Top 12 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’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.

Note: We receive a small amount of compensation from purchases made through some of the Amazon and other links in this post.

1. Dorm 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 this next post, first. We guarantee it will save you time, money and loads of aggravation:

Next, give some thought to how much the world has changed with technology and consider this super-popular and super-compact digital assistant, the Echo Spot. Your freshman will love being able to ask Alexa, what’s the forecast? who won the game last night? play my wakeup playlist….without getting out of bed.

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 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 shopping essentials” you eagerly purchased in July will be stuffed in corners, unopened and collecting dust until they are rediscovered in May.

4. Store Savings

Everything about college is expensive, and that definitely includes dorm shopping, so look for some great shopping deals. Bed, Bath and Beyond is generous with savings coupons and they are flexible about expiration dates. With over 1000 stores, watch for special college nights this summer.

Target offers shoppers a chance to shop online and pick up in a Target in the college town where your teen will soon call home. Look for free shipping and other deals, too.

Bed, Bath and Beyond also offers shop now and pick up later in your student’s college town. They also ship for free if you hit a minimum dollar amount.

Finally, Join Amazon Prime Student for FREE Two-Day Shipping for College Students for FREE for a six-month trial period. During those six months, your student can order whatever they need once they have settled into their new dorm room.

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. If your teen knows what dorm they are assigned to, check out the “residence life” section on the college website to see if a floorpan, with dimensions, of that specific dorm is available.

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.

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.

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 below:

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.

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. Here are two at two different price points: the 5-Outlet Surge Protector withUSB Ports,  and the slightly more expensive, Accell 6 Outlet Surge Protector .

12. Eating not Cooking

A mini-fridge is a real necessity and one piece of equipment that roommates may want to discuss before move-in day. There could be space for only one, so rent or buy, decide to share the cost or someone can own it 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 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 to add to the rock hard 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 – she uses her phone.
  • Furniture – there is no space for a futon or any furniture that’s oversized or purely decorative.
  • Kitchen – 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, 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 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.

Well worth considering:

  • An over-to-door set of hooks is a great space saver for hats. jackets, or wet towels and this is one of our favorites: Classico Organizer Hooks. 
  • Closet storage maximizers that hang from the closet bar provide a great place to put sweaters, sweatshirts or any bulky items.
  • Fan if the climate or lack of air conditioning suggests the need for it. Compact fans can do a big job in steamy dorm rooms, no need to buy a big one. Check out this one for your student: Vornado Fan – could be a lifesaver at the beginning of the year.
  • Hooks that tape 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 Large Utility Hooks for the drive.
  • 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. Here’s one we found that can be hung up to dry: Hanging Toiletry and Bath Organizer. If the bathroom is close at hand and shared by few, a waste of money.
  • Mattress pad and bed bug protector, money well spent! Popular brands can sell out of the twin XL size so don’t hold off on this purchase. AllerEase is a brand that has all the features you want – waterproof protection, bed bug barrier and allergen protection. Plus, with the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, you can trust that their mattress protectors will be durable enough to last all four years.
  • 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 Keurig K55 Coffee Maker 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.

New! Check out all our top picks for dorm shopping, grad gifts, and other great ideas from the Grown and Flown community here