Just yesterday she was squealing with delight as I pushed her on the park swing, her little pigtails flying in the breeze.
Today, she schleps boxes up to her second floor dorm room.
Move-in day will be fraught with emotion, tears and a teenage eye roll or two. There’s nothing you can do about that, but this essential college packing list will make your moving day that much easier.
(For your own college checklist printable, scroll to the end of the post.)
This post may contain affiliate links. My full disclosure policy is sort of boring, but you can find it here.
Now that I have multiple move-ins under my belt, I know exactly what things to buy for college freshmen, the things that really are college must-haves and what not to bring to college.
I’ve broken down all the things into four main groups:
Must-Have College Dorm Essentials
Nice to Have Items to Add to Your College Checklist
College Must-Haves to Make it Feel More like Home
What Not To Bring To College (or at least double check first…)
This list is long, so grab a cup of coffee and have fun planning!
College Packing List: The Essentials
These are the things that should be on every dorm room checklist for guys and for girls. So make sure these items are on your college shopping list.
Both of my kids went to school out of state so we ordered a ton of stuff online.
When we were shopping for my daughter's dorm room, we shopped at home and then ordered online to have things either shipped to the dorm before we arrived, or used the ship to store service that stores like Bed, Bath and Beyond and Target have. Then it was super easy to stop into the local store to pick up your order.
If you choose to ship to the school, make sure you check with your college because they all have different rules for receiving packages before the semester begins.
If your kid is going out of state and you can't pack up your car and drive there, DO NOT get the ready-made bedding/towel sets that a lot of schools will try to sell you as a convenience.
We ordered the ready-made set with my son because he didn't care what the design was as long as it was blue. The quality was horrible and we ended up having to re-outfit his room his sophomore year.
It's a good thing our college students are young, flexible and agile because dorm mattresses can be pretty dismal. Both my kids love their mattress toppers. They really make the utilitarian dorm beds SO much more comfortable. Just make sure you buy the XL twin size since most dorm beds are extra long.
I like this style of mattress cover because it goes on like a fitted sheet, but still protects your students against dust mites, bacteria, and any other nasty stuff left behind on the dorm room mattress. My kids used this underneath the memory foam topper.
Most dorms have XL twin beds so double check before you buy sheets, comforters, etc. I sent my kids off with two sets of sheets, in the hopes that they'd change their beds on the regular. I'm not sure their beds got changed that often, but they did say it was nice to have a couple of extra sets of pillow cases.
All that late night studying results in LOTS of daytime napping. It's nice having a throw blanket ready when they want to catch a few zzzzs during the day. My son would literally lie down fully clothed with his shoes on and take a short nap between classes. Jump up, grab his backpack and run out the door.
These are super handy when your student has an upper bunk bed, has lofted their bed, or just doesn't have a surface to act as a nightstand. These slip under the mattress and provide storage for phones, eyeglasses, headphones, water, etc.
The darker colors end up looking better as the year goes on unless your student is an ace with their laundry and uses bleach. I'd plan for three bath towels and four hand towels. My kids never used the washcloths, but they came in handy for cleaning up spills and tidying up the dorm room. Wash them before you go if you can since the lint on these can be pretty fierce.
Unless your student has the luxury of apartment living, they'll need a shower caddy for all their bathroom gear. The mesh ones dry out fast and work a lot better than the plastic varieties. Choose one with lots of pockets - it'll make to make it easier to keep organized in a slippery bathroom.
Dorm showers are just icky. It doesn't matter where you buy these, but make sure you get a pair or two. Some shower shoes are fancy with drainage holes and special grippers, but the cheap ones from Target or Old Navy work just as well and keep your kid's feet off the nasty bathroom floors.
These pop-up hampers are perfect for dorm living. They're made of mesh so those stinky clothes can breathe, they have handles for carrying to the laundry room, and they fold up flat so they're easy to pack away when the year is done.
10 feet might seem like overkill, but when your kid got stuck with the top bunk and the only power outlet is at floor level, believe me, they're going to need long cables to charge their iPhones and use them when they're up in their beds.
Having a couple of power strips AND extension cords will make setting up your child's dorm room SO much easier. There never seems to be an outlet where you need one, so these give you so much more flexibility. Bring a couple of each.
These small white erase boards are great to have on the inside of the dorm door for messages, to do lists, etc. Some kids put them on the hallway side of their dorm door so friends can leave messages if they stop by when no one's in the room.
Dorm lighting is horrible. These lighted mirrors can be used in the dark even when their roommate is sleeping. Not just for makeup, they are perfect for shaving and come in handy for putting in contact lenses too.
If your student ends up in an older dorm that doesn't have AC, these fans are a must. They can clip them on their bed and direct the airflow right where they want it, even if they have bunk beds or have lofted their mattresses. Or clip them to their bookcase, or desk if they're overheating while studying.
My oh my...I don't know how so much crap ends up on dorm floors, but it can get pretty disgusting. Some buildings have an old dusty vacuum that your child can borrow, but it was really nice to have a small stick vac around. Just a quick once over with this little powerhouse and the floor is safe to walk on barefoot again. Gone are all the crumbs, dust bunnies, hair and misc stuff that was tracked in. This is especially nice if your student has a throw rug on the floor. My son, who is not a neat freak by any stretch of the imagination, even used it all the time. Make sure you get a bagless model so there are no reasons not to use it.
