Top Twelve Dorm Shopping Mistakes

With high school graduation behind us, Grown and Flown is focused in the day we will drop off our youngest kids at their freshmen dorms. Though we prefer to stick our heads in the sand and ignore the inevitable, it is time to get them ready for the tiny new living spaces that will be their homes away from home. Five years ago, we were rookie moms and made our share of rookie mistakes. Frankly, we bought a lot of crap. This time, with experience on our side, we hope to give you some thoughts on how to approach what might be your last back-to-school shopping trip….in life.

Dorm Shopping: Don't makes these mistakes. Everything you need to know about moving to college.

1. NOT a School Supply List

My daughter’s college mailed a “What to Bring” list with seven categories and 82 separate items. My 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 basic needs. Anything and everything else can be ordered later online.

In fact, before you grab your credit card and keys, take a look at this post, first. We guarantee it will save you time, money and loads of aggravation.

Read: Dorm Room Shopping, 50 Questions to Answer First 

2. Dorms are Minuscule

Keep this mantra in mind…..Less is more, less is more. Dorm rooms are tiny and spaces, shared. There is minimal room for the necessities and no room for extras. Forget oversize.

3. Kids are Pigs

Ever seen a photo of a lived-in college room? Appalled? We were, too. The dorm room you help your kid set up will begin to deteriorate the moment you wave your tearful goodbye. 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 essentials” you eagerly purchased in July will be stuffed in corners, unopened and collecting dust until they are rediscovered in May.

Dorm Shopping: Don't make these mistakes.

4. The Container Store Savings

Everything about college is expensive, and that includes dorm shopping so look for some great shopping deals. If you live near one of 70 Container Stores staging a College Savings Weekend, July 10-12, your son or daughter can attend with a 20% off coupon in hand IF they register in advance by clicking here. Missed it? You can still shop and ship free for most purchases over $75.

5. Underbed Space? You Have No Clue

This is the single biggest question mark that your kid may not know the answer to until move in day. Those bed risers you were convinced would be perfect? They don’t work with bunk beds and are unnecessary with many elevated beds. Resist the urge to plan for this space until you know the dimensions.

6. Be Careful with Meds

Stuffing a medicine kit for your college freshman can be dangerous. When at home and sick, our teenagers take the analgesic, decongestant, or antihistamine we dole out. We have decades of experience in understanding how over-the-counter medicines should be taken. Our kids do not and, if we send them off to college with all the meds and none of the wisdom, it is very easy for them to over medicate as they battle their first cold while trying to finish a paper and study for a test. So prescription meds, band aids, a thermometer, cough drops, Neosporin, and one analgesic – yes. But leave out multiple meds that have the same active ingredients. This is on the advice of none other than Dr. Travis Stork of the The Doctors so take it from him if not from us! (BTW, Target will give send you a free first aid kit bag if you purchase three items like band aids or headache remedies.)

We feel so strongly about this next tip because we feel equally strongly about hating waste. When you buy things that break apart before freshman year ends, it is maddening.  See what else made our list.

Read:Ten Commandments of Dorm Shopping

7. Don’t Buy Crap

Even the most careful kid 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 become ripped up and 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. Flying or Driving?

There is a fork in the road here and you already know which path you will take with your freshman kid. If you are flying, it will be impossible to bring much more than your child’s clothes, electronics, x-long sheets/comforter and prescription meds. Seek out the “click and pick up” services from The Container Store, Bed, Bath and Beyond and Target. If you are driving your kid, you may still want to use this service and have a far more comfortable ride.

9. No Room for Luggage

As adults, we are accustomed to traveling with luggage but we also have closets wherever we land. College kids have minimal storage space, so consider the collapsible duffel bag that is hanging around in your basement as the perfect piece of luggage. 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.

Dorm Shopping: Don't makes these mistakes. Everything you need to know about moving to college.

10. One Pillow is Not Enough

Your kid’s dorm bed will function as bedroom/living room/study and the pillow he sleeps on will not be enough to lean back onto as he studies. Bring a second bed pillow, a large square pillow in a sham, or a backrest pillow to cushion the hard wood or wall.

