gifts they might actually want

The Best Gifts for College Students, According to College Students

Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photos: Retailers

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Whether they’re heading into their freshman year or their final one, college students can be tricky to buy for. Would they appreciate something practical, like an air fryer so they can whip up a midnight study snack, or would they prefer something a little more fun, like some dorm décor? Whichever way you go, to help you pick the right gift, I asked actual college students and recent grads themselves about their wish lists. We also scoured our archives for recommendations from college-age people that would make great gifts. Below are the best gifts for college students, organized by category.

Have a more specific gifting question? Try our new gift search tool here!

Tech gifts

While this phone stand might not be the most eye-catching accessory, Strategist junior writer 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). She 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.

2021 Apple iPad Mini

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.

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 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.”

Apple AirPods Max

Okay, they cost a lot more, but two college students told me that the newer AirPods Max have become a more coveted item over the past year. “They have the sound quality that you expect from Apple, but they’re also an accessory to throw on before leaving the house,” says Amanda Phillips, who goes to Columbia. Beth Molloy, at Oxford University, also told me that she has had fun accessorizing her headphones with ribbons and even asked her mom to knit some personalized crochet covers for them.

JBL Flip 5

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.)

Whether the college-age 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 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.”)

If the student you’re buying for is interviewing remotely for an internship or their first official job, several grads emphasized that they’d need good lighting. 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 and perfect for recording silly TikToks.

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.

Home gifts

“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.

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

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.

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!”

An 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 Rebarber 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.

Spantik Himalayan Salt Lamp

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.

And 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 former Strategist intern and Bowdoin graduate Aisha 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.

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.

Delaney Goertzen, a senior at Drake University in Iowa, says this plug-in projector makes her room feel cozy and is a nice change from LED strip lights. “It also has a Bluetooth speaker built-in, so sometimes I’ll hook it up and play music while I’m studying or getting ready,” she says. “I know they’re used for toddlers and kids as a night light, but I think they’re also a great dorm or apartment addition.”

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.”

Former RA at Columbia University Sarah Rebarber recommends gifting a pillow that makes studying in bed comfortable. “Almost everyone I lived with last year had a study pillow and we all got great use out of them,” agrees Yale first-year counselor Kynzie Clark.

Each new school year means a new routine, and when it comes to getting your schedule in order, these sticky notes are a “game changer” says Laura Grill, chief academic officer with SchoolHouse. They can be used to jot down class schedules, shopping lists, and study notes — and as they’re dry-erase, each new week means you can just wipe away and start again from scratch.

Kitchen and pantry gifts

A surprising number of status water bottles 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.”

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.)

Any matcha aficionado whose morning ritual includes whisking up a cup of this antioxidant-rich drink will appreciate this high-end powder from Ippodo.

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.

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.”

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.

“This is the best appliance for lazy-girl dinners or gourmet dinners, if you’re feeling productive,” says Delaney Goertzen. She throws just about anything in her air fryer, “from frozen chicken nuggets to salmon to leftovers. I know I will continue to use this even after I am out of college as well.”

Dorm rooms aren’t guaranteed to have AC. Yiyun Wang, a former RA at Barnard, says she spots Vornado fans often, and we think this one in particular would look cute perched on a desk.

Beauty gifts

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


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.

Instead of purchasing a beauty 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 198 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.

Clothing and accessories gifts

Although young people have returned to in-person classes, most still live in loungewear at home — 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 Julia Tarnow says she’s “obsessed” with more budget pairs.

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.

Delaney Goertzen says these shorts are great for any college activity, from studying and working out to snoozing. “I got my boyfriend this pack of shorts for his birthday, and he literally wears them every day,” she says. “He says they are the softest pair of shorts he’s ever had.”

Fjällräven 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.

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 recent college grad) Gabrielle Cody bought this book 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 says.

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.

From $25

I graduated a couple of years ago, and the one gift I recommend to anyone buying for college students is a good pair of slides — this is doubly true if the recipient shares dorm showers. Not only are they great for summer months, but they’re ideal for slipping on when rushing to meet delivery guys, nipping to the front door to let in a friend, or for a late-night dash for some studying sustenance.

Also on Tu’s wish list 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

Tu told us the larger 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.

We’ve previously recommended this wallet for any teen who’s college-bound. Strategist writer Arielle Avila says it’s an ideal gift as it has “seven pockets for all their accumulated gift cards and a convenient coin purse.” It’s also made of a rather handsome, luxurious-feeling pebbled leather, and it easily slips into a back pocket or a purse.

Charitable gifts

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.”

Gifts for hobbies

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.

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.

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.”

If you’re willing to splurge, buying a quality camera that isn’t attached to a smartphone would also wow the 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.

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.

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