Most dorms don't allow nail holes, so you need these command performance strips, hooks and accessories to hang anything. You can find strips that hang frames, posters, strings of lights, towel hooks, etc. Get more of these than you think you'll need. Your student can always use them next year. I'm actually surprised that 3M hasn't come up with a special "Dorm Collection" of these babies!
Don't forget the antibacterial wipes, garbage bags, paper towels and dish soap. If you have items shipped to you, you'll go through a lot of garbage bags trying to lasso all of your packaging. It's also nice to have some unbreakable reusable plates, cups, mugs and cutlery.
College Checklist: Nice to Have Items
The items on this list may not be "essential" for your freshman college supply list, but they will make things a whole lot nicer and easier for your college student. Some of these items help organize their small dorm spaces, while others make living in a communal space easier to adjust to.
These square storage ottomans really come in handy in small dorm rooms. My daughter lofted her bed so she used hers as a step stool, a seat for friends and for extra storage. The faux leather ones stay looking good and wipe clean easily.
These are great because clothes don't slip off and fall to the mess at the bottom of the closet. Even if you don't get these covered hangers, make sure you buy a pack or two of regular ones to add to your list of things to buy for college freshmen.
This may seem a little like a luxury item for a student, but those dorms can get super noisy, and your child will definitely need to get a good night's sleep on a regular basis. Some of these sound machines are fancy and make all kinds of soothing noises but all they really need is a simple white noise machine (or a good pack earplugs...).
This may be more of a luxury item, but you'll be surprised about how many kids use these on a daily basis. College students are creatures of the night and they drink a ton of coffee when they're up late studying.
This will pay for itself in no time when your student stops their daily Starbucks run on the way to class.
Boiling water comes in handy for making tea, hot cocoa, even ramen for those late night snacks. I bought my kids a model with auto-shut off, for safety reasons, just in case they got distracted and forgot about it.
If your child has long hair, they may already have these. It's hard enough to get used to showering down the hall, but it's super hard to juggle all your toiletries AND worry about your extra large bath towel falling off your wet hair. We discovered these Turbie Twists years ago and they really are amazing. They're super absorbent, don't fall off and dry quickly. I use these too and I don't even have to shower in the bathroom down the hall!
These fall into the same category as the Turbie twists. It's enough hard to shuffle back and forth to the shower without worrying about your towel slipping off. Some even have a pocket for their room key and come in lots of cute colors too.
I was surprised at how many kids had TVs in their dorm rooms. My kids didn't bring one, but all of their roommates did. They are nice when the kids need some chill-out bonding time to watch movies. If your student likes gaming, they'll need one too. Most schools have high-speed internet in the dorm so get a TV that can stream Netflix and Amazon Video.
College Must Haves To Make It Feel More Like Home
This part of the list really depends on your child. These items are things that they can pick out to really let their personality shine and to make it feel more like home.
It's easy to go overboard on dorm decor. They really don't have that much space to call their own so make sure they check with their roommates before you buy things like area rugs and furniture.
Pinterest has tons of ideas on decorating a dorm room if your freshman is looking for inspiration.
These are very light, easy to hang, and really brighten up a space. They come in tons of colors and designs and are super popular for dorm decorations. My daughter has one in hanging in her room at home and another one for her dorm room.
Tons of kids use these light strings to decorate. They give off a cozy glow at night and really add a homey ambiance to their dorm room. Some of these light strings even come with clips so they can add photos to remind them of home.
An area rug makes a cold dorm floor much more like home. Be sure you check the layout of the room and the floor space available before you buy. It's also a good idea to coordinate with roommates on color and style first.
Not a must-have, but a nice to have for sure. Bean bag chairs are both comfortable and comforting. Kids love to nestle down to read, study, or nap, and it makes great seating for gaming, or watching TV when they're on a study break. When kids loft their beds, it makes a perfect cozy spot for a bean bag chair.
Students spend so much time studying that it's nice to have a pretty organized space. There are all kinds of desk organizers, cute storage boxes, bookends, etc, that can make their desks feel more like a place they don't mind spending time at.
What Not To Bring To College…Or At Least Check First
Printer: Don’t bring a printer unless your school specifically says you should bring one. Most universities have wireless printers all over campus for students to use. Using the university printer means your student never has to worry about running out of paper, ink cartridges, etc.
Refrigerator/Microwave: Check with your school before you buy these. Some schools have restrictions about what you can and cannot have in a dorm room. Other schools require that you rent equipment from the university. My daughter’s school had combination refrigerator/microwave units that they supplied that were the only ones allowed in the dorms.
One More Thing To Remember
Bring some kleenex because you will shed a tear or two.
Move-in will seem like some kind of a surreal dream. You’ll wonder how the last 18 years sped by so fast. While you can’t turn back time, remember that your child is ready and you’ve done your job well. This is what is supposed to happen.