Our Recommended College Supply List — What Your Student REALLY Needs

Overview: This college supply list recommends only what your student will REALLY need and use, based on experience with four college kids. Save money!

I remember the summer before the eldest’s freshman year of college. She is a researcher and a planner, and on the internet somewhere, she found a list of “what every freshman should buy for college.” It was a long list, let me tell you! But we faithfully bought it all… and she told me later that a lot of it she never really used. Aagh!

So we learned from that mistake about preparing for college, and now, after going through the college supplies shopping drill with three more kids, we have narrowed down the list to what we feel are the most necessary things.

This is not a Buzzfeed or Huffpost college supply list written by some marketing guru who isn’t even old enough to have college-age kids, y’all. This is real information, hard-won by a financially-challenged parental unit (um, me) who doesn’t want to have to buy everything that she is told to.

The things listed below are actually extremely helpful and worth spending your hard-earned cash on. Make a day of it with your soon-to-be college freshman, and with the money you save from NOT buying what everyone else tells you to, you can have lunch (AND dinner)!

This college supply list recommends only what the student will REALLY need and use, based on experience with four college kids. Save money!

Our Recommended College Supply List

There are links to many of these items on Amazon, so you can see for yourself exactly what I’m talking about, in case it’s not clear from the description. Here we go!

Things to arrange with the roommate:

Make sure only ONE of you brings the following items (there is absolutely NO need for individual copies of these).

1) A small fridge.

Drinks, yogurt, cheese sticks — snacking is a necessary thing.

2) A small microwave. 

Frozen dinners, baked potatoes, nacho cheese — sometimes ya gotta have something warm to eat that is not from the cafeteria.

3) An electric teapot.

This is easier to use than heating water up in the microwave; and you can get one for around $15, so it’s worth it. There are SO many things kids can make with hot water. They may not be nutritious, but these are college students we’re talking about, after all, LOL. Most dorms will not allow a regular coffeepot in the room, so this makes a good substitute. Your kid can use instant coffee or a special filter that goes in the cup to make regular coffee.

NOTE: Some colleges have restrictions on which appliances are allowed in the rooms. Be sure to follow their rules.

A TV is NOT necessary, y’all. Nor is a DVD or Blu-ray player. If you happen to have an extra of either of those lying around the house, then fine, but don’t go out and get one. Most kids can (and do!) watch TV episodes and movies on their phones and laptops, anyway.

That’s literally it for the big things for the room. Don’t go overboard. Many dorms provide a communal printer. Music can be played from the computer or phone. An ironing board is not something a college student is going to be likely to use, even if they probably should, LOL.

Don’t forget that every big thing you purchase, you also gotta transport to the college AND get it up to the room, LOL. So keep it light and simple!

Other college supply list essentials based on our own experience:

Some of these are not functionally necessary but are definitely emotionally helpful, lol.

4) A laptop computer.

A Macbook Pro was our high school graduation gift to each kid. A laptop (as opposed to a desktop) is obviously a good idea because then they can take it to the library or elsewhere to work when their roommate is being loud or needs to sleep.

My son took his to class and took notes straight onto the laptop. Works for me!

5) To go along with the laptop computer, a lap desk is VERY handy.

It provides a place other than their legs and blanket (which can be a fire hazard) to put the laptop on when they are working in bed. I use one myself, when I am sitting anywhere but at a desk or table. It makes using the laptop much more comfortable.

6) Another comfort item is one of those pillows with arms that looks like the top half of a chair (also called a reading pillow or a bedrest).

Again, for working on the bed, this is a top priority item. All of my kids used theirs religiously. Remember, in the dorm room there is only the desk and the bed for places to sit. That is all that is provided — so comfort while working on the bed is a legit issue!

7) A good paper planner AND/OR phone planning app AND/OR a memo board.

My eldest used a paper one to write all of her assignments, tests, and work hours into. Your kid may prefer an app on their phone. My second preferred to see the big picture at all times, so she had a big white board in her room, set up as a calendar, that she wrote everything onto. When she was away from her room she typed new information into her phone, then transferred it to the white board later.

Individual organization style definitely comes into play here. Dialogue with your kid to determine what would be best to start with.

Related: Preparing for College Independence: 6 Ways to Help Your Child

8) For physical AND emotional comfort, a nice fuzzy blanket is a wonderful thing, lol.

