College Dorm Must Haves Updated for 2020

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college dorm must haves essentials
I’ve just updated this college dorm must haves article for 2020. I know plenty of parents and students are shopping online right now to prepare for the fall semester. That’s why I’ve updated this article to have what, I believe, should be on every list of things to bring to college, especially when living in a dorm.

When I first wrote this article in 2019, my list included 35 must haves for a college room. But I’ve since expanded that list to include additional items I’ve since learned are essential for today’s college students. So now this is a list of 43 must haves.

These could be included on a college dorm list for guys or college dorm must haves for girls. In fact, there is quite a bit of overlap for dorm must haves whether you’re sending a daughter or son back to college. In writing this article, I’m sharing what I believe to be are dorm room essentials. I’ve included products that can help with dorm storage ideas as well as dorm hacks and decorating ideas for dorm rooms.

Shopping for dorm room essentials

I still remember how helpless I felt the first time I had to go shopping for a dorm room. I wasn’t sure how to make head or tails of the college dorm room essentials checklist. Since then, though, I’ve learned a lot. After all I’d spent six years of moving my daughters to college. That’s why I wanted to write this blog post about dorm must haves.

Have you read my article with advice on paying for school?

college dorm must haves 2019
This was what our car looked like moving our daughter to her college dorm her freshman year.

Best places for college dorm shopping

Before I get into the nitty gritty of a college dorm shopping list, you may be asking: what are the best place for college dorm shopping? In our six years of back to college shopping, we did most of our buying for a college dorm in two places:

  1. Amazon
  2. Target

Why is Amazon on of the best places to college dorm shopping? One word–convenience.

Target, on the other hand, might just be the best place to buy college bedding. It’s one of the reasons we set our daughter up with a Target college dorm registry, as part of the Target gift registry program. 

The blog post on paying for colleges offers some great money-saving advice.

Best place to buy college bedding

In case you didn’t know, college dorm beds require extra long, twin sheets. Target carries a knit jersey version of extra long twin sheets that my daughters loved. In fact, my daughter kept using these jersey knit twin XL sheets after they moved out of the dorm and no longer needed the extra long.

This tells you two things about why Target is one of the best places to shop for college bedding:

  1. Your college student will love the bedding so much that they’ll actually use it.
  2. The Target bedding holds up so well that when you buy a few sets for freshman year, you might not need to replace them until long after your student graduates.

Target has a college dorm registry, too. It’s a great option if friends or family want to buy a going away to college gift.

Important note about dorm room shopping sites

An important note about places you might go for college dorm shopping. Do not, I repeat, do not shop off the store’s list. Yes, these store lists tend to include what a freshman needs to bring to college, to be sure.

But these lists also tend to include “nice to haves” which might actually be banned in your child’s college dorm. For example, a slow cooker. Unless a slow cooker has a timer. chances are it is on the banned list. Slow cookers and other appliances overall might be banned.

Don’t take any chances. Instead, have your child contact their college’s housing department and get the official college dorm shopping list from them.

OK, now that I’ve got those caveats aside, let me explain how I put together this post on dorm must haves. What I’ve included is based on my own experience sending two daughters to college as well as my years as a shopping expert.

I also picked the brains of friends with sons in college. Because I wanted to ensure that any dorm must haves list I put together wasn’t daughter specific but also included what to bring to college for guys.

College dorm must haves

All together here are 35 college dorm needs for guys and girls. These are listed in no particular order so please be sure to read all the way through to the end. At some point I also break out dorm room bathroom supplies as well as other must haves on what to bring to college.

Here is my list of the best school supplies (aka classroom supplies) for college students. 

1. Foam mattress topper

Mattresses in a college dorm are likely the most uncomfortable things your child will ever sleep on. For starters they have a waterproof cover and they’re made from fire-resistant materials. To get a good night’s sleep, I would recommend investing in a foam mattress topper. Of all the stores we visited for college dorm shopping, we actually found the best twin XL mattress topper at Bed, Bath and Beyond. I’ll admit it was pricey but it really was a game changer for making a dorm bed feel like a bed from home.

Also, order this bed topper online. Every time we visited a BB&B store in person, they were always out of stock. BB&B lets you buy something online and pick up in store. So you can arrange to visit one of their stores near where your child goes to college. This will help free up space in your car, to be sure. If you can’t order the bed topper and pick up in store, you can always get it from Amazon and have it shipped to your student at college.

Speaking of Amazon, through the end of the month you can save up to 15% on a Memory Foam Mattress Topper.

foam mattress cover dorm must haves 2019
A foam mattress topper is a definite must have. They come in Twin XL to fit college dorm beds.

