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Everything You Need to Outfit Your College Dorm

Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photos: Retailers

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Fall is fast approaching, and if you’re an incoming college freshman (or the parent of one), that means it won’t be long until it’s time to load up the car and head for your dorm. Before moving day arrives, you can make life easier by ensuring you’ve secured everything you need to feel at home in your new space. While most of the back-to-school lists you’ll find online or in big-box stores are fairly generic, we were curious about what actual students find most useful and which things are truly functional on campus. To find out, we consulted 17 resident assistants from 11 different colleges, as well as sleep experts, current students, and recent graduates, who together have looked inside hundreds of dorm rooms.

Interestingly, one common piece of advice from our experts is to avoid overpacking. “Don’t buy extra furniture until you’ve seen the room you’re going to be in,” says recent Barnard graduate Alice Min, who was an RA for three years. “On move-in day, there were so many fed-up parents lugging futons and nightstands home.” Sabrinna Fabi, who graduated from Marymount Manhattan College in May and was an RA there for one year, agrees: “It’s super important to only bring items you really need to get through the year. Saving space will not only create less roommate problems — it will also allow you to declutter your life.” For what’s actually essential, read on to discover the space-saving hangers, portable speakers, plush mattress toppers, and more that our panel recommend.

Best Bedding

For many college kids in small dorm rooms, the bed is a kind of home base — not just for sleeping, but for studying, watching Netflix, or hanging out with friends. So it’s not surprising that several of the RAs we spoke with stressed the importance of making sure your bed is comfortable. “The beds that most colleges provide don’t tend to be that comfortable, so a lot of students buy mattress toppers,” says Justin Feliciano, an RA at the University of Connecticut. Fellow University of Connecticut RA Klajdi Sosoli agrees that a mattress topper is “extremely important,” and recommends a memory-foam option. It’s also a great option if you’re feeling daunted (or slightly icky) by not knowing how many people have previously used the mattress before you.

It’s more expensive than the Lucid mattress topper, but Hannah Maier-Katkin, a former RA at Brown University, says this plush Tempur-Pedic one “will make your dorm mattress not only tolerable, but genuinely comfortable.”

Since maximizing your bed’s comfort is a priority, you’ll likely want additional pillows for support. Sarah Rebarber, who was an RA for two years at Columbia University, recommends an upright pillow that’s perfect for reading or working on your laptop in bed. Plenty of her fellow RAs agree. “Almost everyone I lived with last year had a study pillow and we all got great use out of them,” says Kynzie Clark, a first-year counselor at Yale (the school’s equivalent to an RA). “If I want to study or watch a movie in bed it’s super-convenient. I also use it when I have friends over in my suite and we run out of chairs so I can sit with something comfy and not just lean on the wall.” Montana Love, previously at Yale, says, “My backrest pillow has made it a lot easier for me to do readings for class in bed at night and on days when I didn’t feel like walking to the library.”

A classic body pillow works, too, especially for getting some much-needed rest. “College students love to nap and body pillows are popular because of how comfortable they are,” says Feliciano, who often sees this style in his residents’ rooms.

A few RAs talked about students buying blankets for staying cozy, and Feliciano says, “I have seen a lot of students get one with their school logo or mascot.” This plush blanket, which he calls “perfect for my dorm room,” can be ordered in dozens of different school colors. (If you don’t see your school on Amazon, there are many more available here.)

$17

With roommates who might leave the light on when they’re up late studying, Love says a sleep mask “can be a huge help for anyone who likes to sleep in a dark room.” This memory-foam mask that forms a comfortable seal around your eyes to block any light from getting in is a Strategist-writer favorite.

If you struggle to get settled when sleeping in a new place, a white-noise machine might help you drift off. This one is our absolute favorite; it’s even featured in our Sleep 100 (a guide to our most stood-behind sleep products). It makes both fanlike and electrical sounds and has a sleep timer — meaning it will switch off once you do. And with a guaranteed aid to help you unwind before bed, you’ll be able to catch those early-morning classes.

A weighted blanket is another helpful touch for those who may struggle to get some rest. Unlike other blankets, the Bearaby is made from thick, hand-knitted layers, meaning it has both a comforting heft and a homey feel. It’s also simple to keep clean as it’s machine washable, one of the reasons Robert Pagano of Sleepline says it’s the best option “if you’re looking for a high-quality weighted blanket that’s safe — thanks to the natural materials it’s made from — and easy to care for.”

Best Storage and Organization Tools

“Under-the-bed storage is great because it doesn’t take up any space but allows you to utilize what’s already yours,” says Fabi. Since most dorm-room beds are already lofted (or easily can be with a set of bed risers), she thinks stashing bins and boxes under your bed is a helpful way to add more room to a cramped space. Brittany Waugh, a former RA at Michigan State University, turns to Target for affordable under-the-bed storage pieces, and Jolene Addi, who’s starting her second year as an RA at the University of Connecticut, agrees. “They have a whole brand [Room Essentials] tailored to college dorms,” says Addi. This woven-style bin creates less visual clutter than your standard clear plastic one, and will only set you back $6.