My son enjoyed this just as well as the girls did, y’all. Who doesn’t like to wrap up in a blanket at all times of the day and night? Get a twin-size, because that’s way more comfy than the throw size (and if necessary they can use it on their bed, too). The softness of the fuzzies is a huge consideration, so don’t scrimp.

9) LOTS of pencils & pens, because many kids have a habit of misplacing them.

And don’t forget highlighters. Different colors make studying more fun!

10) Decide on the ONE LARGE BINDER versus the MANY SMALL SPIRALS option for class notes and homework.

Again, each kid will be different here. Some kids will lose it if it is a smaller item — you know your own child, lol.

11) This probably goes without saying, but a backpack is kinda important. 

If you’re a homeschooling family, you might not realize this, LOL. 

It’s true that the student may only need one class worth of stuff between trips to the dorm room, but there is also the equal possibility that all their classes will all be scheduled in a row across campus and they can’t get back to their dorm for the entire day. So yea. Get them something to carry stuff in — preferably with the padded pocket for the laptop.

(NOTE: That padded laptop pocket is SOME protection, but it does not help in the case of the student who isn’t careful about being gentle as they set the backpack down on the floor when they get to class. We had to replace a hard drive because the backpack was basically dropped onto the floor over and over again… just a cautionary tale!)

Related: Parenting – Two Types of College Students

12) Nice bedding — sheets, blanket, pillow(s), comforter — sure helps.

It doesn’t have to be expensive, just something the student likes to look at. You want them to feel comfy and at home in their dorm room. That’s their safe haven while they are away from home.

If your child wants to communicate with their roommate for matching stuff, that’s fine — but make sure your kid is happy with the selection. If not, matching bedding is SO not necessary. Get them what they like.

And you DON’T have to give in to those mailers that say they are the ONLY place to get extra-long twin sheets. (If you haven’t gotten one of those in the mail yet, you will.) We bought from them with #1, then two weeks later found nicer sheets in the correct size for less money at Target and Bed Bath and Beyond. So yea; lesson learned. Those stores tend to feature them at the end of the summer, so if you don’t see them now, don’t panic.

13) An umbrella.

This is something easily overlooked – but it’s miserable walking to class in the rain without one!

14) Another helpful item has been a bucket or waterproof basket/bag (with a handle) for shower items.

Keep the shampoo, soap, razor, etc. in the shower caddy, and then it’s easy to just grab it, get in the shower, and take it back to your room when you are done. (If the student shares a suite, there may be storage right in the shower, so this might not be necessary.)

Also get some small storage for toiletries that will be kept under the sink or in the dorm room. Plastic drawers, modular baskets – things that will not take up a lot of room, in case cabinet space must be shared with the roommate(s).

Related: What to Expect When Dropping Off Your College Freshman

15) For girls — a lingerie bag

These cost less than $5 (or get them in a set for under $10) and are definitely worth it for extending the life of those unmentionables. Chances are your daughter will be consolidating laundry loads as much as possible to save money, so the “top underwear” (as one of my daughters calls them, lol) will not get their own gentle wash cycle. Throw them into the lingerie bag(s) and toss it in with a regular load and life is good.

(It’s possible that guys, too, might have things that would benefit from being a little more protected in the laundry inside a lingerie bag — like possibly their own “protective” sports-related items? Just a thought.)

16) Speaking of laundry, a supply of quarters is never a bad idea. 

Some colleges do not require laundry to be paid for, others definitely want all the money they can get. It can be difficult for students to obtain quarters, so then the dirty laundry sits for awhile, and clothes that really shouldn’t get worn again are pressed back into service… so yea. Send them with a healthy pile of quarters so they can avoid that whole smelly shirt dilemma.

17) More laundry talk:  get the kid a large supply of laundry detergent pods.  

This might be obvious, but I mention it here to clarify that the jug of laundry detergent is NOT a good idea for dorm life. The pods are more expensive but TOTALLY worth it for portability and ease of use. We want our kids to DO the laundry, am I right? Let’s make it as easy for them as possible!

18) A credit card with their own name on it.

(I alluded to this in another article about getting kids ready for college independence, but it’s a good enough idea to mention it again.) 

We are NOT talking about getting them their own account, hello, rather just a card that is tied to YOUR credit card account — but the piece of plastic has THEIR name on it. Just call your credit card company and ask for it; they will happily send it right to your home post-haste.