2. Twin extra long sheets

As I mentioned earlier, dorm beds require twin extra long sheets. I’ve never been clear on why dorm beds are extra long, but here’s what it means. You cannot bring the sheets from your child’s bedroom to college. You must by new. I’ll put in another plug for Target’s jersey knit twin XL sheets.

3. Mattress and pillow covers

Even though those college dorm mattresses come with a waterproof cover, you might feel better putting a bed bug resistant mattress cover or allergy resistant mattress cover on as well.

This mattress encasement product from Sure Guard works to block both bed bugs and allergens. While you’re at it, getting the same kind of pillow covers from Sure Guard is added protection.

My younger daughter is a germ- and bug-a-phobe. So having a mattress cover plus pillow covers that blocked bed bugs and allergens helped put her mind at ease and her to sleep at night.

4. Portable air purifier

Chances are your son or daughter will be moving into a dorm without air conditioning. Buildings without air conditioning tend to be filled with allergens.

We discovered this first-hand when my daughter Annie was a college freshman. As soon as we got her this Germ Guardian air purifier on Amazon, her allergy symptoms went away. We also stocked up on extra filters so she could continue to keep her air clear throughout the year. She continues to use this air purifier years later. You can get this air purifier in black or white.

5. Box fan

Given the aforementioned lack of air conditioning in many college dormitories, an old fashioned boxed fan can go a long way towards cooling your kids down on hot nights.

6. Bed risers

This falls under the category of dorm storage ideas since storage space is tight in most dorm rooms. So to get extra areas for storage, we invested in bed risers for our girls’ dorm room beds. These lifted the beds off the floor just enough that we could slip stuff underneath. In one dorm room we were even able to get a small refrigerator under the bed. Some bed risers come with integrated USB ports and plugs.

dorm must haves 2019
Notice how much room the bed risers gave my daughter underneath her freshman dorm room bed?

College pennant pillows

The picture, above, is from my daughter’s freshman year dorm room, as I mentioned in the photo caption. You’ll notice the college pennant pillow from Lehigh on her bed. We got her sister a similar pillow saying Barnard when she enrolled in college there. Since then we’ve also gotten college pennant pillows for their graduate schools.

Perhaps you’d like to get a college pennant pillow for yourself. While we had our custom made, the person who made them is selling already made college pennant pillows on Etsy. Here is a link to her Etsy shop, and I’ve highlighted below some college pillows she’s selling. Maybe this is your alma mater. Or maybe this is the college you’re heading, too. What a great gift to buy!

College Pennant Pillows on Etsy

7. Underbed storage bins

Sterilite makes great underbed storage bins. They slide right under a dorm bed and are great for storing off season clothes, extra schools supplies or whatever else your college freshman can’t fit into a closet, desk or dresser. Another essential in the list of dorm storage ideas.

8. Twinkle lights

I would put twinkle lights under the category of college dorm room decor or ideas on decorating dorm rooms as well as college girl dorm room ideas. Because, let’s face it–most dorm rooms are plain and ugly. Many have bright overhead fluorescent lights.

If your daughters are like mine, they’re going to want to “soften” the look and the lighting with twinkle lights. These are the white or other colored string lights that you might put on a Christmas tree.

9. 3M Command strips and hooks

Here’s another given with college dorm rooms. It’s nearly impossible to hang things on the wall. Either the walls are made of cinderblock, or you will be fined if you put nails into a wall. Your best bet for decorating a college dorm room is investing in 3M Command strips and hooks. So while not very sexy, I’d say Command strips and hooks are essentials when thinking about decorating ideas for dorm rooms.

10. Lock box for personal items

Things can go missing at college. Since college dorm rooms are not like hotel rooms, with built-in safes, it’s smart to get your student a lock box for personal items. A fireproof box with a key should do the trick. Since these boxes tend to be heavy and awkward, you minimize the chances that someone walks off with it. Our daughters used their SentrySafe boxes to keep personal items, including prescription medicine, locked away and safe.

11. Area rug

Sticking with the theme of smooth floors, a plush area rug can make a dorm room feel more like home and be more comfortable for bare feet.

12. Noise-canceling headphones

Libraries on campus might be the most quiet place to study. But sometimes your student may want to stay in their college room to study. To block out noise, get them a pair of noise-canceling headphones. I know that my husband swears by the Sony Bluetooth noise-canceling headphones that he’s used on international flights.

