The Best Gifts for College Students, According to College Students

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In their perpetual process of discovering themselves and the new interests that crop up along the way, college students are notoriously hard to shop for. I would know, because I was one until I graduated earlier this year. Of course, everyone has different interests, but after talking with more than a dozen college students from across the country, I found that a few brands —Apple, Hydro Flask, and Spikeball — came up over and over, but also that college kids appreciate receiving nicer items they can use every day, as well as gifts that will help them make the most of their limited free time.

Whether you’re shopping for a newly matriculated freshman or an about-to-graduate senior, here, you’ll find the headphones that dominate classrooms, the status water bottle on many campuses, the portable Bluetooth speaker for group hangouts, and the instant camera perfect for capturing senior memories. I’ve organized the gifts by category for easy perusing.

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Décor and household gifts

An out-of-the-classroom lesson many college students learn is the importance of sleep. Liz Gremer, a senior at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, recently added this lavender-scented pillow mist to her routine. “If I have a stressful day or if I can’t go to sleep, I’ll spritz it on my pillow,” she says. “It knocks me right out.”

For many students, living on their own for the first time presents new organizational challenges, and having cute storage solutions can provide some motivation for keepings things tidy. Jenn Le, a junior at Iowa State University, counts her pencil bag as one of her necessities. She equates it to a makeup bag, just filled with tools she needs for her industrial design courses, such as an X-Acto knife and Copic markers. This option from Vera Bradley, which I used throughout college, has a wipeable lining to keep it looking good during its many years of use.

Plenty of college students care as much about their school supplies as they do about their water bottles or sneakers since they use them just as often. Gremer has used this set of pastel highlighters for a couple of years and says they still haven’t run dry. “They’re not aggressive-colored, they’re more calming,” she says. “It’s somehow a little less intimidating.” (They would go nicely with a pastel Hydro Flask too.)

Something I was continually frustrated by throughout my college experience was the shortage of couches. I found my desk chair uncomfortable and my bed too conducive to napping. My mom gave me this faux-fur bean bag for my 20th birthday, and I haven’t looked back since. In fact, I wrote this story while sitting in it.

Eve McFarland, a senior at Loyola University New Orleans, is one of the people I spoke to who found a solution to the couch shortage with this comfortable backrest pillow, which she’s had for four years. “That’s really my go-to, what I use when I do my homework on my bed.”

Editor’s Note: The specific pillow McFarland uses is out of stock, so we’ve linked to this Strategist-approved option from Pottery Barn.

Jellycats are one of the plushies of the moment, and Gremer has this adorable sun-shaped one. “Little kids have stuffed animals or blankets, I have my Jellycat,” she says. It sits on her bed next to a Squishmallow, which, Gremer confirms, “definitely are still a thing.”

Sometimes college students need a little extra help to stay on top of everything, and this trendy Papier planner, which Haug uses to keep track of her school work, is the perfect solution. You can personalize it with someone’s name, school, and any other details you might want to include.

The freshmen I spoke to shared a love for their sunset lamps. They fit the curated aesthetic Mari Osman, a freshman at UCLA, was trying to create in her first dorm room, a task many students return to each year (sometimes more than once). “At nighttime, it just looks so pretty,” she says. “Especially looking up from when you leave my dorm building, you could just see it through the windows.”

More than a few students I talked to liked items that gave their space a cozier vibe. Zoe Topiol, a sophomore at NYU, recently received this fuzzy throw, and says it “really made my space homier.” Haug agrees: “I’m big into decorations and making your apartment feel homey,” she says, “so I have a lot of artwork up and picture frames with family or friends in it as well as so many throw blankets.”

Trays and catch-alls will help your recipient stay organized and give a little personality to their living space. Coco Kennedy, a sophomore at UT-Austin, likes the jewelry catch-alls at Paper Source, which she keeps on her nightstand and in her bathroom.

Posters have long been the de facto way to decorate a dorm room, not least because many colleges will fine you for damaging walls. Anders Landgren, a junior at Bates College, says he recently got made fun of because of his lack of dorm décor, so he’s eyeing vintage Formula One posters, but other students like Tyler Kwok, a junior at Georgia Tech, prefer band posters. My boyfriend and his roommates each picked their favorite musicians to put on their walls at Columbia University.

