35 College Essentials You Didn't Know You Needed
NOTE: The information below is from 2022, but you can count on these unexpected things to bring to college to be useful in 2023, as well. Want to save on these essentials for college apartments and dorms? Then check out our guides to Back to School sales and the best student discounts. Plus, check out the college deals available at retailers like Target, Walmart, Best Buy, Amazon, and Kohl's.
Heading off to college is exciting, but many students discover that they've forgotten a number of items once they're in their dorm room or apartment. To prevent a last-minute run to the nearest big box store on move-in day, here's a list of college student essentials you may not have realized you needed.
35 College Essentials You Didn't Know You Needed
1. Space-Saving Hangers
Odds are good your dorm room will have some kind of closet, but it's likely going to be small. And if you share your actual bedroom with someone, then you'll be sharing storage space, as well. That's all the more reason to purchase space-saving hangers, also known as "magic" hangers. These are basically horizontal bars with five holes and one hook on each end. You can loop regular hangers through the holes and then use one hook to hang all the items from the bar in your closet. The result is five clothing items on one hanger, which leaves you more room on the actual bar to hang other pieces.
Watch for a 10-pack of these hangers to go for around $16 or even less on Amazon, although stores like Bed Bath & Beyond sell similar products.
2. Small Toolkit
A small toolkit is especially important if you're moving into an apartment and may have to handle small DIY jobs. But it may come in handy even if you're living in a dorm. The kinds of kits suitable for college students have a few basic tools, though nothing too complicated. Look for sets that include items like a hammer, heavy-duty scissors, measuring tape, a screwdriver, and pliers. Even better is if you can find a kit that also has a set of Allen wrenches and interchangeable tips for the screwdriver.
A product like this should allow you to handle plenty of small jobs, and only cost about $20 or so on Amazon.
3. Bedside Tray
Unless you're moving into an apartment, it's highly doubtful you'll have room for a nightstand. If you have a desk in your room, you can try to put bedside items on it, but unless the desk is right next to your bed, that system may not be very efficient. Instead, consider picking up a bedside tray made for college dorms; they often cost about $25 and basically clip onto your bed frame. Then you can store a few college-dorm essentials easily at hand, like a glass for water, your earplugs, and other small accessories.
4. Fabric Steamer
A fabric steamer is only necessary if you're concerned about having wrinkled clothes. If you couldn't care less, it's totally fine to skip this item. However, if you do choose to pick one up, look for a mini version to ensure it doesn't take up too much space. Expect Target to have steamers for as little as $17 from big brands like Black + Decker.
A potential alternative you can keep on hand is wrinkle releaser spray. It may be easier to use, but it may not get rid of wrinkles as well as a steamer. This spray is also pricey to keep on hand and use regularly. If you don't mind going the steamer route, it's definitely the more-economical one in the long run.
5. Shower Caddy
Many dorms still have communal showers, so having a caddy helps for carrying shampoo and conditioner, body wash, razors, and the like. Even if you're only sharing a shower with one other person, it can still be handy to have a caddy to carry all your items to the shower, especially if you're worried about your roommate or dormmate using up your personal care items.
Shower caddies typically come in clear or frosted plastic designs if you're looking at affordable options; mesh bags are also a viable alternative. Just be sure you're keeping an eye on your caddy, whatever it's made of. You don't want to end up with mold growing on your stuff! Clean your items regularly to prevent having to take care of gross tasks later on.
6. First-Aid Kit
You don't have to get a huge first-aid kit, but it's worth having one with different-sized bandages, alcohol wipes, itch cream, triple antibiotic ointment, and other basics. You may even be able to pick up a small kit with individual doses of painkillers inside, like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and naproxen sodium. These will come in handy, and you won't have to worry about running to the nearest store when you'd rather just stay in bed.
7. Personal Safety Items
There are a few different safety items to consider, and most often, they're marketed to women. But if you're heading away from home for the first time and are going to be alone at any point, it's a good idea to have something on hand. One option is pepper spray, which you can find for around $10 and possibly less at stores like Target; personal safety alarms may also be helpful to buy.
She's Birdie is a site to check out for the latter, especially. Their alarms are "made for women, by women," according to the company's website, but that doesn't mean only women can benefit. The Birdie alarms are colorful so they're easy to find in your bag, sound a 130 decibel alarm, and emit a flashing strobe light designed to deter attackers and alert others nearby to the fact you need help.