For a workhorse storage piece, Rebarber likes this cart from the Room Essentials line, because it “moves easily, [isn’t] heavy, and gives you easy access.” Perfect for keeping snacks, school supplies, or accessories like scarves or belts visible and within reach, this piece is a good alternative to the “big drawers and bulky furniture” often provided by colleges.

Staying organized can be a struggle for lots of students, according to Addi, so she recommends a desk organizer for corralling pens, Post-its, and other school supplies. “It comes in handy because you can keep your most frequently used folders and notebooks accessible, and you can put other notebooks that you open less frequently in your drawers,” she says. This organizer has spots for all your essentials, so you’ll spend less time digging around for what you need, plus a spot for your phone and USB charging ports.

Both Addi and Feliciano say metal desk organizers are popular as well, and this one has a pull out drawer for some added organization.

Recent grad Kira Sommer spent two years as an RA at George Washington University, and says one of the best things residents can do to maximize space is use wall hooks for hanging towels, bags, coats, and more. But unlike hooks that stick to, or have to be nailed into, a wall, her preferred over-the-door ones “don’t leave any marks on walls and won’t get you in trouble with housing at the end of the year.” Sommer adds that this gold-plated one “can honestly make cute décor.”

Storing shoes can be tricky, and Rebarber says it’s common for students to leave pairs “scattered on the floor.” As an alternative, she recommends an over-the-door organizer that holds up to 12 pairs of shoes and can be hidden on the inside of a closet door.

A shoe rack like this one is another option for storing your footwear, according to University of Connecticut RA Samantha (who asked that we not use her last name). “I like that it is expandable, so I can make it smaller or larger depending on how I want to store my shoes,” she says. “I also really like that it is easy to take apart and put back together [so] it takes up less space when I am storing it at home over the summer.” She suggests pairing it with a boot tray to keep your floors clean when it’s wet or snowy outside. “Leaving your stuff in the hall is a fire and security hazard, so bringing a boot tray will protect the floors in your room,” she says.

Trying to stuff all of your clothes from home into a small dorm-room closet can be a rude awakening for first-year students. “College dorm closets — if you’re even lucky enough to get a real closet (I only had a rickety wooden wardrobe) — are tiny,” explains Min. “These hangers are thinner so you can fit more clothes,” she says, “and an added perk is that the velvet has great grip so your cute sundresses won’t slip off.” While around half of her residents started the year using them, she says that “by the end, everyone was a convert,” and hers lasted all four years of college.

While they’re designed for food (and would certainly work for taking a snack to class without worrying about leaks or spills), Clark says she actually uses these reusable plastic bags for organizing “all the little things” in her dorm room, including hair ties and school supplies.

Best School Supplies

“I recommend students buy a planner their first year because it’s going to feel like you have a thousand things going on and it’ll make your life easier,” says Feliciano. He adds that it’s best to get in the habit of organizing your time early, before your coursework starts ramping up. Sommer loves this planner because it provides “an hourly breakdown of your day,” which is useful for college students who divide their time between classes, extracurricular activities, and part-time jobs. She also appreciates that it has sections for “tasks, lists, plans, and much more than just academics.” (For more diary and planner options, take a look at our extensive list.)

If you don’t need the hourly breakdown and want more space for note-taking, Min says she “really like the Moleskine weekly ones, and so do most college humanities students.”

Rebarber is also a fan of Moleskine notebooks, because of their compact size. “[They’re] easier to take notes in due to the tiny desks in lecture halls,” she says.

Kim Tang, a second-year RA at The College of New Jersey, calls the Pilot G2 “every college student’s dream pen,” because it’s easy to write with and doesn’t smudge. Available in extra-fine through bold-point sizes, the pen provides an option for everyone’s preferred style.

When it comes to pencils, Rebarber says “I rarely see people with regular No. 2 pencils — mostly all mechanical pencils.” She pointed us toward these neon ones with refillable leads and erasers.

Three RAs — Reabrber, Tang, and Min — say the Fjallraven Kanken is one of the most popular backpacks on college campuses. It’s the perfect size for toting to class, the dining hall, or the library. Min says it’s “smaller but cuter,” than the backpack she had in high school, and she still uses it today.

Another campus staple, this Herschel Supply Co. backpack is a top pick for both Rebarber and Min, who says it has a “more professional” look, and thus is popular among students going between classes and jobs or internships.

A more heavy-duty option, this nice-looking, color-blocked bag comes recommended by Sommer, who calls it “a solid, reliable backpack that can withstand heavy books and a laptop.” It’s ideal for busy days when you’ll be away from your dorm and need to tote your essentials for different classes and activities. “It’s worth the money and will last you for years,” she says.