13. Sitting bed pillow

Speaking of studying in your room, a sitting bed pillow can help make studying more comfortable. Again I’ll go back to my own daughters: both got sitting bed pillows when they went away to college. Even now, after graduation, they continue to use their sitting bed pillow for hanging out in their rooms. Get a sitting bed pillow in fuzzy fabric or fun pattern, and you can add it to the list of ideas on decorating dorm rooms.

14. Reading lamp

A bedside or reading lamp is a good idea. Why? When they are having a late-night study sessions when maybe their roommate is sleeping, and therefore the overhead light is off. A clip-on type of reading lamp gives your student options for where to put the lamp–I like that.

15. Toolkit

There are two gifts we gave our daughters when they went off to college.

  1. Money to see a ROTH IRA
  2. A toolkit to take to their dorm room

A toolkit isn’t something you might automatically think of as a college dorm must have, but you should. There were plenty of times when our daughters (or their roommates or their hall mates) needed a tape measure, screwdriver or cordless drill.

We like toolkits that pack flat (again, limited storage space) and come in their own carrying case like this one from Black and Decker. In addition to Amazon, you can look for portable tool kits at your local Ace Hardware location or by using your Costco membership to shop online.

16. Extra phone charging cords

Smartphone users go through phone charging cords like water. Send your student off to college with six to 10 charging cords–assuming they’ll lose or destroy one a month. You can restock over winter break. 

Dorm closet and laundry must haves

17. Skinny hangers

We’ve already established that space is at a premium in a college dorm room. In a dorm closet you don’t need bulky hangers taking up a bunch of space.

When it comes to dorm storage ideas in the closet, I would recommend investing in the skinny “huggable” hangers that take up less room. I found an enormous multipack of Joy Mangano huggable handers in either purple (my daughter’s favorite color) or white on Amazon.

18. Rolling clothes rack

One year my daughter Annie moved into a dorm room without a closet. I kid you not. There was no closet built into the room.

There was a wardrobe dresser available. But it was so big that there was barely any room her bed or desk. So we got rid of the wardrobe and instead got her a rolling clothes rack. That worked so much better in her space. 

dorm must haves rolling clothes rack
My daughter’s dorm room with the rolling clothes rack (right).

19. Clothes drying rack

This is probably one of those dorm essentials for girls as I’ve never ever seen a guy use a clothes drying rack. Nonetheless, the dryers in college laundry rooms can be brutal on clothing. So any delicates are best dried on a clothes drying rack.

20. Laundry detergent pods

There are no excuses for your college student not to do their laundry when you send them off with laundry detergent pods. Enough said.

21. Collapsible laundry basket or hamper

Not only is a collapsible laundry basket or hamper lighter to carry but it takes up less space in a college dorm room. If it isn’t clear yet, any must haves you get for your son or daughter’s dorm should be those that are efficient with their use of space.

Dorm kitchen or suite must haves

If your college student is going to be cooking their own meals, set them up with everything they need for their dorm or suite kitchen–or their first off-campus apartment. When our daughter moved off campus, these were some of the things we set her up with. I’ve created an additional shopping list on Amazon for just dorm suite kitchen essentials.

dorm suite kitchen essentials

22. Keurig and K cup pods

If your child loves coffee, investing in a small Keurig and a supply of K cup pods will be super helpful with caffeinating for early-morning classes and late-night studying. Our daughter had this in her dorm room freshman year and then took it with her to her apartment.

23. Refrigerator

Unless your college student is living in a suite with a kitchen, a small refrigerator is a great investment. As I mentioned earlier by using bed risers, we were able to put a small refrigerator under my younger daughter’s dorm bed. She was able to stock the refrigerator with Greek yogurt and other healthy snacks. This helped when she was running late to class or up studying and didn’t have time or the ability to make it to the dining hall. However, if your son or daughter will be living in a suite with a kitchen, I’ve added some additional dorm suite essentials.

24. Crock Pot Slow Cooker or Instapot

The great thing about having a Crock Pot or Instapot at college is this: your student can put everything in it that morning for dinner. Then, by the time they get home from class, dinner is servce. Both appliances are money-savers, too. They cut down on eating out expenses.

Important note: our daughters’ dorms only allowed these appliances if they had an “auto-off” timer on them. I believe they required this for fire safety reasons. So look for one that says programmable on it.

Slow Cooker or Instapot

25. Blender or Magic Bullet

My daughters love making smoothies. They didn’t want to miss out on making them when they went away to college. So we got them a Magic Bullet to use. You can also get your student a traditional blender if they’re a foodie and want to use it to cook.

