gifts they might actually want

The Best Gifts for College Students, According to College Students

Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photos: Retailers

Finding the right gift for a college student — from freshmen to seniors — can be tricky. Do you go practical with a water bottle for easily forgotten hydration, and coffee to fuel an all-nighter? Or do you pick something a little more fun, like a projector for a hard-earned HBO Max binge? 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, cool dorm décor that would make their lives a bit easier, and art that’s locally made (but sold on Instagram). We also scoured our archives for recommendations from college-aged people that would make great gifts. Below are the best gifts for college students, whether it’s their first year or their last.

Best tech gifts for college students

If Mom and Dad are feeling generous, a brand-new laptop is likely at the top of their kid’s list. This is one of the best options out there for students, thanks to its balance of price and capabilities. Although it doesn’t have “all the bells and whistles,” it’s a very functional computer, Charlie Regan, the CEO of Nerds on Site, told us. “It’s a remarkable bargain, and we haven’t experienced much in the way of breakdown.” At only 2.3 pounds, it’s also super-lightweight, so it won’t be a problem for them to haul it around from class to class.

If they already have a laptop, a tablet might be a nice complement. For many students, it can even be a replacement. When we asked RAs about dorm-room essentials, they told us iPads are quickly becoming more common in college classrooms. “More and more people now take notes on their laptops or on their iPads with the Apple Pencil,” says Sarah Rebarber, a Columbia University RA.

Apple AirPods
$90

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.”

JBL Flip 5
$80
$80

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.

For Rishi Maiti, sophomore at the London School of Economics, a Nintendo Switch is an essential for chilled nights in with friends. “I’m not much of a gamer, but every game on the Switch is so social,” he says. (He especially recommends Mario Kart to play with roommates, but warns that things can get a bit heated.)

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, 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, Weinberg recommends gifting stamps — he recently purchased 600, but this sheet of 20 stamps might be more manageable. The set is sold directly from USPS’s website, so it’ll support the service. Plus, the vintage-inspired pear print will make a handwritten letter feel more special. There are even sheets with Tiffany lamps and silver coffee pots you can cop, too.

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, 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 bags to give a college student

Fjallraven backpacks are ubiquitous on college campuses — they’re up there with Herschel and a step up from Jansport. The mini is the perfect size for toting to class, the dining hall, or the library. Barnard graduate Alice Min says it’s “smaller but cuter” than the backpack she had in high school, and she still uses it today.

If they’ve got an internship this semester, the attractive and office-ready Madewell Transport Tote is a favorite among professionals and recent graduates. It’s something students will be able to take with them well beyond college. You can even get it personalized with their initials or maybe projected graduation year for a nice touch.

Best beauty gift for college students

Although Glossier’s pink bubble packaging became somewhat of a status symbol among young people (and a certain subset of dewy skin-fluencers), former 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 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.

Best status water bottles to give to college students

There are a surprising number of status water bottles that have reigned supreme over the years. But our polls of college students and RAs found that the insulated wide mouth Hydro-flask is king. Tang told us that she has noticed more and more Hydro Flask bottles around campus: “People like them because they can hold more water than S’well. Also, they’re just trendy now.” For another option, Stanford University graduate Amanda Kim Mai Tu and Chloe Kazuko Boehm, who just graduated from Tufts, recommend the insulated and Strategist-approved Zojirushi. According to Boehm, it “literally keeps drinks hot for days.”

Best handmade gift (from Instagram) for college students

Four of the students we spoke to mentioned that independently made art is on their wish lists — from a Stitch It to the Patriarchy upcycled piece of clothing with personalized embroidery to painted prints of Trump in Hell (which New York’s own senior art critic Jerry Saltz has also posted on social media). “Especially since the pandemic hit, Instagram is really the new frontier and gallery of art, you can find good art on there from anywhere between $10 to $100,000,” explains Weinberg. Rickford agrees that there’s a lot of artists who sell work through Instagram, and she’d specifically like to receive a handmade mug. This striped one from Yukari ceramics is a solid option (just note that you’ll have to scroll down the product page a little to find it.)

Best gift for college students who pride themselves on being matcha snobs

Any matcha aficionado whose morning ritual includes whisking up a cup of this antioxidant-rich drink will appreciate this high-end powder from Kettl. Michelle Puyane, founder and owner of Chalait in New York City, says Kettl makes “matcha for the matcha connoisseurs.” This powder meets the criteria to be labeled “ceremonial grade,” meaning it’s “made from the youngest, most tender leaves, [and] ground with stone to keep them cool.”

