Top Twelve Dorm Shopping Mistakes (2024)

With high school winding down, we are starting to focus on the day we will drop off our youngest at their college dorms. Though we prefer to ignore the inevitable, it’s time to prepare them for the tiny new living spaces that will be their home away from home.

We were rookie moms five years ago and made our few rookie mistakes. Frankly, we bought many dorm stuff that our teens never used. This time, with experience, we hope to shop for our freshmen with more focus and less waste.

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

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

Dorm 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 teen’s college mailed a “What to Bring” checklist with seven categories and 82 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. Everything can be picked up on move-in day or ordered online. Before you grab your keys or take out your credit card to add to your online cart, look at Dorm Room Shopping: 50 Questions to Answer, First. We guarantee it will save you time, money, and aggravation.

Download our FREE Off-to-College Checklist here.

2. Don’t 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. Here are the dozen things all first year students need; anything beyond that is a “nice to have” and not a “need to have.”

3. Don’t forget how messy teens can be

Ever seen 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 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.

4. Don’t 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.

5. Don’t forget to plan the under-bed space

This is the most critical 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 floor plan 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 when you shop for storage containers or bins to maximize the space with the most functional and sturdy under-bed storage available.

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

6. Don’t 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 unfamiliar 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 with duplicate active ingredients.

Start to walk your teen through basic first aid and how to treat a cough or cold. When packing 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. Don’t 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. Don’t 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 student. If you’re flying, bringing much more than your teen’s clothes, electronics, twin xl bedding, and prescription meds will be impossible. Seek out the special shopping/shipping services from major retailers ideal for students who shop in their hometown and pick them up at college.

If you’re driving, you may still want to use this service for a more comfortable ride.

9. Don’t plan to leave your teen with luggage to store

As adults, we are accustomed to traveling with luggage but have closets wherever we land. College students have minimal storage space, so consider buying zipper move-in bags like this one.

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, meaning 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. (Photo: MD Harrington)

10. Don’t 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.

11. Don’t plan on using extension cords

Your teen will travel to college with a phone, a laptop, and other electronics that need to be charged or plugged in. This translates into a serious need for extra outlets, and many colleges do not allow extension cords. Pack a surge protector like this one from Belkin. It has both outlets and USB ports, a 6′ cord, and is highly rated in testing for electrical surges.

12. Don’t 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 oversized or purely decorative furniture.
  • Kitchen Items—no toasters or blenders, dishes, cups, or silverware 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 study methods. Many kids prefer to take notes on their laptops and have far fewer paper needs than 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 drive 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 have little room, and the floor is filthy for expensive electronic equipment.

What to buy for the dorm room:

TwinXL Sheets are something that most families need to buy as fitted sheets will not fit around a Twin XL size bed that many (most? all?) dorms use. The Target Threshold brand gets top reviews by the New York Times Wirecutter product reviewers and they are available in many pretty colors.

Towels are something your teen can bring from home or, if you want to send them off with a new set, these are also highly recommended by the Wirecutter.

Mattresses in dorms are brick-like rectangles and having a mattress topper can be a game changer for your teen who NEEDS to optimize their sleeping space to try to get a good night’s sleep every night.

Fan—is a must-have if the climate or lack of air conditioning suggests its need. Compact fans can do a big job in stuffy or steamy dorm rooms; no need to buy a big one. People rave about WOOZOO fans.

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

Small rugs are worth considering, but be wary as they may not get vacuumed all year. Small washable throw rugs might work best.

Shower caddy—first, check what the bathroom situation is. If your child uses a large communal bathroom at the end of the hall, this will be necessary.

Mattress pad and anti-allergen and bed bug protector, money well spent!

Laundry hamper—check to see how far away the laundry facilities are before you decide on a laundry basket, bag or hamper.

Over the door hooks come in handy when your teen needs to hang up a jacket or wet towel.

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 Keurig-Mini Coffee Maker, which could be a nice treat in their dorm room and is only 5″ wide and comes in seven colors.

More Great Reads:

Dorm Room Shopping: 50 Questions to Answer First

About Lisa Endlich Heffernan

Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan 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. Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author.
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 Lisa

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