What to Bring to College: The Ultimate Guide on How to Pack for Your Dorm Room
Is the exciting challenge of figuring out what to bring to college starting to drive you a little bonkers? New college students often find the process fun yet slightly daunting. After all, nobody is born knowing exactly how to pack for college or university. As a result, your initial dorm room checklist may or may not reflect the reality of your budget, the amount of space you'll have, or what you'll actually need or use. But, thankfully, it's probably easier than you think to create a realistic list of things to bring to college.
First, remind yourself about why you're going to college or university in the first place. Most students hope to learn new skills, grow as people, and acquire memorable experiences. But here's the thing: Those goals don't necessarily require a lot of stuff. In fact, with good planning, the things you need for college don't have to take up much room at all.
Of course, a lot depends on where you'll be living. You'll probably need fewer college supplies for a dorm room than for an off-campus apartment. Plus, your college dorm may have existing amenities that make it possible to leave certain items off your list.
Explore this guide with those points in mind. It includes the following sections:
- The minimal approach: Packing only the college necessities
- Extras: Things that may be nice to have
- What not to bring to college: Things to leave at home
- How much people spend on college supplies
- What to bring to a college interview or orientation
- Other things you need for college: Stuff you can't pack or purchase
The Minimal Approach: Packing Only the College Necessities
When it comes to deciding what to pack for college, a lot of students end up with lists of stuff that would require U-Haul trucks to move. They try to pack for every possible future scenario, or they have unrealistic expectations about what dorm life will really be like. As a result, they often end up spending too much money or not having nearly enough space to store all of their stuff.
It's always easier—and a lot more fun—to move into (and out of) a college or university dorm when you don't have to haul around endless boxes, bags, and knickknacks. Plus, what happens if you arrive at your dorm room and realize that your lengthy college checklist was total overkill? You may have to spend a bunch of time sorting through and selecting what you can actually keep. Then, you may have to send the rest of your stuff back home, give it away, or sell it. Talk about unnecessary stress at a time when you should be having fun, meeting new people, and getting ready for classes!
Here's the basic list of what you should bring to college if you'll be living in an on-campus dorm:
- A durable and comfortable backpack—This item is essential. It's what you'll use to carry stuff around between classes or to and from the library and certain campus events, social outings, and shopping trips. Make sure to find one that can securely transport a laptop computer and has at least one side pouch for a large water bottle.
- A large and durable duffle bag—Any list of things to buy for college should include this type of ultra-practical item. In fact, aside from some bulky bedding, you should aim to fit everything you take into your duffle bag and backpack. Find a sturdy bag that is about 36 inches long by 18 inches wide by 14 inches tall. Many army surplus stores offer great deals on rugged duffel bags of that size. And a lot of those bags have straps that allow you to carry them on your back. Plus, after you've settled into your dorm, you can use your bag for carrying laundry.
- Bedding—Most college dorm rooms come furnished with beds, but you'll need to supply the sheets, blankets, and pillows. Check with your school to find out the exact sheet sizes you'll need. It's a good idea to get two sets of sheets as well as a mattress cover. You also may want some kind of foam topper in case your mattress isn't very comfortable on its own.
- Towels and washcloths—Pack at least a couple of body towels as well as five to seven facecloths.
- Toiletries—Take along whatever you tend to use on a daily basis. (Keep in mind that you can always buy additional toiletries as you need them.) For example, pack some soap, shampoo (and conditioner if you use it), a toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, shaving supplies, hairstyling supplies, deodorant, and tissues. Include makeup if you wear it, along with anything else that you rely on such as body lotion, contact lens solution, or prescription or over-the-counter medications. You also might want to pack some condoms. If you're a female student, don't forget the feminine hygiene products that you prefer. Some students also pack a small first-aid kit.
- A mesh bag or shower caddy—Here's one of the ways in which on-campus living affects what to bring to college. Dorm life often requires sharing bathroom and shower facilities. As a result, you may need an easy way to store your toiletries and transport them to and from your room. Mesh bags usually provide a more flexible and space-saving solution than shower caddies, but choose whatever you feel most comfortable using.
- A bathrobe—What else are you going to wear between your room and the dorm's shower facilities?