Kitchen and pantry gifts

While it seems like there’s always a new status water bottle surfacing on your radar, the classic Hydro Flask still reigns supreme on college campuses. Five students I spoke to said it was their water bottle of choice. Landgren appreciates how the stainless-steel insulated interior keeps water ice-cold for hours at a time. But for others, it’s the outside of the bottle that makes it their favorite: “It looks really pretty, and I actually get a lot of compliments on it when I’m out,” Gremer says about her pastel Hydro Flask. “I’ve been told it matches my vibe.”

It wouldn’t be a gift guide for college students without the Stanley Quencher, which Kennedy sees all over the UT-Austin campus. It’s also popular at UCSD, where Galindo uses it every day. “At first, I thought they were just trendy, and I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t need one,’’’ she says. But since her sister gifted her one of the highly sought-after Valentine’s Day cups, she says, “I’m definitely more hydrated now because I have the Stanley.”

Preston Lee, a sophomore at NYU, says part of his connection to his water bottle, which he calls his “trusty partner,” is the fact that he can personalize it. “I have a ton of skateboard stickers all over it so people know it’s mine.” Of course, the type of sticker can differ depending on the college student you’re shopping for. But this silly sausage dog on a skateboard sticker is cute enough for even non-skaters.

If they’re not surviving on Celsius or Red Bull for late night library sessions and early morning lectures, college students are sipping (or chugging) coffee. Kwok recently received a Moka pot, and says, “Whenever I have extra time in the morning, I’ll make coffee with that.”

While the dining hall is always an option for a quick bite, many students I talked to preferred homemade meals, especially since air fryers make it so much easier to cook something tasty (or heat up a frozen meal). Brady Meyerson, a sophomore at Miami University, says his air fryer is the most useful gift he’s received recently — “Me and my roommate use [our air fryer] literally every single day,” he says.

Kitchen appliances are another category where form can be just as important as function. “Now that I’m in college, I’m cooking so much, and having cute things to cook with is very fun,” Maisie Stamstad, a junior at Colorado College, says. This kettle is on her wish list.

Beauty gifts

At campus bars and fraternity parties, you can find Fenty’s lip products in many a handbag. McFarland is a big fan of Rihanna’s shimmery gloss, which is available in more than 10 shades, including a classic clear gloss and aptly named mauve called Ri Ri.

Since dorm mirrors don’t always pull their weight, backups are often necessary. McFarland uses this LED makeup mirror every day and likes its three levels of magnification. “If you want to see closer when you’re doing your eyeshadow or your mascara and stuff like that, you want to be precise, it has that mirror version to see closer in your face,” she says.

Unsurprisingly, makeup trends are largely dominated by what’s gone viral on TikTok. Benetint, for one, is back (again!). This liquid blush is popular as part of a no-makeup makeup look. Kennedy says, “My everyday makeup is literally Benetint, Aquaphor, and the Eyes to Kill Giorgio Armani Mascara.”

Glossier also continues to be popular on many campuses. “When it comes to getting ready to go out or formals, I use a lot of Glossier products,” Kennedy says. In particular, she uses Cloud Paint and the concealer.

College students are no strangers to the wonders of bond builders, and this bonding oil from Olaplex made it onto Stamstad’s wish list after she borrowed it from her friends. “It makes your hair more moisturized and shiny,” she says. “Especially in Colorado, it’s so dry and having just a little bit of moisture is so helpful — and it smells great.”

Since discovering a passion for makeup, Galindo gifted herself this makeup brush set, which she says, “has a makeup brush for everything you need, like eye shadow blending or bronzer,” making it perfect for the college student who wants to step up their beauty game.

Clothing and accessories gifts

Stamstad uses her Hoka Clifton 9 shoes to go on hikes with her friends, but they’re ideal for any student who loves to stay active. “They’re very comfortable. Once you put them on, you can’t really go back to other shoes,” she says. They’re also on Gremer’s wish list.

With limited storage space and an often limited budget, college students often prioritize shoes that offer both function and style. For Meyerson, that pair is the Adidas Ultraboosts: “I like how I can wear them to the gym, but I can also wear them to class,” he says.

McFarland says slides or slippers are a great gift for students moving into a dorm because “some dorms don’t necessarily have the cleanest floors or showers, and it’s just a protective, easy [thing] to wear around.” Sean Fleck, a freshman at the University of Colorado Boulder, has had this pair for about a year, and says he likes them for their comfort, durability, and color.

