College Shopping Guide: 6 Steps to Simplify Your Dorm Shopping Trip

Dorm shopping requires much more planning than any previous back-to-school shopping trip that’s ever come before.

We’ve been down the dorm shopping road with our own five kids. We shopped with them as first-year students, then later as sophomores, when they moved into college apartments and their first apartments.

Here’s what we have learned.

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Six steps to college shopping sanity!

Here are six steps to help you simplify the off-to-college shopping you want to do with your teen.

1. Dorm Discovery

Look on your teen’s new college website under “Residence Life” and find out as much as possible about the dorm room they will soon occupy. It is much better to learn all you can about their new space BEFORE you shop to avoid mistakes and the need to return items that were the wrong size or prohibited.

Here’s what you can find out on most college websites:

  • What furniture is included
  • What items are prohibited
  • Floor plan showing if the bed is lofted and, if so, how high
  • Location of the bathroom
  • Location of the laundry facilities

Once you have a better idea about how your teen’s dorm room is configured, you can simplify the shopping list to meet their needs and fit their living space.

2. Make the bed

There is a reason why everyone makes such a fuss over dorm beds — they will soon become THE space where your teen sleeps, studies, and hangs out. Making it a comfortable refuge is worth the effort and expense. Here are the pieces that go on the list:

Mattress topper

One of our kids said that he would give up his backpack before giving up his mattress topper. It made all the difference to him in getting a good night’s sleep. There are options at every price point; any topper will vastly improve the brick-like mattresses colleges supply.

ViscoSoft makes an award-winning mattress topper.  

NEW – Exclusive Code for Grown and Flown: 20% Off ANY Select High Density Toppers on AMZ: GAF20VSSHD

Sheet set

Look for sheets that are soft and durable that coordinate with a comforter. Dorm rooms typically have Twin XL beds, which may be the only time you will shop for that size.

There are dozens of sites that offer college bedding, including Pottery Barn Teen and Target which has lots of affordable sheet sets in twin xl.

Pillow (Amazon)

Dorm rooms quickly become dusty messes, and sleeping on a clean pillow can help your teen stay healthy. This is highly recommended, and the loft can be customized to your teen’s preferences.

Coop pillow

Pillow Encasement (Amazon)

Consider a waterproof pillow encasement that keeps dust mites and other allergens away from your teen’s face.

pillow encasement

3. Where’s the bathroom?

If the bathroom is down the hall, they need a shower caddy to transport their toiletries. This mesh shower tote has pouches for shampoo, shaving, and bath items.

shower caddy

Shower Shoes

Regardless of how near or far the bathroom is, your teen will need a pair of shower slides or flip-flops to wear when they shower. We are big fans of Nike Slides — the 1-piece foam design feels soft and comfortable, while traction patterns on the sole help with wet surfaces.


We are partial to these quick-dry, organic towels from Pottery Barn Teen Dorm that are available in thirteen colors and can be monogrammed. You can find well-priced towels at Target that your college student will also love.

Pottery barn towels

4. Laundry

Before buying a hamper, the number one thing to know is how far away the facilities are. It was across the quad for one of our teens, choosing an easy-to-carry and durable hamper a must.

laundry hamper

5. Storage and organization

Help your teen create a system to organize their clothes, toiletries, shoes, extra sheets, towels, and “stuff.” If you’ve found the furniture’s dimensions on the college website, this will be much easier to do than if you have to guess. When you shop for under-bed storage, take a tape measure and plan this real estate space together to maximize every square inch.

Under-bed storage (The Container Store)

Because dorm space is limited, your teen will want to utilize under-bed space for extra storage. Under-bed storage is perfect for storing extra clothes, towels, and medications.

6. Electronics

Most students have at least a phone and laptop, and many will have other electronics or appliances like a blow dryer or coffee maker. All dorm rooms are short on outlets.

Surge Protector (Amazon)

A surge protector, NOT just an extension cord, is what most dorms will require for extra power. This one comes with two USB ports and a six-foot cable, a feature your teen will appreciate when they want to charge their phone near their bed, and the outlet is on the opposite wall.

Desk lamp (Amazon)

Some colleges supply a lamp or a desk with built-in desk lighting, but if your teen needs one, this lamp has multiple brightness levels and a USB charging port to keep their phone fully charged while studying.

desk lamp

Dorm Extras

Here are a few other dorm items to consider for your teen. For more ideas, please look at our list of 30 bestselling essentials. 

Bedrest pillow (Target)

bed rest pillow

Bedside shelf (Amazon)

bedside shelf

Over-the-Door Hanger With Hooks (Amazon)

door hooks

Clothes steamer (Target)

clothes steamer

You Might Also Be Interested In:

Dorm Room Essentials: The 12 Things That All Freshmen Need

Dorm Room Shopping: 50 Questions to Answer First 

About Mary Dell Harrington

Mary Dell is the co-founder of Grown and Flown, the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. She started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and is co-author of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

Read more posts by Mary Dell

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