If you want to upgrade, the Birdie+ is also an option. It's an alarm, as well, but doesn't include the flashing light. However, it does include live support 24/7 via access to an on-call rep, "excuse to leave" calls, location sharing, Bluetooth/GPS, and apps for both iOS and Android. Note that Birdie+ also has an app subscription plan you have to buy, which is either $8.99 per month or $89.99 per year. For the peace of mind the service offers, though, it may be well worth it — especially if your parents are footing the bill.
If you need to venture down the hall to shower, pick up an affordable bathrobe to make the trip easier. That way you can disrobe and shower, then step back into your robe to trek back down the hall to your own room, where you can get dressed in comfort and have privacy. Not dealing with communal showers? Even if you're only sharing with one other person, having a robe on hand can make the process more comfortable. You can still wear it to the shower, then wear it again once you're done and not worry about racing to dry off or getting your outfit for the day wet.
9. Flip-Flops or Other Shower Shoes
Once again, communal showers create the need for a specific item. In this case, it's shower shoes (or flip-flops if you aren't picky). They're useful for making sure you don't pick up anything icky when using the same shower as dozens of other people. If you're sharing with a roommate, it's easier, as you only have one other person to worry about. That said, if your dormmate isn't great about cleaning the shower you share, it's worth grabbing a pair of these safety shoes just in case.
10. Stain-Remover Pen or Wipes
Even if you do your laundry on the weekends at home, there's a good chance you'll have to use the dorm washers and dryers at some point. And you don't want to be scrubbing a hard-to-remove stain because you got careless wearing white on pasta night in the dining hall.
Head off these issues by carrying stain-remover pens or wipes wherever you go. That way, if a mess happens, you can treat it right away. You can pick up a Tide pen or a box of 12 Shout wipes for around $3 at Target, so they're a decently affordable solution to keep on hand. Even if they don't totally remove the stain, they can still prevent it from setting in. Your future self (and possibly your mom) will thank you.
11. Reusable Water Bottle
Buying food and drinks on campus isn't likely to get you into the frugal hall of fame, but giving in can be easy when you're stuck between classes with no other options in sight. Consider bringing a reusable water bottle with you instead. You'll be able to fill up at water fountains, which means you can save your cash for more important supplies, like coffee at the library during an all-night cram session.
12. Breath Mints or Gum
Speaking of coffee, if you're drinking this beverage and pretty much nothing else, then the odds are good you'll have coffee breath. You probably don't want someone to smell your breath when it's less than stellar, so plan to keep your favorite breath mints or gum on hand. Even better is that chewing minty gum reduces daytime sleepiness, according to a study out of Coventry University. So even if you aren't guzzling coffee like Lorelai Gilmore, mints and gum might still be useful to have, especially if you get bored in class and need help focusing.
13. Laundry Hamper
You need to toss your dirty clothes somewhere, so a hamper of some sort is necessary. Laundry bags tend to be popular options for college students lugging their items to the laundry room, but they don't serve as great hampers unless they also come with a frame to keep them standing upright. Look for a hamper like that, or a folding one you can tuck away when all your laundry is clean, like right after you visited home for the weekend.
Dorms can become really uncomfortable, whether you're sharing a bedroom with someone or not. Maybe the thermostat is all wonky or the building is old and poorly insulated, but either way, a fan may make a nice addition to your college packing list. In warmer weather, it can help to cool you down, but it can also help to keep you feeling comfortable if your roommates like to crank the heat up during the winter.
Small table fans can go for around $17 and make a nice addition to your bedroom, whether you need the noise for sleeping or just want to increase air circulation.
15. Water Filter Pitcher
Spring for a water filter pitcher from a brand like Brita or PUR now, and you can skip having to buy a ton of bottled water to store in your dorm fridge. You may want to hold off on purchasing a pitcher until you know how large your fridge will be, or you may want to buy a pitcher that fits in a small personal fridge. Either way, spending $16-$25 on the pitcher can save you a ton in the long run, since you won't have to constantly buy bottled water.
