I've set up two sons at college now, and I'm here to tell you it was a sharp learning curve! It was exciting and stressful, and both times, after kissing them goodbye, I blubbed all the way home like a ninny. But at least I left secure in the knowledge that they had everything they needed to maintain a freshman level of civilized living in their new digs.
My eldest graduated from university this year and is now living in New York, but Charles-The-Younger is a rising Sophomore, and I'm still finding things he needs for his new room for his second year.
When I started our Dorm-Life journey, there was plenty of information about how to trick out a dorm room with cute fairy lights and decorative pillows, but decorating is only half the story. This post will focus on the practical stuff you need to know about setting up your offspring's first home-away-from-home:
IT'S NOT FOREVER. Please keep saying this to yourself (and your child, if necessary). It’s easy to get overwhelmed because of all the unknowns. Just remember, these walls are temporary, and so is the roommate. Don't worry. It will be OK. Deep breaths!
COMMUNICATE WITH THE ROOMMATE ASAP. Find out what they’re bringing to the party before you purchase anything. They might have wildly patterned bedding that will clash with yours. Or you might end up with two microwaves and no mini fridge. Please encourage your student to work with them to avoid duplicates and share. BTW: Many schools offer rent programs for small appliances, and if you're lucky, you can sometimes snag a used one from a graduating senior or on Craigslist near school. The takeaway is to communicate with the roommates as early as possible, work out who's bringing/buying what, and coordinate.
COOL YOUR JETS, MAMA. It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of decorating a Dorm Room. I get it! But I strongly advise you against buying everything before you eyeball the place. It’s smarter to stick to the basics. And by "basics," I mean a single set of sheets, two pillows, and a blanket. Take a tape measure on your visit and measure everything from closet depth + width to the space next to their beds before you start buying things. Take pictures with your phone and send yourself measurements because, with the excitement and emotions of it all, you will almost certainly forget about them by the time you get home. GOOD TO KNOW: Keep your receipts! You will almost certainly be returning + exchanging things that don't fit/work/match.
SHIP EVERYTHING YOU CAN. Once you work out who's bringing what, I recommend finding what stores are near your college. Most big chains have college programs with discounts (and lists of what you can/cannot bring). GOOD TO KNOW: As soon as your student has a university email address, have them apply for a discount online.
BE FLEXIBLE. Your child's first non-family roommate may be someone who doesn’t share your student’s view of the world. They might be an Early Riser/Mad-Gamer/Vegan/Yogi/Young Republican/Night Owl. It’s fine. This might be your precious offspring's first exposure to strange cultures and customs. Embrace the opportunity to expand their horizons. If they're confident that you’re not anxious about it, they'll be more comfortable and remember who they are while experiencing other people! That's what University is all about. 😉
GET THE RIGHT LUGGAGE: Please don't send your child to school with giant suitcases or trunks they will have to store all semester. Yes, you could take them back with you, but they will need something more than a backpack when they decide to go on a road trip or (worst case) have to move dorms. The best thing I did was order the boys a set of army surplus duffels ranging in size from carry-on to piano case! I had their initials silk-screened on them, and they’re the perfect thing. I'm feeling pretty smug about these machine-washable, easy-to-store luggage. GOOD TO KNOW: These duffels are not waterproof. We stuff clothes into a garbage bin liner before packing them in case they get wet.
MOVE IN DAY: Some schools have student volunteers who will meet you at the Freshman dorms with enormous trolleys and unload your stuff directly from the car to the room. Find out if this service is available at your campus. It’s a God-send.
OK, I know you really want a list of stuff to bring + buy, so here it is. We also made a free, printable version for you to keep next to the keyboard.
- REAL SHEETS. Get 100% cotton Twin XL sheet sets. Most dorm beds are this size but do confirm before you buy! A typical sheet set includes a flat top sheet, a fitted bottom sheet, and (annoyingly) only one standard pillowcase. Buy an extra one if you have to. BTW: I avoid poly-blends. They're a sweaty false economy. Go the full cotton. You can get them anywhere. And please, please remember to have them wash ALL new bedding before use because they spray textiles with all kinds of nasty preservatives and pesticides to protect against bugs, and nobody should sleep on that. The same goes for new clothing, by the way! OK. Sermon over. These are the sheets we ordered.
- GET PROTECTION. 100% cotton Mattress Pads + Pillow protectors. Your child has probably mastered the art of potty training by now, so you don't need need to get “waterproof” versions. They are hellishly awful to sleep on. Still, your child will be spilling stuff, so yes, always protectors. GOOD TO KNOW: No bed bugs will be on your child's mattress (or you should be getting a new mattress/room from the school).
- TWO ARE BETTER THAN ONE. Get two Standard Pillows (one firm + one medium firm). You'll need at least two to prop up against the wall, make into a lap pillow for the computer, etc. We got basic poly-fill ones (don’t invest in expensive down pillows because they will disappear in June)!