Magic Bullet

26. Pots and pans

If you invest in decent cookware, your college student will never need to buy another set as an adult. You can find plenty of cookware options on Amazon. They range from the really cheap (under $15) to the very expensive. 

27. Cooking utensils

A set of wooden spoons, spatulas, tongs, measuring cups and spoons, a slotted spoon and one chef’s knife could be all your student needs in the cooking utensils and gadgets category. Of course, rather than buy new, you could always send them with hand-me-downs from home.

Cooking Utensils

Pampered Chef makes a ton of great cooking utensils. All of the ones I've shared here I've had for years and they're still working great for me.

28. Storage containers

We raised our girls to love eating leftovers. In fact, I think it’s one of the reasons that our older daughter is big into meal prep now. She doesn’t want to have to cook every night. So with meal prepping, she cooks once a week and then heats up leftovers the other days.

If you’re a leftover kind of family, your college student is surely going to want to have storage containers at the ready. We’re partial to the kind with “snap on” tops. Even better, glass storage containers so you don’t have to worry about BPA.

Glass Storage Containers

Dorm cleaning must haves

29. Cleaning wipes

Just as laundry pods provide no excuses for not doing laundry, having tubs of Clorox, Lysol or another brand of cleaning wipes on hand makes it easier for your student to keep their dorm room clean. This assumes they’ll actually use the cleaning wipes. However, given the shortage of cleaning wipes these days, might I suggest these Wipex wipes (which I first recommended in this post about how to clean your Peloton). They can easily be substituted for other wipes.

30. Swiffer floor cleaning kit

A college dorm room with smooth floors is bound to get dust bunnies and dirty. Send your kid off with a Swiffer bundle starter kit so they can use both the dry and wet Swiffer pads to keep the floor clean. Target has a great selection of Swiffer starter kits.

31. Portable vacuum cleaner

When I was in college, each floor of our dorm had a communal vacuum cleaner. The resident assistant kept it in their room. You can only imagine how gross that vacuum cleaner was by the end of the semester. These days you can buy compact yet powerful vacuum cleaners that can stow away easily in a closet.

We got this Black and Decker vacuum cleaner for my younger daughter. It is designed to be used in a car–and she did use it to clean her car. But it was a lifesaver for keeping her dorm room–and then her off-campus apartment–clean.

Black and Decker Portable Vacuum Cleaner

This portable vacuum cleaner is designed to be used in a car so it's light, portable and easy to store. That's why it's also a great option for a college dorm room and one of our must haves.

Dorm entertainment must haves

32. TV

My friends with sons told me that taking a TV to college in 2019 was definitely a dorm must have. Even though they are going to college to study and get a degree, many of their sons unwound by playing videogames. Therefore, they needed a TV. I would recommend not buying a new TV to send to college but rather using an extra one from around the house.

33. Chromecast or Fire stick

27. If you decide to send your child to college with a TV, you might want to invest in a Chromecast or any cast device, or Fire stick or Roku so they can watch more than just videogames on their TV.

34. Power strip with flat plug

A power strip with a flat plug–so it was flush to the wall–was actually a requirement at my older daughter’s college. In other words if an inspection turned up a traditional surge protector, your student would be asked to remove and replace it. Perhaps that’s a little too Big Brother, but nonetheless, to avoid any issues, we invested in a power strip with that flat plug. It did end up being a real space saver for her in a small dorm room. If you can find a surge protector with a flat plug and USB ports in it, that’s even better.

Here is my dorm packing checklist.

Dorm room bathroom supplies

I was lucky enough to have a bathroom right in my college dorm room. Neither my husband nor my daughters were so lucky. That meant that in addition to buying college bedding and the like, they needed dorm room bathroom supplies that they could take to the bath down the hall. Here are some items you may want to add to your student’s college dorm bathroom checklist

35. Bathroom caddy for college dorm

No one wants to carry an armload of shampoo, soap and shavers with them every time they visit a college dorm bathroom. At the same time you can’t just leave your stuff on the bathroom counter and expect it will be there the next day. That’s why smart college students invest in a bathroom caddy.

The best bathroom caddy for a college dorm is the one that can fit a ton of stuff and has holes on the bottom or is made of mesh. Why holes or mesh? So that if you bring it into the shower with you, the water can drain out the bottom. Otherwise, soon enough you’ll have a soupy, moldy mess.