- Clothes—Almost everyone has a different opinion about what clothes to bring to college. But the wisest course of action might be to only pack about one week's worth of season-appropriate casual attire in addition to a nice formal outfit (for interviews and more up-scale happenings). That way, you don't fill your closet right away with stuff you may never wear. Besides, after you've been on campus for a bit, you might decide on a different style that more closely matches what other students are wearing. Don't forget to pack items such as belts, socks, underwear, pajamas, a swimsuit, a light jacket, and any other outerwear that is appropriate for the climate you'll be living in.
- Extra clothes hangers—Your dorm room's closet might already come with some hangers, but many students discover that they need more than what's provided.
- Basic laundry and cleaning supplies—Pack some laundry detergent, non-toxic all-purpose cleaner, trash bags, and cleanings cloths, at minimum. You also may want to bring some fabric softener, dryer sheets, and a broom and dustpan. And don't forget that you may need some quarters in order to operate your residence hall's washers and dryers.
- Shoes—Your most important shoes will be the ones that you wear every day for walking through campus, so make sure they're comfortable. Beyond that, it's also advisable to have a pair of flip-flops or other rubber shoes when using a community shower since you don't know what may be lurking on the floor. Some cozy slippers are good to have for hanging out in your residence hall's common areas. And you should also probably have a pair of nice shoes for formal occasions as well as a pair of athletic sneakers if you plan on exercising at the gym.
- A laptop—Most college and university classes these days require that students have access to the Internet. Although you may be able to use your school's library for that purpose, it's a lot easier if you have your own computer. Plus, you'll need to write essays and research papers. And if you're pursuing a technology-driven major such as computer science, web development, graphic design, or animation, then you may be required to have a computer with very specific features. For the average college student, a laptop that costs under $500 is usually sufficient.
- A USB flash drive—With this small item, you can easily transfer files between different computers. For instance, you can save a paper that you wrote on your laptop to your USB thumb drive, open it on a machine in your residence hall's computer lab, and print off the final version to hand in.
- A smartphone—"Duh." Was that your first reaction? Yes, this item is now an obvious choice to include as part of any college dorm room checklist. After all, a smartphone is way more than just an essential communication device. Among many other things, it can also double as a digital alarm clock, calculator, day planner, address book, music player, and convenient research tool.
- Headphones—These are especially important if you have a roommate who prefers silence or doesn't share your taste in music.
- Basic school supplies—Don't go overboard here. Start with a few notebooks (one for each class), some pens and pencils, and highlighters in different colors. Buy anything else as you need it so that you avoid overspending on stuff that takes up precious space without getting used.
- A bedside storage organizer—This type of product gives you a convenient place to put away all kinds of small, miscellaneous items without taking up a lot of room.
- A digital photo frame—No college freshman checklist is complete without one. Think about it: Homesickness can be a real problem. New college students who are away from home need pictures of the friends and family members they miss. Digital photo frames offer the best way to display a lot of those pictures without taking up wall space that can be used for posters or other decorations to personalize your dorm room.
- Non-damaging adhesive wall strips and hooks—Most colleges and universities don't allow students to use nails or tacks on their dorm room walls. So it's wise to have some poster putty or similar products on hand in order to put up any wall art you acquire.
- A high-quality travel mug and water bottle—Liquid refreshments are important, so it's a good idea to invest in easy-to-clean containers that will keep them warm or cold wherever you go.
- A few snacks—College and university students who live in dorms generally purchase school meal plans. But for those times between meals or when they can't get out to eat, they often need healthy and convenient snacks to tide them over.
- Important documents—Make sure that you have copies of things like your Social Security card, birth certificate, school enrollment papers, and financial aid documents. Also ensure that you have your driver's license (or other government-issued identification) as well as health insurance cards, bank cards, an emergency contact list, and any other essential documents that you may need while attending school.
The main thing to keep in mind is that less is usually more. (When in doubt, leave it off your list.) Besides, how much time do you actually want to spend in your dorm room? For most students, the best college experiences take place elsewhere. Making friends in college requires getting out, not being a hermit. You may even find that you prefer to study in a place like the library rather than in your room.
You also don't need to spend a ton of money on the stuff that you bring. Many quality items can be purchased secondhand. Why buy new when used is often just as good? All kinds of retailers will market their back-to-school sales and hype so-called essential products that you really don't need. Just try to ignore their slick pitches. Place some trust in your own what-to-bring-to-college list.
