Top Twelve Dorm Shopping Mistakes (2021)

With high school graduation almost behind us, we are focused on the day we will drop off our youngest at their freshmen dorms. Though we prefer to ignore the inevitable, it’s time to get them ready for the tiny new living spaces that will be their home away from home.

Five years ago, we were rookie moms and made our share of rookie mistakes. Frankly, we bought a lot of dorm stuff that our teens never used. This time, with experience on our side, we hope to shop for our freshmen with more focus and less waste.

We’ll also give you our thoughts on how to approach what might be your last back-to-school shopping trip…in life.

girl in dorm room
Here are the top 12 dorm mistakes. (Twenty20 @julesgane)

Dorm room shopping: what not to do

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1. Don’t treat the dorm shopping list like a K-12 school supply list

My daughter’s college mailed a “What to Bring” checklist with seven categories and 82 separate items. Our advice—do not treat this like the supply lists from your child’s elementary school where, scavenger hunt-style, you dutifully checked off each item while wheeling a cart through Staples.

Instead, concentrate on the most important items, true college dorm essentials. Anything and everything else can be picked up on move-in day or ordered online. In fact, before you grab your keys or take out your credit card to start adding to your online cart, look at Dorm Room Shopping: 50 Questions to Answer, First. We guarantee it will save you time, money and loads of aggravation.

2. Do not overbuy for the dorm

Keep this mantra in mind…..Less is more, less is more. College campus dorm rooms are tiny and spaces, shared. There is minimal closet space or room for the necessities, much less the extras. Don’t think that all of those “dorm room essentials” are essential for your teen and forget anything oversized.

3. Do not forget how messy teens can be

Ever seen a photo of a lived-in college room? Appalled? We were, too. The dorm room you help your teen set up will begin to deteriorate the moment you say your goodbyes. In the next nine months, your son or daughter will welcome friends into that room where every surface will be treated as a chair.

Some of the dorm room shopping essentials you eagerly purchase this summer will be stuffed in corners, unopened, and collecting dust until they’re rediscovered in May. College dorm rooms can be scary messy.

Messy college dorm room
Dorm rooms can be scary messy.

4. Do not pay full price

Everything about college is expensive, and that definitely includes dorm shopping, so take advantage of all the shopping deals you can find. Many retailers offer special promotions in exchange for your email address. Search online to see how to sign up and look for the details on free shipping, too.

Bed Bath & Beyond also has a College Savings Pass where students can get 20% off everything through 9/30/21. Plus there is free shipping for any order over $39.

5. Do not forget to plan the under-bed space

This is the single most important question to answer about the dorm room and one that your teen may not know much about until move-in day.

However, once your teen has a dorm assignment, check out the “residence life” section on the college website to see if a floorplan, with measurements of that specific dorm, is available. Take note of what furniture is provided and how high the bed is elevated and plan the under-bed real estate accordingly.

Take a tape measure with you when you shop for storage containers or storage bins so you can maximize the space with the most functional and sturdy under-bed storage available.

One more thing, take note about those bed risers you were convinced would be perfect. They don’t work with bunk beds and are unnecessary with many elevated beds.

6. Do not forget to include instructions with a medicine kit

Stuffing a medicine kit for your college freshman with an overabundance of meds can be dangerous if they are not familiar with when and how to use each one. When they are at home and sick, our teens take the analgesic, decongestant, or antihistamine we dole out. We have decades of experience in understanding how over-the-counter medicines should be taken. If we send our sons and daughters off to college with all the meds and none of the wisdom, it may cause other issues if they self-medicate with products that have duplicate active ingredients.

Start now to walk your teen through basic first aid, and how to treat a cough or cold. When the time comes to pack up for move-in day, fill a container with any prescription meds, band-aids, a thermometer, cough drops, antibacterial ointment, and one analgesic. One pharmacist mom gave us her best advice for her freshman son’s medicine kit. 

7. Do not buy flimsy dorm stuff

Even the most careful student will be hard-pressed to keep their college possessions in good shape as they move in and out of dorm rooms and college apartments for the next four years. Fragile and dainty will get torn or broken. Whatever goes in your shopping cart must be judged for durability. Put it back on the shelf if it doesn’t pass muster.

8. Do not forget to plan for how you’re moving everything to college

There is a fork in the road here and you probably already know which path you’ll take with your freshman. If you are flying, it will be impossible to bring much more than your teen’s clothes, electronics, twin xl bedding and prescription meds. Seek out the special shopping/shipping services from major retailers that are ideal for students who shop in their hometown and pick up at college.

Bed, Bath & Beyond offers Pack & Hold: Shop online or in-store, schedule a pick up up to 60 days before you arrive on campus. On Move-in Day, your student’s things will be waiting at the store you selected.

With Unlimited FREE Two-Day Shipping (with no minimum order size) and exclusive deals and promotions, this might be an ideal time for your teen to get an Amazon Prime Student account to order things once they arrive on campus and determine what they really need.

If you are driving, you may still want to use these services for a more comfortable ride.

9. Do not plan to leave luggage behind

As adults, we are accustomed to traveling with luggage but we also have closets wherever we land. College students have minimal storage space, so consider buying the IKEA blue bags (available at Amazon) which have achieved a cult-like following at Grown and Flown for college move-in.