Dorm Bathroom Caddy

36. Velcro towel wrap and microfiber towel for hair

Of course you’ll need towels to bring with you to college. But chances are your son or daughter will be walking to and from their college dorm bathroom after a shower. Rather than struggle with changing clothes in the bathroom, a Velcro towel wrap that wraps around you and stays put is a must have. There are even Velcro towel wraps designed specifically for men.

Another must have for the college dorm bathroom checklist for those with long hair–a microfiber towel for wrapping around wet hair. It helps to pull moisture from your hair after washing. Plus the microfiber material dries really quickly.

37. Makeup eraser

If you’ve got a daughter who wears makeup like mine do, then you probably go through a lot of disposable makeup wipes in a week or a month. I know we used to buy ours by the case at Costco, thanks to our Costco membership. 

However, all that stopped when my daughters discovered the Makeup Eraser. I know–it sounds like the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser. But rather than an abrasive sponge, it’s a washable cloth that does an amazing job taking off makeup. Even waterproof mascara. That’s why I think adding the Magic Eraser to your college shopping must haves is a no brainer. 

Right now, you can save 20% off your entire order of a Magic Eraser at the brand’s website. Use this link and plug in code SUSTAINABILITY20 at checkout to save. 

38. Flip flops

Flip flops can help your college student avoid picking up a foot fungus in a college dorm bathroom. That’s not to say that dorm bathrooms are dirty, but why risk it? I always stock up on flip flops when Old Navy is having a sale.

Other must haves on what to bring to college

While this article has focused primarily on college dorm must haves, there are many other must haves that guys and girls should bring to college. So I’ve created this additional section on other must haves on what to bring to college. Some of this is tangentially related to a college dorm room. The rest of it is just smart advice to share on college shopping.

39. Backpack with lifetime warranty

Our family has been devout customers of companies that provide lifetime warranties for their products. Here is my popular post that outlines companies that stand behind their products.

My daughters have both done quite well, in high school and college, with Jansport backpacks. Jansport is one of those companies that provide a product guarantee.

Jansport Products

When the zipper on our Jansport backpack broke, the company would fix or replace it for free. That is part of its lifetime warranty.

40. Amazon Prime student

One of the first services we invested in when my older daughter went to college is Amazon Prime student. Prime Student costs half of what a regular Prime account is and provides the same free, two-day shipping that a regular account does. My daughters both saved a ton of money on textbooks. Plus, you can try out Prime Student for free for 30 days.

41. Reusable water bottle and coffee cup

Your student will be able to send a ton of money with a reusable water bottle and coffee cup. Most college buildings have filtered water dispensers for free. Rather than spend $1 or more on plastic water bottles, your student can use a reusable water bottle and stay hydrated for free. With a reusable coffee cup they can save a small amount of money on each cup of coffee they might buy. Always buy vessels with a lifetime guarantee, like Tervis Tumblers

42. Hand sanitizer

We’ve all become accustomed to using hand sanitizer often. But even before this became a necessary evil of daily living, I always sent my daughters back to campus with plenty of hand sanitizer. If you can stock them up before class begins, the better.

43. Febreze

What can I say: dorm rooms tend not to be the best smelling places on campus. If your child isn’t good about cleaning up or doing laundry regularly, help them mask those smells with a semester’s supply of Febreze spray. 

Personalized decor on Etsy

OK, so shopping for personalized decor on Etsy doesn’t quite fit the must-have category. But it sure would be fun to surprise your college students with, don’t you think? There are some 250 pages of college-related gifts on Etsy. This includes monogrammed designs for a dorm wall, personalized laundry bags and plenty of “call your mom” decor.

College gift registries

Two of the stores I’ve mentioned in this article offer college gift registries:

  1. Bed Bath and Beyond
  2. Target

If it’s not too late, set up a college gift or college dorm registry for your student. This is a great way to keep your shopping list in one place online. It also makes it easier for aunts, uncles, grandparents or others who want to help send your child back to college. By giving them access to the college dorm must haves list, they’ll know what to buy.

This college registry will also be useful come the holidays or birthdays. I’ve added the links in the names above to make it easier for you to set up those registries, if you so choose. Here’s an article I wrote about the Target college dorm registry.

This includes items that I have not linked to at Target or Bed, Bath and Beyond.

If you don’t have Amazon Prime yet, it’s yet another reason to gift your college freshman with an Amazon Student Prime account. You get 30 days free, and for the four years that they have an .edu email address, it’s half the price of regular Amazon Prime.

If I’ve forgotten to include anything on this list of things to bring to college, please write a comment and let me know. I’m sure I’ll be updating this blog post during the back to college season this year and in the years to come.

Here are some additional ways to save money as a college student.

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