When it comes to textbooks, you may want to wait and purchase them after moving into your dorm and receiving the syllabi for your classes. If you buy them ahead of time, they'll just become more stuff that you have to pack and move. Of course, that may be worth it if you can get them used or on sale.
Extras: Things That May Be Nice to Have
Beyond the list of supplies above, it's generally best to wait and purchase items as you actually need them. Remember, too, that borrowing items from other dorm residents will likely be an option. Many students are willing to share, especially if they brought too much stuff with them. Plus, if you haven't lived on your own before, then discovering what you truly need and value—as you go—can be a great learning experience.
That said, you still might want to bring more than what is included in the minimal college supplies list above. After all, maybe you have a hobby that you'd like to continue pursuing. Maybe your college doesn't provide some of the basics that you would find in other schools' dormitories. Or maybe the student culture at your school is such that you would feel strange not owning some of the items that most other students have.
The best way to discover what else you might want to bring is to stay at your college overnight in an actual dorm. Many colleges and universities offer that opportunity each spring to the students they've accepted. So you may get to experience what it's like to stay in an on-campus residence hall several months before moving in as an incoming freshman. You can try the cafeteria food, hang out with other students, ask plenty of questions, and find out what you should bring with you in order to make your future college experience more enjoyable.
Of course, you may be one of the lucky students who get to live in larger, high-end dorm rooms that are like full apartments. In that case, your list of stuff to bring to college will probably contain additional items, especially for the kitchen. But you should coordinate with your roommates (if you'll have any) so that you don't all bring too many of the same things.
Depending on what their schools allow or provide, many college students decide to pack or purchase additional items such as:
- TVs and entertainment systems—Most residence halls have common areas with TVs, but some students still want their own. Incoming freshmen also sometimes bring things like stereos, DVD players, and video game consoles.
- Small kitchen appliances—Having your own mini-fridge and microwave can be very convenient, but not all schools allow them in all dorm rooms. The same is true for other small appliances like blenders, toaster ovens, coffee makers, and electric kettles. Always check with your school before buying or bringing them. Like TVs, you can usually find small kitchen appliances in your residence hall's common areas.
- Various kitchen supplies—Even students who don't have kitchens in their rooms sometimes pack supplies such as dishes, silverware, can and bottle openers, chip clips, sealable plastic bags, salt and pepper shakers, water-filtering pitchers, and dishwashing soap.
- Tools and other miscellaneous practical items—Any college supply checklist will start to get extremely long if it includes every kind of practical item that might possibly be needed. But many students still find it useful to pack things like pliers, screwdrivers, scissors, safety pins, sewing kits, rubber bands, duct tape, and extra batteries and light bulbs. Some people also bring items such as a measuring tape, wind-up flashlight, umbrella, and book light. An eye mask can help keep light out of your eyes if you need to sleep while your roommate stays up studying. Earplugs are good for blocking out noise. And a lap desk can make it more comfortable to study in bed.
- Storage containers and organizers—These items sometimes take up valuable floor space, so keep that in mind before adding them to your list of stuff to bring to college. Some students like to have containers with tight-fitting lids for storing things like cleaning supplies and snacks. Closet organizers and under-bed storage containers are also fairly popular. Keep in mind that, if you decide to put things under your bed, you may need to purchase some bed risers.
- Additional furnishings—Many college dorm rooms only come with a bed, desk, chair, and small trash can. As a result, a lot of students bring along extra furnishings such as lamps, area rugs, small bedside tables, full-length mirrors, larger trash cans, additional chairs, bathroom scales, and sleeping bags or air mattresses (for when friends visit or they go visit friends).
- A fan—Some dorm rooms don't have air conditioning.
- A radio alarm clock—You might be like some other students who prefer to have a physical clock to look at that doubles as an AM/FM radio.
- Personal safety items—College campuses are not immune from crime, particularly at night. So a lot of students, especially female ones, like to carry items such as pepper spray or safety whistles. Just make sure that whatever you carry with you is legal in your state. If you bring along valuables like expensive jewelry, then you should also consider getting a small safe for your room.
- Various decorations and wall items—Some students go all in when personalizing their rooms. From plants to wall decals, many options exist. Wall calendars or dry erase boards provide extra practicality. And a few holiday-themed decorations, put up at the right times, can create a more inviting space for you as well as for existing and potential friends.
