmen will have roommates, and so running out and buying everything you “need” might not make sense—no one needs 2 TVs in a room the size of a large closet. Wait on some of those “bigger” items if your kid will be coordinating with another student. And even if a toaster oven is allowed, does she need it? Does she eat a lot of toast? I don’t know. Depends on your kid.

As for a vacuum, most university housing will have a communal vacuum the kids can borrow, but if your kid is a real neatnik, she may wish to have her own. Again, space is at a premium, so I’d recommend something small over something deluxe. If you want to go fairly-decent-but-cheap, this Dirt Devil Stick Vac regularly drops to around $12-$15. If you’re willing to spend more and want a flexible cordless, I own an older version of this Ergorapido 2-in-1 and it’s fabulous for quick clean-ups. If you’re made of money (or win the Powerball), hey, go straight for the Dyson V6. Ha!

Must: Basic Life Supplies
To me, this category includes all of the things they take for granted at home as always appearing when they need them. My advice for most of these items is to send them with one of everything they use and one spare, and let them know that when they move on to the spare, it’s time to go shopping to purchase another backup. This category includes:
* soap, shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, toothpaste, razors—all basic hygiene items
* basic paper and cleaning supplies (adjusted for whether they have their own bathroom to stock/clean): box of Kleenex, a roll of paper towels, a canister of Lysol wipes, a big package of toilet paper if they’re stocking a private bathroom, maybe a Swiffer, and a bucket. (Yes, a bucket. No, they might not need it. Yes, they’ll be happy to have it if they do. Buy one at the Dollar Store and put all the cleaning supplies in it.)
* basic first aid supplies: analgesics, band-aids, cold medicine, a thermometer, lozenges, etc. (while I don’t think you need to buy a specific kit, do go ahead and put all of these items into a container together so they’re easily located if needed)
* a small wastebasket (preferably with a lid, but that’s just me)
* one microwave-safe plate, bowl, and mug, plus a good reusable water bottle, and a travel mug for hot drinks if they need one. One set of eating utensils (hit up Goodwill or buy something like this). I dislike disposable stuff, personally, so I’d go with basic sustainable items and include a kitchen towel, small bottle of dish detergent, and a sponge, too.

Consider: Additional Storage/Furniture/etc.
It’s hard to buy ahead in this category—you need to see the room, know whether you have a lofted bed or not, etc.—but there are a few things you can count on your kid finding useful.
* over-the-door-hooks (something like this) for either the closet door or the back of the room door (my kid will be in a room with a connected bathroom, so I may get her two of these — you can never have too many extra places to hang stuff)
* depending on the room setup, you may want to buy a small nightstand (or a storage tower type thing, like from IKEA) to put by the bed, or if the beds are lofted, consider something which can be attached to the bed itself for storage—there are soft caddies, bed-length organizers, hard-sided caddies, you name it, it’s out there. My kid will have a lofted bed so I spent a long time on this one because you don’t always want to have to get out of bed for your glasses or whatever!
* a small, cabled combination lock safe which can be secured to a closet rod or other immovable item, particularly if your kid is on any kind of medication
* a beanbag or gaming chair, or a futon, or other small/soft “additional seating,” if they’ll have room for it (this should be a later purchase)
* underbed storage, or a “closet doubler” rod if your kid tends to hang a lot of their clothes, and/or any other storage items that make sense based on their stuff and their style (and the size of the room)
* a small lamp, if the room doesn’t come with one, is a good idea—particularly for lofted beds (get a lamp with a clamp so you can attach it to the bed frame; something like this)
* a power strip or two, at the very least, or a fancy power station of some sort and/or desk charging station, depending on your kid’s needs
* some sort of bulletin board or white board for inside the room as well as an outer-door message board (although I recently discovered my daughter’s dorm has permanent door boards already mounted, so that’s one item off my list)

What Else?
No matter how well-prepared you think you may be, you’re going to get there on move-in day and realize there’s something else you want to buy, and then you can go to the local Big Box store with all the rest of the horde and arm-wrestle another parent for the last cork board. It happens. Build time into your schedule for such a trip, and also plan to measure her room when you go visit the campus (either for orientation or earlier) to figure out things like wall decor, curtains, and a rug, if those are things you plan to buy. As for shopping once she’s there, I think Amazon Dash may be a little much. She’s not going to school on Mars. There’s places to make basic purchases on campus, there are shuttle buses to regular stores, I bet she’ll have friends who have cars, and if you already have Amazon Prime, well, she can continue to use that! (As long as her permanent address is still at your house, you can share your membership with her and she can ship items to school. Alternatively, she can sign up for Amazon Student, which is half-price Prime, and she can start with a free 6-month trial.) I wouldn’t send her with a car because you’re worried about her paper towel supply, is my point.

Readers, what am I forgetting?