Best gift for coffee-loving college students

They might not have enough room for a fancy coffee maker in their dorm or college apartment, but this little apparatus wont take up much space. Bella Cimarusti, who graduated from American University last year, used this portable cold-brew maker while at home with her parents, and says she’ll “definitely be needing one of my own to save money and sustain my normal levels of caffeine needed to function.”

Best all-weather shoes to give to college students

From $108

Mileaf-Patel, Julie Schwartzberg, a student at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, and John Grund, who attended the Savannah College of Art and Design, all cited Chelsea-style Dr. Martens boots as must-have footwear. “I want to get some new boots that are more sophisticated than the beat-up ones I have now,” Grund says. Mileaf-Patel likes them so much that she “wore them to death.” Escoffier also likes Chelsea boots, but he prefers Blundstones for their unmatched durability and because they’ll probably last you all four years in school.

Plus some cozy socks to wear with them

Boots are only as good as the socks worn with them. Mileaf-Patel and NYU student Cameron Stowell told us they would love to be gifted a pair of wool socks. “SmartWool socks are so practical, and they’re comfortable,” says Stowell. “They’re the perfect pair of socks in the winter. I like the plain brown ones.”

Best gift if you were considering giving a sweater

Sweaters are almost a great gift, but the students we consulted would prefer a fleece. Mileaf-Patel calls her fleece, “truly my favorite piece of clothing.” She likes fleece because it’s both comfortable and very on-trend. “I used to intern for Sandy Liang, who makes the coolest ones IMO,” she says. “But they are definitely a splurge. I’m waiting for it to get cold so I can wear mine.” Langué’s favorite fleeces come from Aimé Leon Doré; they’re less expensive than a Sandy Liang fleece, but will still cost you upward of a couple hundred dollars. If you’re looking to spend less, Escoffier has a more budget-friendly recommendation: Uniqlo. In order to survive the brazen cold at British universities, you need something “oversize and fluffy,” he says. He likes this Uniqlo fleece jacket because it’s “easy on the eyes and the pocket.”

Best gift if you were considering giving denim

Although some young people told us that they’re doing school from home in jeans, most are living in loungewear — and tie-dye sets are especially cool, according to three college students we spoke to (and lots more we’ve spotted on TikTok). Cotton Citizen and Aviator Nation were recommended by two students at FIT, but for something more budget-friendly, Julia Tarnow says she’s “obsessed” with this pair from Missguided.

Best print subscription gift for college students

Both Weinberg and Bhalla say that they’d like a subscription to a newspaper or magazine, because (as Weinberg puts it) “it’s essential that we support print journalism right now.” Call us biased, but we think that $35 for a print and digital subscription to New York Magazine is one of the best bets out there.

Best online subscription gift for college students

Though the magazine’s print subscription also includes unlimited digital access, some students would prefer to spend their downtime listening to music or watching TV. In that case, Caroline Smith, a rising sophomore at Princeton University who is taking a year off to work in political organizing, recommends a subscription to something like Hulu or Spotify Premium. Smith listens to “probably three to four hours of music a day,” and says a Spotify Premium subscription is the kind of gift “I would actually want, but wouldn’t get for myself because it costs money and there is a free version available.”

Best gift for college-age music enthusiasts

If your college student prefers records to Spotify playlists, Bhalla recommends gifting a record player. “A lot of my friends are getting into vinyl, and shop for records at a local store called Rhino Records,” says Bhalla, who adds that a record player would complete his burgeoning record collection. American University alum Bella Cimarusti tipped us to getting newly diplomaed grads a record player, too. You’ll usually see students walking with their AirPods or wired headphones (they’re back) around campus, but there’s something about having a sound system. Cimarusti learned this when listening to her favorite FKA twigs album on a family friend’s at-home audio setup. The experience let her hear tracks the way they were meant to be heard, inspiring her to start her own record collection. 

Best gift for college-age photo and video enthusiasts

If you’re willing to splurge, buying a quality camera that isn’t attached to a smartphone would wow any college student who’s interested in photography or video. “I love making videos, so having something smaller and easier to transport would be awesome,” says Howard Lin, a recent graduate of the University of Florida. “My dream would be the Sony Alpha A9, but it costs quite a bit” — as in, more than $3,000. So instead, he says he would be happy to settle for the RX100.

Best gift for trendy photo college students

Maybe you want to encourage a love of photography without spending quite so much money. In that case, Mileaf-Patel recommends a film camera. “There’s something more satisfying about having film developed,” she says. Lo-fi disposable cameras like this Fujifilm camera are experiencing a resurgence in popularity. Mileaf-Patel suggests giving “a bunch of them.”

