Top 12 Dorm Shopping Mistakes

With high school graduation almost behind us, Grown and Flown is focused in the day we will drop off our kids at their freshmen dorms. Though we prefer to stick our heads in the sand and ignore the inevitable, it’s 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 dorm shopping 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.

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

Dorm Room Shopping: What NOT to Do

Note: We are a reader-supported site and receive compensation for purchases made through some of the links in this post. 

1. Dorm Room Shopping is NOT like 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 the most important items, first. Anything and everything else can be picked up on move-in day or ordered later online.

In fact, before you grab your credit card and keys, take a look at Dorm Room Shopping: 50 Questions to Answer, First. We guarantee it will save you time, money and loads of aggravation.

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 not much else 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 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.

Messy college dorm room
Dorm rooms can be scary messy.

4. Store Savings

Everything about college is expensive, and that definitely includes dorm shopping, so look for some great shopping deals. 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.

One of the first things your student might want to consider is signing up for the Target Dorm Registry. This is a great way for them to keep a list of things they NEED and things they just think are cute for their decor, too. If friends and family are looking for ideas for grad gifts, birthday gifts, holiday or off-to-college presents, send them here. And BTW, there is an offer for 15% off to take advantage of, too.

5. Underbed Space? You Have No Clue

This is the single biggest question mark about the dorm and one that your teen 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. If your teen has a dorm assignment, check out the “residence life” section on the college website to see if a floorpan, with measurements of that specific dorm, is available. Take note of how high the bed is elevated and plan the under-bed real estate accordingly.

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 may 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.

Prescription meds, band aids, a thermometer, cough drops, Neosporin, and one analgesic – yes. But leave out multiple meds that have the same active ingredients. One pharmacist mom gave us her best advice for her freshman son.

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. If you are flying, it will be impossible to bring much more than your teen’s clothes, electronics, x-long sheets/comforter and prescription meds.

Seek out the special shopping/shipping services from major retailers. If you are driving, you may still want to use these services for a 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.

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

And, of course, 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. One Pillow is Not Enough

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

bedrest pillow

11. Power Struggle

Your kid will travel to college with a phone, maybe a tablet, 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/or hair straightener. All of this translates into a serious need for extra outlets. Many colleges do not allow extension cords so pack a power strip surge protection; this one from Belkin has USB ports which makes it ideas for charging electronics.

power strip

12. Mini-Fridge

A mini-fridge is a real necessity and one piece of equipment that roommates may want to 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.

Nesting urge before my eldest went to college

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 shopping 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 splurged on a comfy mattress topper. 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 that we can fill and tape shut 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.

What NOT to buy for the dorm room

  • Alarm clock – she uses her 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 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 an all-purpose spray cleaner or Clorox/Lysol wipes if you can find them.
  • 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 and this is one of our favorites:
  • 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 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 will be a necessity. This one comes in three colors.

Shower caddy

  • 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 four colors.

coffee maker

  • Towels – consider monograming or a distinctive color.  Basic white are 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. 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.

Don’t forget to pick up a copy of the Grown and Flown book with chapters devoted to dorm shopping, moving in and…learning to say goodbye.
Grown and Flown book

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.

Read more posts by Grown and Flown

Don't miss out!
Want more like this? Get updates straight to your inbox.