What to Bring to College: Dorm “Essentials” for New Students

Most college students move into dorms or apartments for the duration of the school year and then pack up and either store their belongings over the summer while they move home or move into another apartment for the summer due to a job or internship. The constant moving and packing is obnoxious, but unless you find a great apartment and summer job in the same city as your school and plan on staying there for all four years, you’re going to have to do it. The first year that I was in college, I lived in the dorms and stored my belongings in boxes at school for the summer. The next two years, since I had a television that my college wouldn’t hold over the summer, I stored them at a nearby storage unit for which I had to pay.

When you have to store things at school (for which you may have to pay a fee based on the number of boxes you’re storing), pay for off-campus storage, or move yourself in and out of apartments (which may require a rental truck), it makes sense to have as little stuff as possible. But you also want your apartment or dorm room to be cozy and feel like home. There’s a delicate balance between packing too little and packing way too much (therefore making it harder for you when the end of the school year rolls around). So, what are the things you absolutely need to pack for college, and what are the things you can skip?

A car filled with and surrounded by boxes of dorm essentials to pack for college

Africa Studio / Shutterstock.com

This dorm packing list goes way overboard, but it’s a good place to start if you want to see everything that you could bring. Then, you can narrow it down to create your own tailored packing list. Some of the sections may not be applicable to you; unless you live in an apartment or a swanky dorm, you won’t need anything listed under “Bathroom Supplies for Private Bathroom.” Likewise, your college may provide cleaning supplies, so bringing your own broom, dustpan, and mop is overkill. Other things, though, are entirely necessary if you’re living in a dorm: bedding, towels, toiletries, and laundry accessories. I would also strongly advise that you not go to school without a laptop or tablet; getting computer space in the library every time you need to finish an assignment is no guarantee.

I asked around to find out what former college students really liked having in their rooms, besides the obvious essentials, and these were their thoughts:

  • Board games and cards: A night in just got a whole lot easier.
  • Fans: Absolutely necessary if you need to be cool to sleep (many dorms are not air conditioned), or if you enjoy white noise at bedtime.
  • Mattress pad or topper: Dorm beds are notoriously uncomfortable. Bringing a foam topper or mattress pad to soften up the mattress is going to go far in improving the quality of your sleep.
  • Body pillow: While an extra-long twin bed doesn’t offer much space, having a body pillow can keep you warm and secure while also helping you sleep more comfortably and reducing back pain.
  • Space bags: Remember how you’re going to have to pack up in the summer? This will help condense everything you own.
  • Adult sippy cup: No, not for alcohol, for water. People drink more when they drink out of straws, and staying hydrated is healthy. Plus, if you’re drinking water, it’ll help keep you awake in your boring seminar classes.
  • Tide to Go Pen: You’re going to want one around when you spill chili down the front of your shirt, trust me.
  • Wireless speakers: Sitting outside and listening to music just got a lot more social.
  • Headphones: It’s hard to tune out everybody in the library when you can hear every word they’re saying. Headphones, particularly noise-canceling ones, may help you be more productive.
  • Extra-long phone-charging cable: Plugs in dorms are rarely convenient. With an extra-long phone charger, you won’t have to worry about awkwardly arranging your room to suit the location of the outlets.
  • Frisbee: What a fun and easy way to get some exercise and make friends!
  • Outdoor blanket: Grass is itchy and often home to ants and other bugs, making picnics or reading on the quad uncomfortable. Blankets provide protection, comfort, and room for your friends.
  • Photographs and posters: Dorms are notoriously boring. They’re painted neutral colors, may not have a ton of natural light, and leave something to be desired, especially when you consider the floors. Anything that you can do to spruce up dorm room walls is going to make your room a happier place. Photos from home, posters of your favorite movies, and snapshots of your friends are going to add color and make it feel like home.

None of the items listed above are necessary for college, (with the exception of the Tide to Go Pen if you eat anything the way I do), but they enhance your college experience. Sure, you may be able to borrow a Frisbee or sit on your sweatshirt when you go outside, but wouldn’t it be nicer to have your own Frisbee for whenever you wanted to play and a blanket that’s big enough to seat more than one?

The essentials of what you need to pack for college are unlikely to change from year to year: sheets, towels, pillows, clothes, hangers, school supplies, toiletries, shower shoes (so important!), a computer, and your prescription medications. However, these constitute the bare minimum. What other belongings and attire you decide to bring are entirely up to you. You may decide to play intramural soccer and bring cleats, shin guards, and a soccer ball. You may take up ballet and pack a leotard and ballet shoes. Or your favorite hobby may be playing the guitar, so you decide to bring that to school. Everyone’s dorm packing list is different.

While one year you might pepper your walls with photos of your high school friends, the next year you may choose to hang up posters of artwork and photos of your family. You will also acquire things at college: college swag, new clothes, snacks, birthday presents, and more. To counteract this, make it a point to clean out your closet at the end of each school year; many campuses will have a giant yard sale or donation collection bin where you can let go of items you no longer need. Or, if you’re like me, you can just lose, among other things, a pair of shoes (how that happens, I still have no idea).

The bottom line is this: bring the things you need to make your dorm room feel like home, but try to avoid anything you won’t use at all. It’s better to underpack at the beginning than to bring entirely way too much stuff and have to figure out what to do with it come May. Remember, if you realize that you’ve forgotten anything that you find to be absolutely necessary, you can always call home and ask your family to mail it to you or head out to the nearest Target and stock up. After your first year, you’ll be a packing pro and know exactly what to bring to college for year two.

About Megan Clendenon

Megan C. is obsessed with Cincinnati-style chili, Louisville basketball, and Scandinavian crime fiction. She has lived in six different states and held 12 different jobs since beginning her undergraduate degree at Carleton College in 2008. The wanderlust abated somewhat in recent years, as Megan settled in Texas from 2013 to 2016 to finish a master’s degree in geosciences, write a thesis on the future horrors that stem from climate change, and get married. During her free time, you will find Megan sitting on the couch, cheering for her Louisville Cardinals, planning future adventures abroad, and snuggling with her dog, Tiger. She currently lives outside of Washington D.C.

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