11. Power Struggle

Your kid will travel to college with a phone, maybe an iPod, a computer, possibly a printer or a lamp, and, if the dorm is not air-conditioned, a fan. Girls may also throw into their bags a blow dryer and hair straightener. All of this translates into a serious need for extra plugs. Do not forget a power strip with surge protection on a long cord. Some of these come with built-in USB port chargers, which are very handy.

12. Eating not Cooking

A mini-fridge is a real necessity and one piece of equipment that roommates need to discuss before move-in day. There may be space for only one so rent or buy, decide to share the cost or someone can own outright. Plan on helping your son or daughter get this in-house before you turn off onto the highway back home.

The summer before my eldest went to college, I had a powerful nesting urge, much like I did 18 years before when I prepared for his nursery. I poured over every dorm room essential, checklist and must haves at every store with a dorm display. This time my approach is completely different. I will buy two sets of x-long sheets and my daughter will pick out a comforter in a color that she loves. We have an egg crate mattress topper to add to the slim pad that is supplied by the school. She will pack her clothes, shoes and electronics. Fortunately, she knows the dimensions of the under bed space in her dorm room so we will buy heavy plastic storage drawers to fit. They will double as luggage for our drive. She will bring a poster she can stick on the wall (no nails in dorm rooms) with photos of friends, family and her dog. We know where the closest CVS is for stocking up on the generic supplies.

The stores all have college lists, but view them with a discriminating eye. Step stools? Paper towel holders? Lots of extra plastic boxes? Think twice.

Here is what will NOT make the cut:

  • Alarm clock – there is an app for that.
  • Furniture – there is no space for a futon or side table or anything decorative.
  • Kitchen – no toasters or blenders, no dishes, cups or silverware that must be washed after use.
  • Media storage – no need for CDs or DVDs, all media comes through her laptop.
  • Pictures in frames – ditto, just flip open the laptop.
  • Plants – guaranteed to die.
  • Cleaning supplies – in our dreams, sadly, college kids don’t clean, so no vacuum, no mop.
  • Desk Lamp – worth checking first if it is needed. Many rooms have adequate overhead light and computers are backlit.
  • Composition books, binders, dividers – some of these have gone the way of the dinosaur. Let your kid start class and figure out his own study methods. Many kids prefer to take notes online 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 – be very careful here, most college 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 assignment 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.

Well worth considering:

  • Shoe racks for the closet floor or hanging over the closet door. Shoe space is very limited and this creates a bit more.
  • Closet storage maximizers that hang from the closet bar provide a great place to put sweaters, sweatshirts or any bulky items.
  • Fan if the weather/air conditioning suggest the need for it. Compact fans can do a big job in steamy dorm rooms, no need to buy a big one.
  • Hooks that tape to the wall are handy for jackets, towels or jewelry to keep thing (wishful) off the floor.
  • Small rugs are worth considering but be wary this 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 might be a necessity. If the bathroom is close at hand and shared by few, a waste of money.
  • Mattress pad and bed bug protector, money well spent!
  • Trash can? Some rooms come equipped, others do not, worth checking first.
  • Is your child a coffee/tea drinker? A small electric kettle or the mini Keurig might be a big money saver if they are used to a couple of daily cups of caffeine.
  • Towels – consider monograming or a distinctive color.  Basic white are too easy to mistake for another’s towels.

One final thought about move in day. It will be crowded, it will be hot, and there will be lousy parking. You child will come face to face with her new roommate for the first time and you will also shake hands with your counterparts. Help her make up her bed and pull the sheets snug. Drive her to the nearest store for shampoo and her favorite body wash. Help her stock the mini fridge.

Finally, slip her a letter telling her how proud you are of her and how this day is one you know she worked hard to achieve. Tell her you love her. Hug her tight and know that it is time for her to take it from here.

And from our readers:

From our own Carpool Goddess: Swap out warm weather for cool weather clothes when they come home during the holiday breaks, as space is limited. Linda has some great “Get Ready for College Suggestions” HERE.