[Edited to add: I just remembered something I forgot—while we have accumulated a few nice luggage pieces for both kids, in a small dorm room what you really want is luggage that holds a lot but then folds up small when you don’t need it. How many times have I mentioned these Samsonite Tote-a-Ton bags so far? I can’t remember. Each of my kids now has two of these (yes, I bought one in every color) and they were worth every penny. They’ll be able to haul all their clothes and then fold up and take up hardly any space once they unpack. Perfect.]


  1. I would add a shower organizer/bag of some kind, with compartments for all those essential bathroom items and generally includes a hanger. This was the most useful item my daughter received when she went to college….OMG, like ten years ago now. You have to move your stuff in and out of the showers, even if you only share a bathroom with a few others. Not only is space at a premium as you mentioned but also….some kids help themselves to stuff that does not belong to them. In her second or third year, my girl roomed with someone she knew well and I was taken aback to find she was the worst of the offenders.

    Ditto the toilet paper. Everyone needs it but some just don’t buy it?

    Different colleges do supply different furniture/electronics/items and that can change from year to year. Also, my daughter had to completely move out for winter break as well as the end of the year. Portability became the gold standard.

    I still use her dorm fridge in my basement. Best investment of the college life items.

    • Yes! I can’t believe I forgot that. If you have a shared-with-just-a-few-people bathroom I guess it depends on whether or not you live with pilferers. But communal bathroom? You need something for sure. You can go fancy or you can get a plastic tote at the Dollar Store, or even something like this mesh hanging caddy could work well.

  2. So I’m from Virginia…I totally got a set of monogrammed towels for graduation. 🙂 I will say it’s not the worth thing ever. They’re less likely to be stolen/mixed up in the communal laundry room.

  3. One of my favorite things, which I now buy for graduates, was a toolbox. I met a lot of people who’d been referred to me for pliers, hammer or screwdriver!

  4. Wow, Mir!
    You’ve touched many lives here with your fine list!

  5. Random things:

    Small area rug or runner to match their bedding so their precious little feet dont hit that linoleum floor when they first get out of bed.

    A small fan

    We also filled a small plastic chest with school supplies and saran wrapped it shut for travel.

    All the computer related stuff – printer, ink, paper, power strip, thumb drives.

    One of those long mirrors for their closet door.

    And of course a string or two of Christmas lights!

    • Ah, I remember buying that long mirror at school, but many of the dorms we visited either had mirrored closet doors or a mirror permanently mounted, already. I’m sure that varies, though, so thank you!

  6. A can of roach/ant killer. (Sorry. But she will be the most popular girl in the dorm if she has a can :)).

  7. Lots of rolls of quarters for laundry. Good pair of scissors. Mini stapler with extra staples (I’m a prof. No one has these. Everyone needs them.) Once you arrive and unload, explore the town, and show kiddo the nearest grocery store, pharmacy, and gas station (if driving).

    • TWO THUMBS UP for the mini stapler. I’m a prof, too, and always tell my students that if they want to be a hero, they will invest in and carry around a mini stapler.

  8. Here’s a couple we found helpful for our now college senior –

    Stick on tap LED tap lights (can be placed anywhere – and work great for under loft lighting)

    Flashlight! This one is a must as it seems like dorms are evacuated semi-regularly when someone pulls the fire alarm.

    Bed Post shelf (or something like it) – our son lofted his bed for a couple years and this little shelf gave him a place to charge his phone near him (which was also his alarm clock) and not have to get out of bed to retrieve.

  9. You need a robe to go with your shower organizer, especially if your bathroom is down the hall from your room. You don’t want to be caught in just a towel when goodness-knows-who is walking down the same hall. And possibly flip flops for the shower, depending on how communal it is.

  10. Weird college projects come up all the time….I second a few basic tools (hammer, pliers, mini-screwdriver set), as well as a needle and thread, some safety pins, a ball of kitchen twine or even yarn, super glue…anything that might be able to fix a “my button popped off, my hem came out, my shoe sole is coming off” type things.

    A cheap idea for carpet…there was a carpet warehouse just down the road. We measured the room, and went and searched through their remnants – got something that was about 2 feet short of covering the entire room for pretty cheap.

    You’ll NEVER have enough outlets. The more power strips, the better.

    Most colleges have printing – either in their library or elsewhere on campus. Many of these are free. Even if not, a lot of assignments can be turned in online these days. Check out the situation before devoting funds and precious space to a printer….it can always be a Christmas present if being without was too much of a pain in the first semester. I took mine home and left it there after the first year.

    A robe, even if they don’t use one now, is nice for not having to haul a stack of clothes to the shower with you, and for those middle of the night fire alarms as well.