I cannot tell you how many times this has come in handy. Sometimes the college student don’t have enough in their own bank account, and they do truly need food (like when they are staying in the dorm over break and the caf is closed — true story). Sometimes they have to pay for medicine (like during a campus-wide lice outbreak — also a true story), or they need to make a trip to urgent care during a time when the campus infirmary is closed (infected spider bite — yep).

I speak from experience when I say that wiring money to them is EXPENSIVE. We learned that the hard way, and now we handle things THIS way.

I will say this for the record: obviously the kid should not be allowed to use the card without your permission, or for superfluous items — “Mom, can I use the card to get a Sprite on my way home from work?  I’ll pay you back…”  Um, NO.  (And don’t ask me if that’s a true story cuz I will lie.)

19) A GOOD phone case. Maybe even a screen protector. 

Many of the other nifty ideas you read about on “professional” college supply lists are just not practical or are more expensive than they’re worth. Save yourself some time and money!

These are worth getting, y’all, to prevent the VERY difficult scenario of having to replace a phone when the child is many hours away. This type of process often does not proceed smoothly; for example, you may have to make umpteen calls to the cell phone provider about a sim card not arriving, then being the wrong size, then not arriving again — adding up to several days of a child being without a cell phone and you not being able to get in touch with them reliably.

Does it sound like that happened to us? You may be right…

20) A small, cheap digital thermometer

These don’t cost much, and when your child gets sick it can really help to have some objective data. It’s tough to diagnose symptoms over the phone when the kid says they don’t feel good. “Does your stomach hurt?” “Kinda…” “Are you dizzy?”  “I don’t know…” “Hey, wait, did you just fall asleep?  Hello?”

21) Facial cleansing wipes. 

Like the laundry pods, this is one of those convenience items that might make the frugal among us shriek in abhorrence. But for college life, they are just the right thing, expense and all.

Because seriously, who expects their college-age child to want to wash their face when they get in at 2am from the revelry studying they’ve been doing? My daughters tell me horror stories of girls who go to bed with makeup still on, only to touch it up the next morning before rushing off to class. (I confess that gives me the heebies!)

Get them the makeup-removing wipes so they can swipe first and then sleep.  And guys need clean faces, too — and they are probably worse about actually washing with soap and water, LOL.

22) Band aids and antibiotic ointment. 

Shaving nicks or other small mishaps WILL happen. And what may also very likely occur is that most other kids won’t have any of these, so when they need one they will come to your child’s room to get it.

My daughter told me that this builds community and is one of the neatest things about dorm life. She says to keep them near the door in an easy-to-find location, so that peeps can come in and get one at any time. She also recommends including other helpful items in the community stash, like ibuprofen, extra TP, feminine pads, etc. She says you do get paid back (although perhaps not in kind, LOL), and even if not, it’s worth it for the friendliness and camaraderie that ensues. I think she has a great point!

Also don’t forget a supply of ibuprofen and cold medicine, as well as whatever other random OTC meds your family tends to use as needed.

23) A power strip. Or two or three.

You know it’s true that there will NEVER be enough outlets in that dorm room!

24) One of those bars that hangs below the main closet rod to double the linear rod footage.

Dorm closets are notoriously small, y’all!

25) A nicely-framed picture of the family to have on their desk.

I didn’t think this was a thing — until I found out it is. They actually LOVE having this, and so now I highly recommend it. They may be leaving the home fires for the fun and challenge of college, but they are comforted by those familiar faces smiling at them, especially when they are feeling homesick. Which will probably happen, even if they never admit it to you. Doh!

Other things to consider for your college supply list:

Not necessarily essential, but still maybe desireable — consider these a bonus beyond the promised 25!

26) A bike, long board, or other campus locomotion.

This depends on the child, of course. My one daughter loved having a bike on campus, because when she was feeling the strain of school/work/über-socialization she could go ride out in the countryside.  And, since she didn’t have a car, she could get to the local W-mart to pick up a few things. 

My other, very NON-athletic, daughter decided she wanted a longboard and LOVED it. She went back and forth to class and also rode it up and down the hallway for a quick study break. I never asked if that was actually allowed…

(For this obviously optional type of thing, we either made them pay for themselves or we went halvesies. Just an FYI.)

27) If the college is in the northeast or upper midwest, a pair of thick, waterproof boots would not go amiss.