And to go with your backpack: a very practical keychain. When we talked to nutritionists and educators about the best lunch gear for kids of all ages, they recommended some fun hand sanitizer keychains to attach to backpacks — and while they suggested animal-themed ones for young kids, we think these brightly colored bottle keychains (which come empty) would be handy this fall if filled with hand sanitizer.

Best Décor

Nearly all the RAs we spoke with mentioned string lights as a way to improve a dorm room’s aesthetic. “They add good, soft lighting, compared to the harsh overhead ones, and are generally very pretty,” says Tang. Abby Wolfe, a former RA at Colgate University, calls these battery-operated LED lights “dainty and lightweight.” Unlike traditional, electric Christmas-style lights, they’re not a fire hazard so they’re generally allowed by more colleges.

“People love to hang photos of friends, family, and pets,” says Rebarber, and Min thinks it’s especially popular among first-year students feeling homesick. “Before I left for college, I got together with my high-school friends and we printed out a ton of photos and made goodbye collages,” she says. “It was an uplifting reminder of home whenever I felt down, and it was a pretty good conversation starter for any new college friends that saw it in my room.” To make your own, Rebarber likes this hanging frame that lets you easily switch up your photos on little wooden clothespins.

This set, also recommended by Rebarber, lets you combine your photos with your string lights. She particularly likes it for its “twinkly” lights.

Like wall hooks and over-the-door shoe holders, this mirror is a dorm-room essential because it doesn’t take up any floor space. It’s the most common style Tang sees among her residents, and she thinks it’s a smart buy since most rooms don’t come with full-length mirrors. “Knowing how you look is something people take for granted,” she says, and some students don’t realize they need a mirror until they see their dorm for the first time.

Hardy succulents offer a way for students to bring some plant life into their dorm without having to worry too much about care. “Lots of people have started to keep succulents in their dorm rooms because they are easy to maintain,” says Rebarber. Wolfe recommends scattering a few mini-plants around your room to add “a fresh, homey vibe, without consuming too much space.”

Rebarber says her residents will usually have dry-erase boards on their walls or doors, and this affordable one is a favorite of both Feliciano and Tang. “I see these on my residents’ doors all the time,” says Tang. Feliciano says they’re useful for floormates to share messages with each other, or even just their social-media handles. This board is mounted with Velcro strips, which Tang says makes it easy to set up and take down without damaging your wall. Clark adds, “White boards can also be really good for keeping track of where your roommates are. We kept one with little magnets for each of our names and spots like ‘Class,’ ‘Library,’ ‘Dining Hall,’ and ‘Gym,’ that we would move our magnets to when we left.”

“This year, it is definitely more important than years past to have a hammock or something dedicated to sit on outside, since most students are hanging out outside in order to follow campus policies,” says Skidmore College RA Lindsey Shafer. This hammock chair would make an outdoor hang significantly more comfortable and works for both sitting and reclining.

Vitruvi Stone Diffuser
$98

Eight current college students recommended buying a diffuser to make a dorm feel more inviting, and former Strategist intern (and Bowdoin graduate) Aisha Rickford says an eclectic oil diffuser is the most effective. We’ve been recommending this one from Vitruvi for years, and it’s even beloved by Ellen Pompeo.

Best Tech and Appliances

“Please, please, please invest in a good pair of headphones,” implores Sommer, who says residents listening to music or playing video games with the sound blasting can be a big problem in shared spaces. “Your roommates will thank you and in turn your RA will thank you.” Tang says AirPods are currently the pair of choice among students, and Rebarber notices the same at her school, saying that since they’re wireless and Bluetooth-enabled, they’re “great for exercising and studying.”

Most students also opt for Apple laptops because, as Tang says, “they’re reliable and IT at schools know how they work.” Rebarber agrees that “everyone has a Mac,” and says, “your life is so much harder if you have a different type of computer because if you need a charger almost everyone has the same one.” Your computer will likely be your main source of entertainment because, as Rebarber says, these days, “no one really brings a TV or watches TV on [an actual] TV.”

In addition to, or instead of, a laptop, you might want an iPad, which RAs say 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 Rebarber. Sosoli agrees that they’re “very popular and easy to take notes [on].”

Maier-Katkin says this “light and transportable” speaker makes it easy to take your music out onto the quad if you’re hanging out with friends, and can “transform your dorm room into a comfy pregame or party room.” It’s waterproof, too, in case you want to bring it into the bathroom with you while you shower, which Feliciano says students often do. Clark agrees that a waterproof speaker is a must-have. She cautions that some universities won’t allow Google Home or Alexa devices to connect to their Wi-Fi systems, though, so either check with your school before buying one or stick with a non-connected speaker like this one.