Jill Rutherford Hall:  Dorm rooms have their own special smell.  A few of those odor absorbing jars would not go amiss! Disposable cleaning wipes may the the only thing they use.

Wendy Roever Nelson from My Kids College Choice: A dry erase board is a great to do list mounted on the wall.

Theresa DePaepe: A small tool kit is very handy, will be in demand among dorm mates and they now come in nice colors for graduation gifts.



  1. says

    Great advice! I am in the process of getting child #2 off to college and a few things I did in advance that were helpful. I bought distinctive towels (definitely buy on sale- you might not ever see them again) so that my child knew what towels belonged to her. In the world of dorm life and things that are “easily shared” I did not want her towels to be used by anyone other than her. As the dorm beds mostly seem to need XL twin sheets and as my kids have sensitive skin, I bought the sheets over the summer and washed them repeatedly so they would have a softer feel. And along with that electric kettle, a fun assortment of boxed tea. Something soothing and a treat that is fun to share.

    • says

      I love the towel point, Dorothy, and it should be #13 on the list! Thanks for the other thoughts, too. Good luck with #2, same here.

  2. says

    I’ve done this twice and made the same mistakes twice (though not as many the second time). Your advice is spot on. Though both of them loved having some kind of string or wire thingy to attach photos too (though many were just taped to the wall). Many pillows and comforters…and the best care packages? Bags of candy they could share in the hallway.

    • says

      Kim, sometimes we just can’t help ourselves in making these mistakes – we want them to be prepared for everything! without us! Thanks for the candy bag idea – good ice breaker, too.

  3. Helene Cohen Bludman says

    Amazing how much things have changed since we took our youngest to college in 2007. I will never forget the many, many, MANY trips to Bed Bath & Beyond and all the crap that our daughter crammed into a tiny space.

    • says

      It is overwhelming the first time. I seriously thought I needed EVERYTHING on the list, Helene. Many BBB trips!

  4. Eileen says

    My third child is inheriting a refrig from her big brother. He recently shared it might not have any shelves! BBB has a cute thin garbage can my second child loves and my third has purchased. A good mattress cover is expensive but my son thanked me many times over. Can’t have enough pillows and BBB has some that are cute and cheap. Look for over-sized zipper plastic collapsing bags in the grocery now before they are sold out! Great for packing bedding and towels on the way out and just about anything you can cram in on the way back! Third and final coming up! Love your site!

  5. Anonymous says

    Don’t buy crap is good advice. I purchased cheap sheets at Target. At the end of the year, they were so stretched out and so thin that I had to repurchase at Bed Bath and Beyond. Also, a mini hand vacuum is great for small spaces. Her room looks just like your picture.

    • says

      Scary how messy these rooms are. Hand vac is a good idea, though my son NEVER used any of the various cleaning items I sent him with. Maybe child #2 (daughter) might or am I dreaming?

  6. says

    Awesome advice! We’re starting this process now and I want to avoid unnecessary purchases as much as possible. Thanks for sharing!

  7. says

    This is the most helpful list I’ve read! Thanks so much for sharing it – already printed it out!

  8. Elisa says

    Some of the items may be necessary. Like an extra lamp. It’s not so much because an overhead light isn’t enough, but more for the studying whole thing other roommate is sleeping. An app may work for short term lighting but not more than 10 mins.

  9. says

    Truer words were never written. Even after my first foiled effort to set up a maintainable organized environment for my daughter, I was tempted to try some of the “NOT” list items with my neater second child. Glad I read this. Who am I kidding?

  10. says

    And don’t forget to pack a box of tissues for Mom for the car ride home!!!! It’s SO hard to drive away!!!!

  11. says

    Great advice! Just started making our shopping list and we were feeling a bit overwhelmed by all of the “must haves.” It’s been awhile since I’ve shopped for a dorm. I was just starting to feel that nesting instinct, too. I knew that was a bad sign.

  12. says

    Great advice Mary Dell! The first year our daughter wanted to bring her entire closet. The second year we got smart. Each time she came home for a holiday break she swapped clothes as the weather changed since closet space was so limited.