- Extra school supplies—Are you somebody who can't resist having a wider variety of school supplies on hand? Many students enjoy buying and using extra supplies such as index cards, post-it notes, note pads, binders, three-hole punches, scotch tape, staplers, and white out. You also might want a physical calculator, dictionary, thesaurus, and day planner.
- Sports, fitness, and recreation items—Do you like to play games or engage in physical activities that require special equipment? Many students do. So, depending on your interests, you may want to pack things like a yoga mat, frisbee, football, soccer ball, tennis racquet, or even a few board games.
- Extra bags—The possibilities are almost endless. But, for example, if you plan on going to the gym a lot, then you may want a special gym bag. Or if you will be doing any traveling while in school, then it might be a good idea to keep a suitcase on hand.
- A bicycle—Many college and university campuses are large enough that having a bike can be very beneficial. That's especially true if you have a tight schedule with classes at opposite ends of your campus. Plus, a bicycle can make getting around off-campus easier and a lot more fun. Just be sure to bring along a bike helmet, strong lock, and small air pump.
- Musical instruments—Why leave behind an instrument that you enjoy playing regularly? Obviously, you don't want to bring a piano or a large set of drums. But smaller instruments like guitars, keyboards, and hand drums can allow you to keep pursuing your important musical hobbies.
- A printer—Most colleges and universities offer easy access to computer labs with printers. So this item is often more of a luxury than a necessity. Having your own printer just makes it a little more convenient to print off your papers and assignments, especially during times when the school's computer labs are closed. Just remember that printer ink can be pretty expensive.
Here's another interesting point to think about: Although it is by no means a universal law, your gender can influence what you choose to include on your college checklist. For guys, that often means a desire to include more practical or utilitarian items. However, a lot of male students also like to include plenty of entertainment-related items such as audio-visual electronics and games.
In contrast, many female students are a little more driven to pack a wide variety of clothes as well as decorations to personalize their rooms. They are also frequently more motivated to bring along items that increase their levels of comfort.
What Not to Bring to College: Things to Leave at Home
Every school has its own policies that dictate what students can bring. So take the time to carefully read through the guidelines for the residence hall you'll be living in. It's an essential step in the process of figuring out what to bring to college as a freshman (or as any other type of undergraduate or graduate student). Don't ignore it.
When it comes to typical college dorms, some of the items that commonly appear on do-not-bring lists include:
- Portable air conditioners
- Space heaters
- Lamps that require halogen bulbs
- Certain types of power strips and extension cords
- Nails and other wall-damaging picture hangers
- Skillets and hot plates
- Toasters and toaster ovens
- Valuables that you would miss if they were lost or stolen
Since college represents a whole new stage of your life, it's also a good idea to leave behind your high school awards, yearbooks, and other memorabilia. This is your chance to reinvent yourself and try on a new identity (or at least expand the one you already have).
If you can, try and get in touch with your roommate before moving in to find out what he or she is bringing. That way, you may be able to cross a few things off your college needs list. Also, if you'll be living on campus, then think twice before making the decision to bring your car. You'll probably be able to find whatever you need within walking distance. And cars are usually expensive to own when you factor in parking, insurance, maintenance, and gas.
How Much People Spend on College Supplies
When deciding what supplies to bring to college, different students often have widely varying budgets. After all, some students have to plan for small, sparsely furnished dorm rooms, whereas others get to look forward to moving into posh apartments or apartment-like dorms with several great amenities. It all comes down to what you and your family can afford after taking other college costs into consideration.
In 2016, Americans planned on spending more than $6.2 billion, collectively, on college dorm or apartment furnishings alone.1 And, according to a nationwide survey from July 2015, adult buyers in the U.S. planned on spending almost $900, on average, for all of their back-to-college items. Look at the average amounts that they planned on spending for the following types of college supplies:2
- Electronics and computer-related equipment—$415.51
- College dorm room or apartment furnishings—$246.12
- Clothing and accessories—$187.78
- Food items—$163.24
- Gift cards or pre-paid cards—$146.00
- Toiletries and personal care items—$102.97
- College-branded gear—$90.15
- General school supplies—$76.68
What to Bring to a College Interview or Orientation
Are you still in the college application stage? Have you been invited to an interview? Not all colleges and universities conduct interviews, but those that do often use them when making their final determinations about who to accept. So it's important to be prepared.