Best study gift for college students

Whether the college-aged person on your list is living at home or on (or near) campus this semester, several students we spoke to agree that noise-canceling headphones help them focus better. Anne-Laure Razat, a rising senior at Barnard College who is living on an off-campus apartment with her three suitemates, says that noise-canceling headphones help her “lock into my workspace” despite being around her roommates all the time. (And this specific pair from Bose is recommended on the Strategist by everyone from hyperenthusiastic Amazon reviewers to frequent fliers and even Roxane Gay, who agrees that they “just drown everything out and give me the space to think and get writing done.”)

Best entertainment gift for college students

$200

Eight students told us they either have a projector, know friends with a projector, or wish they owned one. As Caroline Tien, who attended Haverford, says, “you can’t go wrong.” Having one will score you major cool points, even if you’re just projecting a Netflix Party with friends. This is a newer version of the model recommended by Meg Schwieterman, a student at the University of South Carolina, who has a simple set of instructions for using it: “Tack a sheet up on the wall, make a batch of microwave popcorn, and pick a movie!” Plus it comes with a built-in battery so you don’t need to worry about finding an outlet during a screening.

The best art gift to give college students

She’s a little too young for college, but last year 13-year-old Sophia Paley told us how nice it is to take a break from the screen and draw using these colored pencils. We think the college student on your list will equally enjoy an analog distraction from their schoolwork.

Best planet-saving gift for college students

Also on Tu’s wishlist is a set of reusable Baggu tote bags. She calls them “my number-one, college-student gift recommendation,” saying “these have SAVED ME so many times. I use them at the grocery store and hang one bag off each of my bike handlebars — there’s no other way I could get everything home myself.” We’re particularly partial to this carry-anything, take-anywhere striped pattern. But if you know an art student, Baggu’s recent collab with the Met would be perfect for toting. The ceramic-printed bags — which feature Victorian-looking teapots and patterns you’d see on traditional blue-and-white porcelain — will earn compliments on all around campus.

Tu told us that a Big Baggu does double as a laundry hamper, if you don’t have a machine in unit. This strawberry-printed bag would go great with the brand’s matching fruit mask set.

Best problem-solving gift for college students

Instead of a bulky toolbox, give a pocket knife. “If I had to be specific, I would choose the SwissChamp in hardwood,” says Justin Lee, who attended Brown University. “I feel like there will inevitably come a time when having a multipurpose tool like this would come in handy.”

Best organizational gift to give college students

Help them keep their work space organized so they can actually get some studying done.

Best gift for college students who FaceTime for hours

While this phone stand might not be the most eye-catching accessory, Strategist intern Brenley Goertzen speaks highly of its many functions. It keeps your hands free while you’re watching movies on a plane and during FaceTime calls (so you can fold laundry while you catch up with your mom.) Goertzen also uses the holder to create an additional screen for studying by using her laptop exclusively to take notes while playing video from her phone.

Best gifts for college students still acclimating to dorm living

Another RA recommendation: Smart storage solutions are key to making the most of a small, shared dorm room. Nightstands aren’t usually part of the assigned furniture, so Sarah Rebarber, who’s been an RA for two years at Columbia University, recommends a cart like this one. It “moves easily, isn’t heavy, and gives you easy access,” Rebarber says. There are three cabinets for extra linens, snacks they don’t want to share, and everything else.

MZOO Sleep Eye Mask
$20

Their roommate might write papers well into the night or have an early-morning class that requires multiple alarms to get up for. Montana Love, a Yale student, recommends having a sleep mask around as a dorm-room essential. It’ll keep a room dark even if your student falls asleep at midnight and wakes up at noon. This memory-foam mask has Viera-Newton’s stamp of approval. She needs complete darkness to fall asleep. The mask features “little concave cups for your eyes (so you can comfortably blink while wearing it) that actually stay concave throughout the night, no matter how much you move around,” Viera-Newton writes.

Best comfy gifts for college students

Those hard-as-a-rock twin mattresses can be a little startling for first-year students. A mattress topper will help them adjust to not having all the comforts of home. “It’s important to get good sleep as a college student, and as any kind of living person, especially right now,” says Bowdoin graduate Eugen Cotei. Reviewers say this top-rated foam mattress topper is particularly great for making dorm mattresses more comfortable.

We’ve previously recommended this for the high-school graduate who’s feeling homesick, but it could work for college students of any year. A weighted blanket will feel like a hug when they’re miles away from home and missing it. Bearaby is a Strat favorite, and it’s stylish, so it’ll look good flung over that twin XL bed.