    • says

      Thanks, Linda, I think we may have some of the change of season clothes swapping strategy to look forward to at sour house, too.

  13. Drew says

    Your heart is in the right place and that’s to be commended otherwise this is a horrible consumerist piece that encourages starting kids off doing the same worthless crap we did. You don’t “need” ANYTHING when you go off to college but some clothes, pens & pencils, some notebooks and a $h!tload of ambition to find and earn your way in the very difficult work world. Monogrammed towels and extra pillows for crying out loud???? Even the worst college in the country has a good computer lab and the dining hall serves coffee. And if I read one more person spewing the virtues of big box stores like The Container Store or Wal- Mart or Staples I’m going to puke. Kids these stores are a big part of the reason that the economy, the state of healthcare, and welfare programs are what they are. Whatever you need go find locally owned stores in your new college town and support the good folks that built their town to serve you – eat at the local owned restaurants and drink at the local bars. You aren’t doing anyone any favors by following your stupid mothers example of hitting up the big box stores and swinging by Starbucks on the way for a triple caramel fatso whatever. Be original for once PLEASE!

    • two college kids says

      wish there were locally owned stores in the college town that sold the type of stuff we needed, but don’t kids yourself. Yes they can get away without the fridge or the coffeemaker, but not the computer. Their life, their classes, their grades, communication with professors, etc. are on the computer. It’s nothing like when I was a student. Neither my son or daughter’s dorm had wi-fi, a networking connection was a necessity. Wherever they shop, there are things they need when they move away to make them feel like home, not visitors. This is their life for the next four years. And sometimes the only place you can find the needed items are at the big box stores. What was more important was that my children learned how to be independent to go and get the things that they felt they needed. Both have been fairly good about it. A printer became needed since papers as well as articles were printed at all hours of the night, and not all computer labs are 24/7. A hamper for dirty clothes, laundry supplies, food to grab in the morning on the way to early classes if there is no time for the long lines in the dining room. They become acclimated, but it does take time.

  14. Brianna says

    Dang Drew, little harsh don’t ya think? There’s nothing wrong with the article. Some will take more, some will take less…I just remembered mine needs a surge protector.

  15. says

    Drew, I think you’re being a bit harsh. The author pointed out that you SHOULD NOT buy everything on the list–that you might not even need notebooks if your child does all their work on a lap top. When our younger son started college, we had to fly there. We brought very little, saw the dorm room, discussed who had what with the roommate and his parents and then went to—yes, a big box store, at a local mall, to buy those things for him.
    PS: We have two sons. Are girls really as messy? I don’t recall having a big mess in my college dorm room (admittedly—a long time ago).

  16. Sari says

    IKEA also has some great things at great prices. Sending my second son off in a couple of weeks. He has no interest in going shopping. What ever I pick is fine with Jim!

    • says

      First child is a son and he also was disinterested in shopping – drove me crazy that he did not want to go look at comforters with me! I wish we an an Ikea nearby, agreed that it is another good source.

  17. Drew says

    I don’t think it’s the slightest bit harsh. The kids I’ve seen do the best in college (as an undergrad then a masters student then a professor mind you) are the ones with the least. I’m not saying send them with nothing but this is when they really start learning how the world works and how they can make it work better. As parents don’t you want your kids to do better than you have? To leave the world better than they came into it? To instill the same values in their own children? The kids I valued most in my classes were the ones that fought me and didn’t just write down what I said to them. Do yourselves and your kids a favor and START being more harsh – hell ask them if they think it’s better to feed the big box machines or shop local for the things hey need. I stand by my arguments that these kinds of articles make me sick if for no other reason then you all aren’t teaching your kids to be anything more than consumerist sheep – just like the big box corporations want you to be.

    Ps Suzanne – I recently visited Luang Prabang among other sites while in Laos and really enjoyed it!

    • Corbitt says

      Drew, I am guessing you did not major in Business or Economics!