Alternatively, use collapsible duffel bags that you may already have at home. When our son began to drive himself back and forth to school, he used garbage bags for luggage which meant he had a starter pack for the trash can when he arrived.

College dorm move in day van loaded with matching luggage
Trash bags as luggage for college students driving to school.

The blue IKEA Frakta bag is our favorite method for transporting college gear.

IKEA blue bags
IKEA blue bags are the #1 essential for college move-in.

10. Do not forget a second pillow

Your teen’s dorm bed will function as a bedroom/living room/study space, and the pillow they sleep on will not be very comfortable to lean back onto. Bring a second bed pillow, a large square pillow in a pillowcase or sham, or a backrest pillow to cushion the hardwood or wall.

bedrest pillow

11. Do not plan on using extension cords

Your teen will travel to college with a phone, a laptop, and a host of other electronics that need to be charged or plugged in for use. All of this translates into a serious need for extra outlets and many colleges do not allow extension cords. Pack a power strip surge strip like this one from Belkin which has both outlets and USB ports, ideal for charging everything.

power strip

12. Do not forget to get a mini-fridge

A mini-fridge is a real necessity and one dorm item that roommates should discuss before move-in day. There might be space for only one, so rent or buy, decide to share the cost, or someone can own it outright. These are convenient for leftovers from the dining hall and snacks that need refrigeration or cold drinks.

A microwave, coffee maker, and/or electric water kettle are also very nice but please check the dorm restricted list before you buy any of these appliances.

What NOT to buy for the dorm room

  • Alarm clock—can use their phone.
  • Furniture—there is no space for a futon or any furniture that’s oversized or purely decorative.
  • Kitchen Items—no toasters or blenders, no dishes, cups or silverware that must be washed after use.
  • TV—Netflix on a laptop is enough.
  • Pictures in frames—ditto, just flip open the laptop.
  • Plants—guaranteed to die.
  • Cleaning supplies—in our dreams, only, as many (most?) college kids don’t seem to clean their dorm rooms.  So no vacuum, no mop. Think about paper towels and Clorox/Lysol wipes.
  • Composition books, binders, dividers—some of these have gone the way of the dinosaur. Let your teen start class and figure out their own study methods. Many kids prefer to take notes on their laptops and have far fewer paper needs than they did in high school. Don’t rush to waste money on a bunch of dead trees.
  • Desk chair—most colleges provide a chair and you will just end up driving it back home.
  • Printer—might also be an enormous waste of money. Many schools have networked printers available to students and assignments are often turned in online. Desks do not have much room and the floor is a filthy place for an expensive piece of electronic equipment.

What to buy for the dorm room:

  • An over-the-door set of hooks is a great space saver for hats, jackets, or wet towels.
  • Fan—is a must-have if the climate or lack of air conditioning suggests the need for it. Compact fans can do a big job in stuffy or steamy dorm rooms, no need to buy a big one. We like this Vornado fan which has gotten top reviews.

fan in room

  • Hooks that stick to the wall are handy for jackets, towels, or jewelry to keep things (wishful) off the floor. Definitely pick up a few packages of Command Hooks, if your teen’s dorm allows them. 

command hooks

  • Small rugs are worth considering but be wary as they may not get vacuumed all year. Small throw rugs that can go into the washing machine might work best.
  • Shower caddy—first check what the bathroom situation is. If your child is using a large communal bathroom at the end of the hall, this will be a necessity.

Shower caddy

  • Mattress pad and bed bug protector, money well spent!
  • Hamper—check to see how far away the laundry facilities are before you decide on a laundry basket, bag or hamper.
  • Trash can? Some rooms come equipped, others do not, worth checking first.
  • Is your child a coffee/tea drinker? We fell in love with this K-Mini Coffee Maker which could be a nice treat to have in their dorm room and is only 5″ wide and comes in five colors.

coffee maker

  • Towels—consider monogramming or distinctive color. Basic white is easy to mistake for anyone else’s towels in the laundry room.

towel Fieldcrest

One final thought about move-in day. It will be crowded, it will be hot, and there will be lousy parking. Your child will come face to face with her new roommate for the first time and you will also shake hands with your counterparts.

Help them make up the bed and pull the sheets and comforter snug. Drive, to the nearest store for shampoo, conditioner, an extra toothbrush, and any other toiletries or snacks they want for the mini-fridge.

Finally, slip them the letter you’ve been thinking about all summer. Let them know how proud you are of them, that you love them, and hug them once more. They can take it from here.

You Might Also Enjoy Reading:

Move-In Day: 12 Things That Will Save Your Life

College Packing Hacks for Your Freshman [photos]

Shopping for dorm room supplies when your child goes off to college can be overwhelming. Don't make the same mistakes that we made when shopping for our own kids. Here are 12 mistakes you might be tempted to make while dorm room shopping, and how to avoid them. #dorm #dormroomideas #dormroomsupplies #college #collegedorm #schoolsupplies #university #offtocollege #dormroomtips #teens #teenagers

About Grown and Flown

Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan are the co-founders of Grown and Flown the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. They are writers (Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author), moms, wives and friends. They started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and are co-authors of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

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