When deciding what to bring to college interview meetings, think about your major focus of study. For example, will you be studying art and design or the performing arts? In those cases, you may need to take along a portfolio of your best artistic works or a video highlighting some of your best performances. In other cases, it's a good idea to come prepared with questions that show you've put some thought into your potential future in particular areas of interest. Other items that are often good to take with you to a college interview include:
- A detailed map and directions
- Your resume
- A pen and notebook
- A list of personal references
- A list of any advanced placement (AP) tests that you plan on taking
- A hairbrush or comb
- Some pain reliever in case you get a headache
- A water bottle
- A small, non-messy snack
- An umbrella
- A briefcase or other type of professional bag to hold your things
After getting accepted to one of your schools of choice, it's time to start becoming a little more organized about planning what to bring to college. Orientation days are always an important aspect to think about while doing that planning. Find out whether your orientation will be held during your move-in weekend or whether you'll need to go to campus a few days or weeks before moving in. Every college and university operates a little differently.
If your orientation will be held around the same time that you're moving into your dorm, then you probably don't need to worry too much about bringing anything extra. (Just be sure you don't pack so much stuff that you end up missing your orientation while still trying to move in.) On the other hand, having your orientation ahead of time means that you'll need to plan specifically for it. Good items to take with you might include:
- A map of the campus
- Your schedule of classes (if you've already registered)
- Personal identification
- A pen and notebook
- Your smartphone
- Comfortable walking shoes
- A light jacket
- An umbrella
- A backpack to carry everything, including the free stuff you'll probably receive
If your orientation will be a multi-day event that involves staying in a dorm, then you also may need to pack an overnight bag. Take along a change of clothes, your toiletries, a towel, and a pair of flip-flops for the shower. You also may need to take a pillow and sleeping bag (or whatever else the college or university suggests).
Other Things You Need for College: Stuff You Can't Pack or Purchase
In your excitement to make a checklist for college dorm living, it's easy to overlook things that are less tangible but that are still fundamental to your success and well-being. After all, college is first and foremost a mental challenge. You go to learn, to develop new abilities, and to grow as a person. The material stuff that you can put into a box or buy from a store is often necessary, but it isn't always the most important. So stay open to student success tips that may not necessarily involve physical stuff. You'll probably need intangible character traits such as:
- Internal motivation—Are you going to school or pursuing a particular degree because you truly want to? Higher education demands a strong, prolonged work ethic. The best way to meet that demand is to make certain that you're attending college for the right reasons.
- Self-responsibility—Few people can rely on luck or fate alone to get them through college. Make a personal commitment to focus on school and minimize the distractions that pull you away from your goals.
- Adaptability—Are you capable of adapting to a new environment and a new set of circumstances that may feel a little uncomfortable at first?
- Curiosity—Are you an explorer who takes chances in order to discover something new? An open mind is the first requirement of learning. Be willing to ask challenging questions. Make an effort to get to know a wide variety of people.
- Resilience—Few students are able to stay at the top of their game 100 percent of the time. It's important to learn from your missteps, let them go, and keep bouncing back.
- The courage to ask for help and assist others—When confusion strikes, it's often more beneficial to seek help than to work through the challenge alone. On the flip side, assisting your peers is a great way to make friends and build up your confidence.
Plan Ahead and Create the Best College Experience Possible
Now that you know what to bring to college, start developing your own plan. And don't forget that it's OK to change direction if you eventually decide that you want a different type of college experience. Dorm rooms aren't for everyone. In fact, most students at the college level never set foot in dorm rooms at all. That's because so many other options exist beyond the traditional four-year college or university.
Many students, even those who've attended major universities before, decide to pursue vocational training. It enables them to live at home and enter the workforce more quickly. Plus, the programs at many trade schools and career-oriented colleges are designed with help from employers in growing industries that have a high demand for new professionals. Find a vocational program near you by entering your zip code into the following school finder!
1 Statista, "Total planned U.S. consumer expenditure on back-to-college dorm or apartment furnishings from 2007 to 2016 (in billion U.S. dollars)," website last visited on October 24, 2016.
2 National Retail Federation, "After Splurging in 2014, Families Trim Back-to-School Spending for 2015," website last visited on October 24, 2016.