Best mood-setting décor gift for college students

Spantik Himalayan Salt Lamp
$17
$17

Several college students with good taste told us that the quickest way to “zhuzh up a sterile dorm room” (or a childhood room, for that matter) is to add some warm mood lighting. String lights do the trick, but for something that (supposedly) eases stress and provides a calming atmosphere one student recommends this “super mellow” pink Himalayan-salt lamp.

Best mood-setting (and odor-reducing) gift for college students

Eight of the college students whom we talked to for our piece about stylish dorm accents said that scented candles are essential to creating an inviting atmosphere, but Rickford — and three other students — say an eclectic oil diffuser is more effective at improving the scent of a room. We’ve heard about the merits of the Vitruvi Stone Diffuser over the years. It’s even one of the essentials that Ellen Pompeo can’t live without. “It just makes the room feel fresh and not germy,” Pompeo told us, making it perfect for dorms that don’t get much fresh air.

Best gifts to give college students who moved to their first apartment

If there’s a junior or senior who finally moved out of a residency hall and into an apartment complex, a housewarming gift might be in order. They probably have the must-haves covered — couch, cookware, and sheet sets — so easy-to-forget essentials might be the way to go. A few of the new homeowners and renters we’ve talked to recommend salt-and-pepper shakers. Home decorator Carrie Carrollo got this checkerboard enamel set from a friend. “I was in the thick of decorating, looking for accents to bring the space together, and surprisingly, these changed the entire look and feel for the best,” Carollo told us. They’re timeless enough that your recipient will want to bring the set from apartment to apartment.

“When people move, they don’t think about bringing a plunger,” explained Fabiana Faria, one of the owners of Coming Soon, in that same guide to housewarming gifts. “Let’s face it: You don’t really think about it until you need one.” And that’s most likely true for the college student always on the move. Faria cherry-picked a cheeky cleaner that was almost identical to this one. It’s playful but functional.

Best red Solo cup alternative to give to college students

Wedding-registry-type things make sense,” says Cassidy Olsen, a graduate of Tufts. “A lot of us are moving into places for the first time permanently. I know nothing about glassware, so I couldn’t say what glassware, but a combo of drinking glasses and wineglasses would be good.” Interior designer Katrina Hernandez recommends this set of Dailyware Bodega glasses from Bormiolo Rocco, which includes eight double old-fashioned glasses and eight highball glasses. She uses them in her Brooklyn apartment and says that they’re thin, but not so fragile “you feel they could break in your hand at any moment.”

Best gift for the college student who’s now of legal drinking age

Their 21st birthday might have been full of Smirnoff shooters, but they’ll be graduating to better bottles soon enough. When we asked a bartender, sommelier, and brewers about the best gifts for those who just turned 21, how-to books topped the list. Willy Shine, a mixologist and Jägermeister brand rep, tipped us to The Craft of the Cocktail for its easy-to-understand cocktail recipes. They’re sure to become the mixologist of their friend group.

Best gift for sober college students

For students who prefer mocktails to jungle juice or lukewarm beer, consider Kin Euphorics. Jeremy Mustakas, director of restaurants for ABC, calls the High Rhode flavor a “must-have for any at-home nonalcoholic bar.” The underage-friendly spirit features a combination of rhodiola, gentian root, licorice root — which Kin claims will relax and energize you — as well as botanical flavors like citrus and hibiscus.

Best gift for the college student interviewing for an internship

Or just their first official job. In our guide to graduation gifts for him, several grads emphasized the need for good lighting on video interviews. Andrew Blum, who graduated from Stanford University last year, explained that ring lights like this one do double duty: they’re serious enough for business meetings while perfect for recording silly TikToks.

Best gift for keeping college students’ floors clean

As if to confirm Escoffier’s claim that college students need help keeping their floors clean (whether they’re in a dorm room or their childhood bedroom), Langué admits that she hates cleaning her floors, but for a different reason: “This sounds so stupid, but I hate cleaning my floor because of how obsessive I get about it. Can someone get me a Roomba? PLEASE!”

Best book to give a college student

Oh, the Places You’ll Go! probably seems passé at this point. A book to help them kick bad habits might be more their speed. Former Strategist intern (and current college senior) Gabrielle Cody bought this book right in the middle of the fall semester, when “classes have started to ramp up with research papers and final project deadlines.” She heard about it from writers and podcasters, who cited it as a must-read. “Life-changing? That’s for you to find out. All I know is I’m halfway through the book and I’ve already applied a lot of mind-set shifts into my life,” she writes in our October Strategist Haul.

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The Best Gifts for College Students, According to Students