- MATTRESS TOPPER. Frankly, this is optional, but many of our friends with college-age friends buy them. Most dorm mattresses are thin and average, so an extra layer of cushion is nice. We didn't go the usual memory foam route, preferring a healthier (and cheaper) charcoal version with breathable ventilation holes. Ben loved this one but then moved into a double bed as a sophomore, so it was only good for one year. This is not an uncommon scenario. You have been warned.
- BACKREST + BODY PILLOW. Again, college kids literally live on their beds, so the body + back pillows make the dorm room bed into a sofa. Tempting as it may be, try not to go overboard with tiny, decorative pillows; they should be practical and supportive! I bought a cheap body pillow on Amazon and then had a custom linen zip-off cover because I am a crazy person, but you are not and can find this one at Target.
- AN EXTRA BLANKET: Have you seen your child drag a blanket to the living room sofa to watch TV? Because I have! Get an extra blanket to drape around the shoulders in the lounge or while studying. I recommend a light machine washable version; let's all pretend it will see the inside of the laundry room occasionally.
- TOWELS. This is not the time for extra plush, fluffy towels. My sons would happily dry themselves off with a t-shirt, but since dorm life at school is co-ed, I sent a few Turkish towels that can double as beach towels and sarongs while walking back from the showers. They're quick to dry and pull double duty at the end of the bed as a decorative/protective cover because I'm not 100% certain that shoes will be removed while sitting on the bed.
- GOOD HANGERS. I have a serious Joan Crawford-level loathing for cheap hangers of any sort. Those miserable, thin, "huggable" hangers make me want to slap someone! They ruin your clothes and collect dust like crazy. Ugh. Proper wooden hangers keep the line of clothes and hang jackets and pants without damaging them. You need a good basic one with a trouser bar and a few clip versions if you have skirts. The best ones are from The Container Store and aren’t expensive.
- TRASH CAN. Yes, they have them in the lounge and common areas, but you need at least one in the room. Please resist the temptation to get a stylish wire "wastepaper basket" and grab something solid. My children do not recognize the difference between "wastepaper" and "trash," and yours probably don't either. Get a small one without a lid so they have to empty it often and can see where that smell is coming from!
- CLEANING SUPPLIES. Stop laughing. They might not know where the vacuum cleaner lives at home, but most kids will eventually clean their own space when you're not there to do it for them.. I was gob-smacked when each of my sons independently texted me asking for cleaning products and then proceeded to use them! Make it easy for them and send this Starter Kit.
- LAUNDRY BASKET + BAG: I got both in a burst of optimism. A basket is handy (even if they only fill it with beer cans to go to parties), but I also got a laundry bag/backpack combo, making it easier to transport to the laundry room. We can but dream!
- SHOWER SHOES. Shared bathrooms and showers are a fact of college life. Shower shoes are a good idea for two reasons: 1. You need them to wear on the way back to your dorm, and 2. Some people are more relaxed in the Dorm showers than they should be. Let's leave it there.
EXTRAS AND NICE TO HAVES:
- DESK LAMP. Dedicated task lighting is an excellent idea for students sharing a room. I made the mistake of sending Ben with an expensive one that I have never seen again. Get one on Amazon like this instead.
- UNDER BED STORAGE. I like to think of dorm rooms like a ship, submarine (or studio apartment). You have to use every inch of available space! The Container Store is always my first stop for attractive, reasonably priced storage options. But once you've measured everything, you just might have enough room for a cute little bedside table from Wayfair.
- CADDIES AND TRAYS FOR EVERYTHING: They need stackable storage and places to corral everything from toiletries + makeup to school supplies.
- WALL SHELF. Especially if there's no room for a bedside table, a lightweight wall shelf is perfect for holding the phone, keys, and (dare we hope?) a living plant to clean the dorm room air!
- OVER THE DOOR HOOKS. Sometimes you can't make holes in the Dorm walls or doors. We found that out the hard way and eventually settled on this one.
- LOCKABLE TOOLBOX. With a good screwdriver (both flathead and the other kind…Phillips's head?), a box-cutter, a small hammer, nails, thumbtacks, screws, tape measure, batteries, scissors, an Allen key, and earthquake putty, done!
- DUSTPAN + BRUSH. Somebody will undoubtedly break something. Be prepared. I would not normally advocate for a cheap plastic set, except in this case.
- FIRST AID KIT. Accidents happen. They need a go-to medicine cabinet in the room. Don't buy those pre-filled ones. They an expensive waste of time. Buy them a cheap bag, fill it with what you know they need, and rest easy.
GOOD TO KNOW:
SUMMER STORAGE. Most college campuses offer storage services nearby. Start planning summer storage NOW before it gets booked up. Check your area for local services, but some national companies include:
OK, that's everything I can think of for now! If you have any other tips or tricks, write to us, and let us know, and we'll add them to the story.
Good Luck, Freshman (and thinking of you, Moms + Dads).