gifts they might actually want

The Best Gifts for College Students, According to College Students

Photo: Kelsey McNeal/Freeform

This year, many college students are not returning to campus as usual because to the pandemic, so a great holiday gift goes beyond cool dorm décor or practical back-to-school gear. Plus, most college-aged people right now are Gen-Zers — who are known to be more technologically adept and politically progressive than previous generations — so the gifts they’ll actually want are likely to be ethically minded and tech-savvy.

To help you find a gift they’ll love, we talked to actual college students and recent grads about what’s topping their wish lists — including the gear and gadgets they use every day, adultish items that would make their lives a bit easier, and art that’s locally made (but sold on Instagram). Here are nearly 30 of the best gifts for the college-aged person on your list, whether they’re taking virtual classes from their childhood bedroom or took the semester off to work on a political campaign.

Best tech gift for college students

Apple AirPods
$129

Of the eight students who recommended headphones, five called out AirPods as the ones they have or the ones they want. Ashley Lee, who attended Brown University, says wireless is “useful when working out or doing busy work and chores, because you don’t have a cord connecting the headphones to your phone so you can move about more easily.” Kira Sommer, a graduate of George Washington University who we spoke to for an article about dorm-room essentials, says, “Please, please, please invest in a good pair of headphones,” explaining that students blasting music or video games in shared spaces can cause a big problem. But there’s no need to invest too much. Carl Escoffier, a graduate of Leeds University and a new student at Goldsmiths, says “no student wants or needs $500 Beats by Dre to truly enjoy music.” What college students want “is to be able to play music from their phone without any faff or cables,” he says. “AirPods solve that problem, without being ostentatious or overly pricey.” When we spoke to Kim Tang, who worked as an RA at The College of New Jersey, and Sarah Rebarber, who attended Columbia University, for our story on what to pack for college, they both told us that AirPods are the wireless headphones they see most at school. And Pia Mileaf-Patel, another Brown student, says she really wants a pair but would never buy them for herself, which is why she says “they make a great gift.”

Best (less expensive) tech gift for college students

Four of the students we consulted recommended this affordable and portable Bluetooth speaker. Maxx Grossman, who attended Tufts University, calls it “quality but portable.” He says that having a portable speaker is nice because “I often find myself wanting to play music for a party or while hanging out with friends.” Both Mileaf-Patel and Escoffier agree that the Flip 4, which is also waterproof, making it able to withstand accidents and spills, would make a great gift. Christel Langué, a graduate of Lehigh University, told us that she can’t imagine life without a bluetooth speaker. “They come in handy all the time,” she says.

Best low-tech gift for college students

For something more analog, Sam Weinberg, a student who is taking time off from school to do political work — like founding the social media–slash– digital organizing platform Settle for Biden — would appreciate some letter-writing material. “I’m a big fan of sending people handwritten cards, and an ecofriendly way to go about that is to use fountain pens instead of disposable plastic pens,” he says, explaining that the pens from Cross are long-lasting (the brand was founded in 1846) and use refillable ink cartridges. Plus, in order to support the USPS amid Donald Trump’s ongoing funding blocks, Weinberg recommends gifting stamps — he recently purchased 600, but this sheet of 20 stamps that honors renowned journalist Gwen Ifill is a good starting point.

Best gift that does good for college students

In addition to gifting items that give back to a worthy organization, five of the students whom we spoke to say they’d appreciate a donation in their name. Emily Adler, a rising freshman at Williams College who is also taking a year off to do political work, admits that while the AirPods she received upon graduating high school are a “super helpful” gift, this holiday season she’d rather receive a donation to an organization she’s passionate about — including a racial-justice organization like SisterSong, which is focused on reproductive justice for indigenous women and women of color, or a progressive political campaign. “Putting your money where your mouth is seems particularly important now, and even once this election cycle is done there will be more work to do,” she says, adding that a donation is a good gift request from someone with more spending power than your average college student. Aditya Bhalla, a rising sophomore at Pomona College who is also working for Settle for Biden, adds that right now donations are also a good way to raise money for “smaller organizations that might not be listed on a Facebook fundraiser, like a mutual-aid fund.”

Best beauty gift for college students

Although Glossier’s pink bubble packaging is somewhat of a status symbol among young people (and a certain subset of dewy skin-fluencers), Strategist intern and Bowdoin graduate Aisha Rickford says Fenty Beauty carries a bit more clout among her college friends. Though she’s not that into makeup, Rickford did “grow up with Rhianna being a very cool Black woman singer,” and after buying a pack of Fenty lip glosses with some friends, she found that “her colors are actually really flattering on darker skin tones.” Our resident beauty expert, Strategist writer Rio Viera-Newton, agrees that Fenty glosses are particularly flattering, especially this “glowy, sun-kissed” tone.

Best Black-owned business gift for college students

Instead of purchasing a gift from a big corporation, a couple of students say they’d prefer a gift from a Black-owned business. “I think there are a lot of brands more recently that have been capitalizing on an impressive racial-justice statement, when at the end of the day it’s not even clear what their labor practices are,” explains Adler, who would like mascara from a Black-owned business. We’ve compiled a (growing) list of 180 Black-owned businesses, ranging from fitness brands to bookstores, and everything in between. If, like Adler, the college student on your list wants mascara, we like this Luv + Co product from Dr. Melodie Ray Davis-Bundrage’s beauty brand, which has many natural and cruelty-free products.

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