16. Noise-Cancelling Headphones
Dorms are noisy places, and even if yours isn't, your roommates might be the opposite of quiet. Whether you need noise-cancelling headphones to help block out noise so you can sleep or help you focus while studying, these devices are an absolute must for college students. They can also be pricey purchases, with a set easily costing a few hundred dollars. However, you can find more reasonable prices if you shop around. For instance, we saw a set of Sennheiser noise-cancelling cans running about $80 at Best Buy, while a set of in-ear headphones from Soundcore by Anker may only set you back about $40 at the same store.
The problem with noise-cancelling headphones is that they can be uncomfortable to sleep in and require you to listen to something in order to block out the noises around you. If that's going to disturb your sleep or studying, earplugs are a great item to have around. You can opt for a multipack of ones that you only use a few times, or reusable ones that you can clean and reuse indefinitely. Alternatively, you can buy earplugs that are meant specifically for sleeping or for blocking out harsher noises, like loud music at concerts.
Generally, eight to 12 pairs of the more disposable varieties cost less than $10 and may be as little as $3.50 or so, depending on the material they're made with. If you want reusable earplugs, be prepared to spend a little more, but the cost shouldn't be too bad — at the time of publication, Target had earplugs for sleeping and flying for about $13 per pair.
18. Collapsible Wagon
Having to haul multiple bags of groceries or other items upstairs or via an elevator can be exhausting, and if you have to make multiple trips, it's even worse. That's why you may want to purchase a collapsible wagon to carry to college with you. It should at least collapse flat if not somewhat fold up, making it easier to store in a small area in your dorm or apartment. These handy items can help cut down on the number of trips you need to make from your car to your dorm. They also make shopping easier if you don't have transportation and need to walk to a nearby store to pick up various items.
Prices vary, but these wagons are available at a variety of retailers, including Target and Amazon.
A safe should be on your list of college considerations, especially if you have important documents you have to keep on you. This doesn't mean you need to go all out and get a heavy, obvious box with a keypad to hold your documents. Instead, depending on what you need to hide away, you may be able to do just fine with a book safe or small fire-resistant lockbox.
20. Command Hooks
Dorms and even apartments can be iffy on allowing you to put holes in the wall from nails and screws. Instead of risking being charged for that at the end of the semester, consider picking up a variety pack of Command hooks and strips. These should cover your bases on most items you'd want to hang on the wall, and nicer-looking Command hooks are available if you need to hang your robe or jackets up, instead of putting them in whatever closet or armoire that's in your dorm room.
21. Electric Kettle (Maybe)
Being able to make tea, hot cocoa, and even instant coffee in your dorm room is an incredible perk, so if you're allowed to have electric kettles, you may want to add one to your packing list. These can boil water quickly and be a far easier option than heating water in a microwave in intervals. And you can use that hot water to make other stuff besides drinks, like that ubiquitous college student food, ramen.
22. Electric Blanket (Maybe)
Your need for an electric blanket is going to heavily depend on the kinds of restrictions your dorm has, as well as what kind of weather you can expect there. For instance, if you're heading to the northeastern U.S., you may want to consider having extra layers for colder winters. If your dorm doesn't allow electric blankets, you may want to at least pack heavier-duty fleece blankets to ensure you can stay warm when the temperatures drop.
23. Small Step Stool
It's one of those weird items you don't think about until you need it, but a small step stool can really come in handy. And if you get one that folds up, you can easily store it away when you're not using it. You may think you'll never need one, but if you want to hang curtains or even decorations like lights in your room, you'll be glad you have a stool rather than having to stand on a random table or your desk.
24. Cheap Outerwear
Be sure to pack affordable sweatshirts or jackets to carry with you. The reason they should be affordable is because there's a chance you'll accidentally leave them behind, whether in a classroom, at the library, or even at a party. Outerwear is handy to have, as even in the summer, certain classrooms or spots in the library may be too cold to be comfortable without an extra layer.
25. Foldable Drying Rack
Make sure that any drying racks you consider fold up to stay out of the way, but also that when they're opened, you have room to move around them. Having one of these on hand can make laundry day easier, as you can save your quarters for the washing machine alone and can dry small loads right in your room. There's more security in this, too: you don't have to babysit your laundry in the dryer, and don't have to worry about items disappearing because you had to step away for a few minutes.
26. Bed Risers
If your dorm bed isn't lofted, you may want to pick up a set of bed risers that provide a little extra storage space underneath. Check which kind you need, as they tend to come in square or round shapes, and some are also adjustable, although those may be more expensive. A basic set of nonadjustable risers can cost less than $10, so it's a relatively affordable item to pick up.