Samantha suggests a simple desk lamp. “A lot of other residents have similar lamps, and I believe that’s because it’s an affordable and durable option,” she says. You can also use it as a bedside reading lamp, which Fabi recommends for keeping the peace between roommates. “More often than not, roommates won’t have the same sleeping habits or even study habits,” she says. “A bedside lamp is really great if your roommate goes to sleep early and wants all the lights out, but you’re a night owl and study late.”

With both a charging pad for wireless charging and a USB port for plugging in your phone, this lamp is one of Maier-Katkin’s space-saving favorites. “You’ll want the extra lighting and you’ll likely barely have enough charging outlets in your dorm, so it’s an ideal combo,” she says. It is pricey, but the white lacquer lamp is sophisticated enough to transition to a desk or nightstand in your first apartment.

Here’s a less expensive option, chosen by Feliciano, that takes up minimal space on your desk and features a charging port.

Rebarber says a fan is “a must, especially for those without AC in the beginning and end of the semester.” Yiyun Wang, currently an RA at Barnard, says Vornado fans are very popular in dorm rooms, and this one — which we’ve written about before — would look cute on your desk or dresser. She adds, “if you put frozen bottles of water in front of the fans, the air also comes out cooler.”

If you want a fan with some more oomph, Feliciano suggests this larger box-style one that should fit in the window of most dorm rooms and provides much-needed relief from heat and humidity at the start of the school year. When we asked hardware store owners to recommend the best window fans, lots of them also chose Lasko models.

If you go to school in a colder climate, you might want to invest in a fan-heater combo like this one suggested by Rebarber. She says that it’s not unusual for heaters to break down in older dorm buildings, so students often rely on space heaters in the winter.

Between fans, lamps, and other gadgets, it’s not a bad idea to pick up a power strip to keep everything running. “A lot of dorm rooms don’t have many outlets or have outlets that aren’t conveniently placed,” says Love. “A few extension cords can make life a lot easier.” This one has 12 outlets and three USB plugs, as well, for powering everything you need.

Best Kitchen Supplies

While many students — and most freshmen — will likely eat meals in a dining hall, our RAs recommended keeping some personal kitchen supplies in your dorm room that can help hold you over in between classes or meals. Both Rebarber and Sommer say an electric kettle is not just useful for tea or coffee, but can help make your room a social hub. “My roommate had one freshman year and would use it to make tea, which was a great way for us to bond with our new hallmates,” says Sommer. She went on to buy her own to make hot chocolate once a week for her residents. As Clark says, “Caffeine in a college dorm doesn’t need a lot of explaining,” and Love says kettles are also nice for making hot meals like ramen in the winter. Rebarber likes that this one shuts off automatically once the water boils and “makes it so easy to make coffee or oatmeal in the comfort of your dorm room.” Some schools don’t allow electric kettles in dorms, though, so make sure to check before buying.

You likely won’t need a full set of dishes for your dorm room, but RAs think it’s a good idea to start with at least one mug. “Mugs were probably the dishes I used the most in college,” says Sommer. Rebarber agrees that while bowls and plates aren’t necessary, “everyone has a mug.” She says, “I have seen people use mugs for making cakes in the microwave, bringing coffee to class, or sipping on tea late at night.” Wang likes IKEA mugs, and this one is so affordable that you can get a matching one for your roommate.

You can find a smaller mini-fridge, but according to Wolfe and Feliciano, a 3.1 cubic-foot fridge with a built-in freezer is ideal for most dorm rooms, hitting the sweet spot of compact size with generous capacity. “Having a slightly larger fridge can come in handy,” says Wolfe. “It is a bit of a hassle come move-in day, but can function as a side table of sorts, and having a separate freezer is unbeatable for late nights studying, when ice cream is the snack of choice.” She adds that she used her Frigidaire all four years of college, making it worth the investment.

For an identically sized fridge at a slightly lower price point, Feliciano likes this Whirlpool style because “there is a freezer component, storage drawers for produce and dairy, and an adjustable knob to change how cold the fridge gets.” He says it’s lasted him three years so far and is still in great condition.

To stay hydrated — and be environmentally friendly — RAs say reusable water bottles are a campus necessity. Rebarber says S’Well bottles are popular among students, and Samantha says kids like them because “they come in so many different colors and patterns [so] they’re an interesting conversation starter and way to express yourself.” Since they’re vacuum-sealed and insulated, Wang says S’Well bottles are ideal “if you like really hot or cold stuff,” and Tang adds that S’Well fans like that the bottle is “small enough to fit in a bag without being heavy.”

Rebarber says Hydro Flask bottles are popular as well, and Feliciano likes that they “keep drinks cold, are durable, and come with a lifetime warranty.” Tang has also noticed more and more Hydro Flask bottles around campus. “People like them because they can hold more water than [S’well], and also they’re just trendy now,” she says.