College students do a LOTTA walking, and it’s a drag to have wet and/or cold feet while you’re sitting in class. Ditto a quality winter coat. Thick socks. Thermal undershirts. You get the idea.

28) A stepstool to make it easier to get up onto the (inevitable) lofted bed. 

They WILL loft those beds at one time or another. It is a GIVEN. So maybe get this just in case, and especially if your child is challenged in stature or doesn’t like to climb, LOL.

I never would have thought of this one; but one of my daughter’s suite-mates had a stepstool, and my child was green with envy all year long.

One thing you DON’T need to buy them right away is college merchandise (otherwise known as “merch”).

Those sweatshirts with the college name on them are EXPENSIVE, and if you’re trying to do this during orientation, you are already shell-shocked from all the unforeseen expenses incurred as you drop off your college freshman.

Guess what? The kid will receive a free t-shirt probably several times over the course of the year for various spirit activities. AND they can most likely use their meal plan flex points in the bookstore — so they can pick out their own sweatshirt and forgo a snack or three to pay for it.

Sending the kid off to college is a fun, albeit expensive, time. Don’t give into pressure from all those other college supply lists out there. The items I’ve included in OUR recommended college supply list are what will be used and appreciated. 

This college supply list recommends only what your student will REALLY need and use, based on experience with four college kids. Save money!

16 thoughts on “Our Recommended College Supply List — What Your Student REALLY Needs”

  1. I love the suggestion of a bucket for shower items! Even when I was in a suite it would be handy with 4 of us sharing the bathroom. We still needed a spot to keep everything. :-)

    1. Especially with all the “product” kids need nowadays — there may not be enough storage in the suite shower, lol! Thanks for stopping by, Sara! :-)

  2. Boys usually need even less stuff than girls! :-) Sending my 4th boy to college this year. Yes, boys do like a ‘fuzzy’ blanket. My sister makes a polar fleece tied blanket for the high school grads, often in their school colors, so they are set for the blanket. Some dorms don’t let you have a MW, so be sure to check before getting any appliances for the room. Also, all my students (#6 headed off this year) found the plastic drawers handy for either their room or their bathroom (suite style rooms). I agree that the lists you find on the internet are waaaaayyyy too long!

    1. What a great gift idea for a grad! Wow, six kids off to college — you are my new hero! I’m not looking forward to my emotions when I send three of them off this fall… I may be back in touch with you then… :-) Thanks for the comment! :-)

  3. If for whatever reason you can’t afford a lap desk or you’re waiting for yours to ship, a drink tray like the ones at Starbucks are great flipped over for a makeshipe computer stand. I use three stacked together for a little extra sturdiness. It’s a good substitute!

  4. Regarding #8 and boys, a big, warm, fuzzy blanket was, and still is, a blessing for my son in college. He kind of rolled his eyes about it, but I got him to take it since we are desert dwellers and he was going to school high in the mountains. He uses the blanket every night in the winter months and “makes a burrito” out of himself with it on bad days (he would NEVER say he cuddles up in it ;).

    As for #9, my son went with a 1.5 inch binder for each class. Before he left, I set him up with 4 color binders, so he could color code his classes. At the end of 3 years later, he still uses them, although he had to get a 5th one as he has taken 5 classes some semesters.

    I completely agree with #10. Nice sheets make an emotional difference, but during August each year you can find twin extra long sheets pretty much anywhere that sells sheets.

    As for the appliances, definitely check with your specific school before spending money on those things. My son’s first dorm supplied a mini-fridge and they were not allowed a microwave. His second dorm (upper classmen dorms were way nicer!) supplied a full kitchen for every 4 students, as the dorm was set up like apartments with 4 students sharing 2 bedrooms, a living room, kitchen, and bathroom. His freshman dorm had 3 students sharing 1 room and a bathroom and the entire floor had a kitchen and common room to share.

  5. One thing that I had that was used by all ( thanks DAD!) was a small tool box. This included a hammer, assorted screw drivers, a adjustable wrench, screws and nails, duct tape and super glue.

  6. Older sister going off to college and Macbook Pros are expensive! Trying to convince her to think about a Windows computer but she says she needs a Mac for photo editing! Great post :)

    1. Shannan Lentz

      Tell her it is all about the software not the actual computer. My son is an amazing photographer and has never used an Apple product in his life-and his mentor that is a National Geographer staff photographer is has never used and Apple product either.

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