      • Corbitt says

        And you probably live on the West Coast and drive a Prius. Nothing wrong with that but give the capitalists a break!

  18. says

    The way my dorm was set up my first year of college I had to share a dresser with another girl. under the bed storage saved my life that year!!

  19. Laurie says

    Drew, not sure why you insist on tough love. Every child is different. Mine respond best when I’m really nice to them and recoil when I’m harsh. My son just finished his freshman year and is working hard at a 40-hour a week summer internship. My daughter is on track to finish first in her high school class, and we get along great. Every family is different.

    We also had great success at the chain stores. Last summer, we made one trip each to Best Buy, the Container Store (best quality slide-out plastic drawers), and Target. It was efficient and not overly expensive. My son appreciated many of the items we purchased such as wall hooks, laundry basket, desk lamp, and tool kit. His room was freezing so the extra blanket was used every night. When the AC went out a few times, he used the clip-on fan.

    One more piece of advice–buy extra socks and underwear. They don’t always have time for laundry later in the semester.

    • says

      Laurie, I love the Container Store slide out drawers and agree that they re of excellent quality. Also agree about the need for extra underwear and socks – great point!

  20. says

    Make sure it is a surge protector and not just a power strip, which is considered a fire hazard. Also do not send any types of electric cooking instruments like a slow cooker or hot plate. Those are fire hazards as well.

    I just conducted a room inspections at a local university. I suggest taking a plastic dish pan. Most rooms do not have a kitchen style sink and residents are responsible for cleaning their own rooms, including dishes. I dishpan type thing would be a huge help in a room as bathroom sinks are too small for effective cleaning.

    About the dimensions or other in-room information, contact the leasing office. They are usually happy to provide this information to incoming students.

    • says

      Jennifer, yes to each of your suggestions and especially the need to get the specifics of the dorm room configuration before assuming anything about furnishings. Thank you

  21. Linda says

    My D asked for a small vacuum after she had been in her dorm for a few weeks. With two girls with long hair, the hair on the floor was everywhere. She said that everyone on her floor used it.

    Back-of-the-door hooks are very useful for purses, belts, scarves, and such. They also work over the end of a bunk bed.

  22. two college kids says

    my daughter loved the hand vacuum i sent, everyone in the hall used it to clean up messes, she hated the overhead light so a desk lamp and one attached to her bed were very important, a set of plastic dishes were well used – no wasted paper plates, hooks that hang on the end of the bed a lifesaver, the futon fit in perfectly (it was a single chair that opened up), my son’s room doesn’t have a desk or desk chair (he may not use it much, but it’s a great place to store books, etc), definitely was more careful with my second one than my first. But go up there first and then get what’s needed after you see what’s already there.

  23. CJC says

    Excellent list, but I disagree with the kitchen bit. I graduated a year ago, work with college students and highly encourage 1 or 2 durable bowls and a spoon and fork. Easy mac, canned soup, ramen, and canned vegetables were staples of my dorm room and I still have the $2 indestructible bowl my mom dropped me off with 5 years ago.

    • says

      Having comfort food readily available is a good idea. Thanks for weighing in on what worked for you.

  24. says

    Don’t do what I did and spend a ton of money on those XL sheets. At my university, most students live on campus their first year and then move into (cheaper) apartments, rendering XL twin sheets completely useless. Find out where students live after their first year before you blow a bundle on dorm-specific stuff!

    • says

      The XL sheet thing is a conundrum since you need them with the beds freshman year. At least the pillow cases and top sheet wouldn’t be a waste if you never sleep in a dorm for the rest of the time.

  25. Allie says

    As a college student going on my third year, I disagree with a lot of this. My mom and I thought we wouldn’t need a lot of this but as soon as we got up to school we were going right to target realizing we needed a lot more than we thought. The schools mail out a list for a reason. It really is best to follow it.

    • says

      Allie, thanks for weighing in – we love hearing from college students. Sounds like you and your mom were able to size up your needs after you saw your room. That’s such a good idea, rather than making assumptions about all you need before you get there. Again, thanks for voicing your opinion.

