Niche Resources

What You Actually Do (And Don’t) Need to Pack For Your Dorm

Getting my daughter ready to move into the dorms was a huge event. I really got into it, saving up my Bed Bath & Beyond coupons and reading all of the “What You’ll Need In The Dorms” articles I could find online. You would have thought it was me that was moving in, with all of my carefully curated lists and precise measurements.

Then the school really threw me for loop with their “You must buy these sheets” mailer that said ordinary store-bought linens wouldn’t fit their specially-sized beds. And of course I was all in! Because what could be more catastrophic than my daughter arriving at her dorm and finding that the sheets I bought with my 20% off coupon wouldn’t fit her mattress? It would crush her, ruin her entire college experience and surely impact her ability to land a good job when she graduated.

“Mom, I think they’re just ordinary beds,” my wise daughter chimed in, pointing out that an extra-long sheet (which could, in fact, be bought in a store) would fit them just fine. Crisis averted.

5 Surprising Things About Living in Dorms

Dorm prepping – and making parents feel like they need to buy everything – is big business. According to a 2017 survey by the National Retail Federation, parents spent $5.9 billion on dorm and apartment furnishings for their college-bound kids. That’s a lot of custom sheet sets.

We did our part to add to that hefty sum by buying so many things. Bulletin boards, cookware (there was a kitchen in the common area and there were big plans to make elaborate pasta meals), fans, lamps, drawer organizers, closet organizers, bathroom organizers and a clothes steamer. We resisted buying a coffee maker and refrigerator only because we thought we’d wait and see if one of her roommates brought them.

In hindsight, I wish we’d taken this approach with everything. Why not wait until you’ve moved in, see what others have, how much space you’re allotted and then buy what you need – and what will actually fit – in those tiny cubicles.

Hélène Tragos Stelian suggests just that in her book, “Moving to College: What to Do, What to Learn, What to Pack.” She advises bringing a few essentials for the immediate future, but not burdening yourself with bulky items or things you can easily buy or pick up near campus.

“Think toiletries, over-the-counter medications, kitchen items, study supplies, etc…” she writes. “When it comes to essential items that may run out (like mattress pads or cooling fans), register online at stores like Bed Bath & Beyond or Target and they’ll have your items waiting for you to pick up at a local store near your college.”

To find out what kids really need – and don’t need – it’s helpful to talk to parents who have already been there. A few weeks or even a few days into their dorm life, kids and parents can tell you what is and isn’t working.

“I brought up those cooking supplies when what I really needed was more Cup o’ Noodles,” my daughter said when I asked what advice she would give.

Here are a few essentials – culled from lots of students and parents who have been through a dorm move-in before — that you probably won’t find on your college’s dorm list:

  • Condoms and Plan B
  • 4 weeks-worth of socks and underwear (because you know they won’t be doing any laundry for at least that first month)
  • Power strips with lots of outlets
  • Command Strips and Command Hooks
  • Twinkle lights (suggested by many)
  • First Aid Kit
  • A small desk lamp with a USB plug built into it
  • Lockbox for valuables
  • Cell phone power bank
  • Extra charging cords and plugs
  • Under-bed storage
  • Non-perishable snacks (until they get the lay of the land and find all the vending machines, they’re going to be hungry in the middle of the night)
  • Bedside caddy
  • Mattress pad
  • And yes, those Cup o’ Noodles

Conversely, here are a few things that could have stayed home (or at the store):

  • Rugs (They look nice for five minutes and then just turn into slipping hazards)
  • Cookware (replace with instant noodles)
  • Throw pillows (Better thrown in the trash)
  • Vacuum cleaners (You’re kidding, right?)
  • Clothes hampers (That’s what the floor is for.)
  • Iron and ironing board (Wrinkle releasing spray is much smaller and more likely to be used.)
  • Alarm clock (Those haven’t been used since the ‘80s)
  • That cute chair you thought would add “character” to the room (It will fit precisely nowhere.)
  • Nightstand (See bedside caddy above)
  • TV (All binge-watching is done on laptops, apparently.)

Ultimately, your child is going to have their own list of what they wish they’d brought, and what they could have done without. Dorm policies differ from school to school, too, and that will impact what you decide to bring. Other factors, like where the school is located, will dictate what comes and what stays – winter boots would be a necessity at the University of Wisconsin but would only take up valuable closet space at any school in California.

But what all of these lists and surveys miss is the one thing that is priceless and will always be remembered  – the bonding experience between you and your child as you help them prepare to leave the nest and fend for themselves. And even if the sheets don’t fit, you’ll always be there with your 20%-off coupons, ready to save the day.

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Author: Marsha Takeda-Morrison

Marsha Takeda-Morrison lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two daughters. In her former life she was an art director, but began writing 12 years ago chronicling her family’s life on her personal blog, Sweatpantsmom. She went on to write for Babble, Yahoo!, Genlux Magazine, Cool Mom Picks and She frequently covers pop culture and has interviewed the likes of Paris Hilton, Jessica Alba, Kim Kardashian and Mila Kunis. While she spends a lot of time in Hollywood she has never had plastic surgery, given birth to an actor’s child, or been on a reality show. Yet.