    I’m sure most people know – check out how the laundry facilities work before loading up on quarters. Some are run by a card, some are linked to your campus account. a variety of options. Turns out I didn’t need all the quarters my mom sent me with (though I found other uses for them).

    3M hooks and strips and velcro for hanging all manner of things.

    Umbrella/rain boots (or Uggs that will get you through the winter too)

    Headphones that are comfortable for laying on – maybe you like to fall asleep to noise, but you now have a roommate that doesn’t, or you never know what kind of roommate generated sounds you’ll need to drown out.

  11. As the entrance day rolls closer, you will probably receive an order form for “College approved” “cotton” sheets. We got those, and they turned out to be about 60/40 cotton/poly. Yuk! DD managed with them for a couple of years, before I found a couple of nice sets of actual cotton sheets in twin-XL for her. So I would stay away from the package deals, even if the sheets are listed as cotton.

    Back in the dark ages, when I went to college, I had a big box of laundry powder, and a couple of small containers. I measured the powder needed into the containers, and left the box in the closet. Laundry pods didn’t exist back then, so we had to get creative. 🙂

    DD’s school signed up with a service that families could use to order care packages for various occasions. I usually had something sent on Valentine’s Day and during finals. The treats and fruit were greatly appreciated.

    • You know, one of my dear friends uses that care package service, and I guess I sort of see the appeal, but I would much rather pick out and mail stuff, myself. I guess if I wanted to send fruit it wouldn’t make much sense, but my kids would want candy, anyway. 😉

      • I sent the ones that were a mix of fruit, candy, and hot cocoa mix, as well as a de-stressing toy or two. DD enjoyed it all. Plus, the school got a kickback, so maybe they didn’t raise tuition quite as much…

    • I second mailing something yourself….it means more to get things that your family picked out for you and know you like rather than a boxed package where everyone gets the same thing and you might not like it.

      HOWEVER….if the school sends you a message where they are doing packages for something and ask if you want to get one…if not, make sure you send your own at the same time they are supposed to go out. Nothing makes you homesick like being in the mailroom and everyone gets a big package but you. 🙁

      • Excellent points, Tracy!

        • My older son is a sophomore. His school sent out the care package list and claimed all the freshman get them. Not true according to my son – he said a few friends got them. What I did was package up some snacks I knew he liked and hid the box in his trunk at move in, then tell him about it at their fall break (early October). Then at Christmas, I sent him back with a box of goodies and just wrote a date to open it. Both times I also sent homemade goodies and some snacks with him as well, but it gave him some snacks to look forward to. And then I think I sent goodies once each semester.

          • DD had a refrigerator and freezer (something between the typical dorm-type refrigerators and an apartment-size unit) shared between four people. I baked a lot of assorted cookies, bars, and brownies and stashed them in the freezer for her to bring and keep in her dorm freezer. This made her very popular.

            She was embarrassed to tell anyone that her weird mom only uses whole grain flours, freshly milled at that. No one realized that they weren’t standard white flour fare. One of her roommates was thanking me for them, and was floored when I told her they were all whole grain.

  12. Son is a sophomore in college. They are required to used pods for laundry soap, nothing else allowed in the machines. Definitely a rug for the room. Sheets and blanket. Extra furniture – the dorms never have enough storage. TV. Even though he doesn’t have a lot of time for tv viewing, my son uses his as a second monitor; he just hooks his laptop up to it, and instant expanded desktop. (Music major who sometimes has several screens open at once doing his schoolwork.) oh, and this one surprised me this year – I got a thanks on Facebook for leaving him an umbrella even though he didn’t want it because he really appreciated not getting soaked when the storms came pouring down. 🙂

  13. DEFINITELY check with your school about what is allowed and what isn’t. I work in a housing department at a southeastern school and my institution allows everything short of a hot plate/camp stove. My last institution I worked at didn’t even allow drip coffee makers because the hot plates in them. That being said, if your institution allows them, toaster ovens come in handy in rooms that don’t have a kitchen. Makes heating up something for dinner super easy.

    Honestly, just read what is allowed and make sure you are 100% clear on in on move in day. That way no one is upset when you are told to take your candles, extension cords, and Christmas lights home (all contraband items at my school). And don’t be upset with the housing staff – 9 times out of 10, the fire marshall dictates what we can allow/not allow.

    I second the rain boots/umbrella. Walking across campus in the rain is the pits, even as a professional staff member. ha!

    A good backpack. It’s not always easy to run back in between classes. In my experience, LL Bean and North Face tend to be popular choices and last. Also stock them up on the good supplies – pens that write well, a pair of scissors, stapler, notebooks, and paper. A lot of campus area wal-Marts will be cleaned out on move in weekend. 🙂

  14. After a few weeks in her dorm, my daughter asked for a small, plastic, folding step-stool–the kind that is basically one step and folds flat. She uses it to reach things she has stored up high in her room, but more importantly, (to her) she uses it in the very tiny shower when she is shaving her legs. Sounds ridiculous, I know, but she said it honestly made it much easier. I figure if that cheap little stool serves multi-purposes and makes her that happy, it’s worth a mention.