  26. BBV says

    As a former Container Store employee my mantra during College Night was “make use of the vertical space.” Think tall….shelving unit, command hooks for the walls, etc. Don’t forget closets…they are usually set up for one length of hanging. If the closet rod is high enough think about one of the double hang closet rods. Don’t forget about using the back of the dorm room door (or bathroom door if the dorm room is en suite) with an over the door towel rack or hooks for coats, etc. Keep your receipts because what you don’t use can always be returned. It’s better to over buy and return than try and brave the crowds of all the other parents and students trying to buy stuff.

  27. Megan says

    I would actually check before buying the XL sheets. My dorms all recommended them, but the mattresses were so thin that XLs were way too big. Regular twin sheets stretched to fit. Also, fans are always a good purchase, ac or not. I, along with most of my friends, slept with a fan to help drown out dorm noises. Walls can be thinner than apartments. The white noise of a fan helps more than you’d expect.

  28. says

    I read this through, and it is very inaccurate. The list of things to not bring to college is completely backwards. I clean every week, I have pictures and decorations all over my room, I have a vacuum (those rooms are disgusting if you don’t clean you’ll probably suffocate), I also have many notebooks because I do not like taking notes on my laptop and I have binders to organize them. Honestly you need a stand up fan the rooms are ungodly hot, printers are a life saver when communal computer labs run out of paper or ink (got myself an hp printer with colored and black ink in a package for only $30). Definitely get a shower caddy, there are too many things that need to be brought to a shower for females). You need to bring a desk lamp to school because overhead lights break and take a while to get fixed, you don’t want to be in the dark for the week. Also, I brought a DVD case of movies to school with me and it doesn’t take up space, they are comforting when you miss home. Even though there are many misleading directions here, let your student decide for themselves what they want, it’s their room not the parents.

  29. Kacey Cordeiro says

    As a college student returning for my second year, I can say, I wish I had seen this list last year. I over packed A LOT. If your son/daughter/or even if your a college kid reading this, don’t bring too much clothes. My school (Salem State) is nice enough to provide us with dressers (not sure if others do). I brought shirts and pants that I never wore. I had big ambitions to dress nicer to go to class, but think again on that. Many times I was running to class in my pajamas, laptop and room key in hand. Bring a nice outfit just in case you decide to try and find a job. I had no intention, but I ended up with a job at Domino’s Pizza and they want me back full time for my second year.
    Instead of plastic water bottles, bring those refillable ones that you use for the gym/practice/dance class/whatever the case may be. Also on that note, most dining halls have soda machines/water machines. Get a gallon jug or Britta water filter pitcher and just keep refilling it. A lot cheaper in the long run.
    If you wanna be one of the coolest kids in the dorm, have mom, dad, aunt/uncle, grandparents send cookies, brownies, and all those kinds of snacks! Everyone will love you and it’s a super easy way to make friends. That’s how I made most of my friends. I just sat in the common area with a box full of homemade cookies.
    Write letters home. Emails are quicker, but handwritten letters are more thoughtful!

  30. says

    Excellent post. My only addition to the Well Worth Considering list is extra chargers for their electronic devices and/or portable USB chargers for when their phone is about to die and a wall outlet isn’t accessible.

  31. CDA says

    Just started packing my youngest daughter up for her junior year of college….and her advice was simple….1. Definitely do need some type of “egg crate” on your mattress 2. Leave all cleaning supplies at home except Lysol wipes…3. Stock up on basic meds….no one wants to go to Walgreens when they are sick…..4. Move clothes on hangers held together with an elastic hair band and cover with large garbage bags….5. Purchase Tide Pods or Gain Flings for laundry….6. A Netflix subscription is the best…7. Leave all the kitchen items at home and stock up on plastic cups and plastic spoons 8.

    • says

      CDA, great suggestions. Tide Pods are a great idea both less mess, less likely to get left in the laundry room and remeasured. Thanks for your input!

  32. Caty Justis says

    Love the Bed, Bath and Beyond order here and pick up there. We have to fly our child to college so this was a huge help!