Along with Stanley Tumblers and Lululemon belt bags, these neon hats can be spotted all over the UT Austin campus.

Baggu’s adorable reusable bags have been a staple on Barnard’s campus for years, and at NYU, Topiol keeps the one she received as a gift in her school bag all the time.

It seems like every college has its distinct (yet unspoken) dress code, and Blundstone boots are essential to Colorado College’s style. Stamstad wears hers every day.

Tech gifts

If you’re shopping for a college student who’s gone all in on the Apple ecosystem, this charging station, which Gremer and Landgren received for Christmas, is a hassle-free way to charge everything at once. Gremer brought it with her on her spring break trip, and says it was “so awesome for break because I didn’t have to bring a bunch of cords.” In fact, she says, “Everyone I went with was kind of jealous.”

Apple iPad (10th Generation)

As one of the six students who spoke to me about their iPad, Osman says her iPad, which she received along with an Apple Pencil as a gift before going to college, has been essential for getting her classwork done. “You can keep all your stuff in one specific area, download your slides and when you’re in lecture, you can write on them,” she says. “It’s just so fun and so easy. I love decorating my notes on my iPad, it makes me motivated to study.”

With the prevalence of Zoom meetings and TikTok scrolling, a reliable pair of headphones is key to keeping a roommate’s annoyance at bay. 10 of the fifteen students I chatted with said they use AirPods as their headphones of choice. In fact, Brianna Rao, a senior at the University of South Carolina, says, “Those are probably the thing I use the most because when I’m walking to class, I’m listening to music. When I’m in my apartment. I’m listening to music too.” Lee is a big skater and says they never fall out of his ears even when he’s at the skatepark.

While Kwok uses his AirPods when he’s on the go, he prefers his Sony noise canceling headphones for studying. “If I’m in a noisier environment or really want to sit down and lock in and study, I’ll have those on,” he says. Kenia Galindo, a sophomore at UCSD, also has these on her wishlist.

Multiple students I chatted with spoke about capturing memories with digital or instant cameras. Tess Haug, senior at Iowa State University, has used the Canon to memorialize occasions such as her friends’ Christmas party since her sister gifted her this digital camera. Rao and her friends use a Polaroid camera to complete their senior bucket list: “Every time we check something off, we take a Polaroid of it and then attach it to this poster board that we made earlier in the fall.”

Ultimate Ears Wonderboom 3

While college kids might disagree about whether to blast Taylor Swift or chill out to Noah Kahan, a portable speaker is crucial to the group hang. Haug recommends this Bluetooth speaker (a Strategist favorite) for its portability. “If we’re going to a park or if somebody’s not sure if one of the other apartments has a speaker that they can just connect to, it’ll get brought with,” she says.

Gifts for hobbies


Games like Catan and Cards Against Humanity are still a fixture in dorms everywhere, McFarland and her friends at Loyola University New Orleans like to play this hashtag guessing game. She compares it to the popular iPhone game Heads Up.


“When it’s a nice day, it’s really popular to play Spikeball,” Fleck says. “Spikeball nets are a huge commodity to have on campus.” This set has three balls just in case a couple (inevitably) get lost.

Gremer has been seeing these weights all over Instagram and would love to add them to her workouts. They’re perfect for the college student who won’t stop talking about their obsession with “Hot Girl Walks,” since you can attach them to your wrists or ankles for an extra burn.

At the University of Colorado Boulder and Bates College, hammocks come out with warm weather. “We’ve got a huge hammock culture,” Landgren says. “People put hammocks between all the trees.”

As a yoga instructor, Kennedy is a regular at one of the more popular types of group workout classes frequented by college kids. She recently switched out her Lululemon yoga mat for this forest green option from Alo. Compared to the former, which she says was too big, the Warrior mat gives her more space in her apartment and car. She carries it around with her new strap, which would also make a great gift.

The Strategist is designed to surface the most useful, expert recommendations for things to buy across the vast e-commerce landscape. Some of our latest conquests include the best women’s jeans, rolling luggage, pillows for side sleepers, ultra-flattering pants, and bath towels. We update links when possible, but note that deals can expire and all prices are subject to change.

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The Best Gifts for College Students, According to Students