  15. I have two sons, one graduated this past May, the other will graduate next December. I used the list at as my packing bible. I started by crossing off the things they didn’t need, highlighted items we had and as they were purchased, then crossed off as they were packed. My rule of thumb – two weeks worth of socks & underwear. And know that your darling will pull something out of the hamper to wear – so Febreeze!!

    Amazon Student Prime is half the price and a lifesaver. Ship right from Amazon to the dorm. And RENT textbooks that won’t be kept for future reference. Over the years, different textbook websites were my favorites, but now Amazon wins.

  16. I have given those tool kits to more than one HS grad. Are there things in there they do not need? Probably. But it keeps the things they will use organized in a very compact way. I generally “wrap” it with a kitchen towel or two secured with a couple of bungee cords. Yes, the first in the family looked at me a bit funny – I am used to that look – but the second and third kids in the family mentioned to Mom & Dad that they hoped for the same gift. Never know when you might need a bungee cord!

    • Yes! I had a toolkit and met lots of people in my dorm as word spread, about 2 weeks after school started, when people’s battery-powered devices needed fresh batteries and the battery cover had a screw holding it in. I also remember being thrilled with Mom shipping me a variety of batteries in a care package, but that was back in the day of walkmans and jam boxes so I’m not sure how much kids use now that still takes batteries – maybe inventory all the small powered things they are bringing and pack an extra set of batteries for anything that needs them (nothing as sad as having to get off your lofted bed because the TV remote is dead – ha!)

      • Yes! I got one of those cute little hammers that had a couple of screwdrivers that were contained in the handle. People borrowed it all the time.

  17. My nephew is in college and we have found that Amazon Prime Pantry is amazing for sending care packages. You can send pretty much anything and everything – from snacks to things like laundry detergent! It’s $5.99 for shipping but that’s A LOT cheaper than the college service or any other service we’ve found! Also, Amazon usually runs promos at least once a month for free shipping. These kids have it so darn good!!! LOL

    • I meant to comment on the car situation. Most colleges do not allow freshman to have a car. Generally parking is a pain and, in some cases, can be quite expensive. Also, anyone with a car immediately becomes a target for everyone in the world to hit up for a ride, loan them the car for quick trips, etc. Don’t add that pressure to your kid and don’t set yourself up for problems with driving and alcohol (maybe not your kid but someone else)!

      • Good points; this is a very school-specific issue. We will be sending my daughter with a car so that she can come back home (90 minutes away) for doctor’s visits once a month or so, but this is at a school where parking is included in fees and most kids have cars. 99% of what she’ll want/need is walking distance from her dorm, though!

  18. A dry erase marker board for the door was popular in my day so your hall-mates could leave you notes.

    Shower shoes and a tote whether you have a communal shower or shared is important.

    Water bottles, a bowl for cereal and snacks, a cup/mug for late night snacks.

    An ID wallet — college ID is usually your key to everything.

    Depending on where your college is located match up with weather gear. A good umbrella is important and maybe rain poncho.

    Things like rollerblades, a Frisbee, and some sports equipment can help with initial homesick blues.

    A bulletin board.

    Closet/space organizers are very helpful.

    A bedside lamp.

  19. I’m going to chime in on the need for a bathrobe, regardless of whether one does or doesn’t have an en suite bathroom. Also cheap flip flops for shower wear. Also stapler (when I was teaching college classes, I’d bring my mini stapler on days when papers were due, since very few had staplers, and I also didn’t want multi-page assignments paper-clipped together). Book light or other sort of small, concentrated lamp for times when one wants to study/read but roommate is sleeping.

    But … does all of this make anyone else feel old? I realize that my college experience was several decades ago, and I lived on an almost completely residential campus, where a vast majority of students came from other states and countries. Still, most people functioned on a “don’t bring more than you have to” basis, and about the only extras suggested were a desk lamp, hot pot (for making hot drinks, soup, etc.), and some kind of bucket for holding bathroom items. Oh, and extra typewriter ribbons. Because I am old.

  20. ***DUCT TAPE***

    My mom sent my son with a roll as a joke because you can fix anything with it- but the joke was on us because he was the hit of his hall when no one had the proper tools to fix small emergencies: broken window pane, bed rail, shade, holes in windows to curtail the stinkbug invasion, blown out bean bag chairs… you never know!

    for Christmas he got a roll of star wars duct tape & they have tons of girly colors & patterns now too

  21. Thanks so much, Mir! I don’t know how I didn’t see this before! Thank you for the links, I hope Amazon pays you oodles for the Dyson! 😉

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