27. Sewing Kit
Even if you aren't skilled with a needle and thread, it's good to have a sewing kit for your dorm room. YouTube videos can show you the basics of how to sew small tears or replace buttons, which can help you to get more life out of your clothes. Small sewing kits generally include needles of various sizes, as well as threads in different colors, scissors, a threader, safety pins, and even a couple of extra buttons in some cases.
28. Eye Mask
An eye mask is going to be especially important if you're sharing a bedroom with someone, as you may go to bed at different times. You'll be able to block out any extra light and have a better chance of getting quality sleep every night. An eye mask may also help if your dorm room windows catch a lot of direct light in the morning and you want to sleep in, whether it's the weekend or you just have later classes.
29. Reusable Food-Storage Items
Freshmen especially often have to purchase dining hall plans, which can mean having to eat on campus even when you don't want to. If you're lucky enough to have a dining hall where you pay when you walk through the door and then it's an all-you-can-eat situation, reusable food-storage items are a must.
This writer wrapped up extra sandwiches in napkins plenty of times after finishing dinner to make sure there was something to eat when the dining hall was closed. (Check to see what your college or university allows in terms of taking food and drinks outside of dining halls.) Having reusable food-storage items on hand would've made the process so much easier, and you can buy relatively cheap sets at the grocery store. They'll ensure you're able to carry out a little extra and store the items in the fridge back in your room. Plus, having leftovers on hand allows you to skip the takeout and save your cash for other purchases.
30. Blackout Curtains
Similar to an eye mask, blackout curtain can help to ensure you keep your room comfortably dim whenever you need to, so you don't have to worry about direct sunlight waking you up before you're ready. Even better is if you can pair these curtains with an eye mask, to make sure you block out every bit of light that could potentially interrupt your sleep.
31. Umbrella and Rain Boots
Umbrellas are easy for most people to remember, but if you don't have one for college yet, you may want to opt for a travel umbrella, as it'll take up less room overall. You may also want to add rain boots, especially if you'll be trekking across campus and your school is in an area prone to rain.
Walking in the rain isn't terrible, necessarily, but if your shoes and the bottom of your pants get soaked through, sitting through class could be extremely uncomfortable. And if the classroom is cold, that'll make the situation even worse. It's worth having adequate rain gear to protect you, whether you have to take a short stroll or walk all the way across a large campus.
32. Lap Desk
Your dorm room may include a desk, but that doesn't mean you'll always want to work there. If there's a chance you're going to work from your bed, or on a sofa or chair, then you may want a lap desk to make it more comfortable to do so. These sometimes include a cupholder, as well as a spot for a mouse and a place to hold your smartphone. You can get them with padded bottoms, and some setups resemble breakfast trays. Take into account how you like to sit, though, as that can influence which kind of lap desk is best for your needs.
33. Bed Rest Pillow
While you're picking out a lap desk, be sure to consider a bed rest pillow for when you're working from bed. These pillows allow you to easily prop up and may have "arms" on them to offer extra support. They can cost less than $20 and make long sessions of studying in bed (or Netflix bingeing) way more comfortable, compared to using whatever pillow you sleep on every night.
34. Clear Travel Bags
Headed to a school with a big sports program? If you're planning on going to football, basketball, or other games, you should grab a clear travel bag. Security is often heightened for these kinds of events, and having one of these for essentials like your ID, cash, and keys will make getting in the door easier. You won't have to have your bag checked, and security officers will likely appreciate being able to quickly scan and make sure nothing questionable is tucked in there.
Look for bags that are designed for holding makeup in carry-on luggage, to ensure you have enough room for what you need; you should be able to find one for less than $10.
35. ID Lanyards
Pulling out your school ID constantly, then scanning it to open doors or show to admin, can be a pain; wearing your ID around your neck on a lanyard makes the process much smoother. While you can buy lanyards at your campus bookstore, it's best to buy them before you head off to college. Odds are good that buying at the bookstore will be more expensive than if you opt for a different lanyard from a store like Target, or even order one online.
Read the reviews and make sure the lanyard can hold up for multiple years. Other than that, there's probably not much to consider, unless it's a lanyard that reps a particular fandom and you think your tastes could change.
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