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Everything You Need to Outfit Your College Dorm, According to RAs

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If you’re heading off to college this fall, or are the parent of an incoming freshman, you’re probably neck deep in packing lists full of dorm-room staples like twin extra-long sheets and bed risers. While most of the 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 campuses. To find out, we consulted with 13 resident assistants from nine different colleges, who together have looked inside hundreds of dorm rooms. Our seasoned experts are so familiar with outfitting these spaces, they told us, that they’re often the first source students consult when it comes to furnishing their rooms.

Interestingly, one common piece of advice from our RAs 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 of RAs recommend.

To make it even easier, we’ve organized the list into categories. Click here to jump to bedding, storage and organization tools, school supplies, décor, tech and appliances, kitchen supplies, bathroom supplies, or cleaning supplies.

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 this memory-foam option.

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’s been an RA for two years at Columbia University, recommends this upright pillow that’s perfect for reading or working on your laptop in bed. The ultrasoft covers come in neutral and pastel shades and are machine washable, making it easy to clean up the occasional spill.

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.)

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, an RA at Michigan State University, turns to Target for affordable under-the-bed storage pieces, and Jolene Addi, who’s starting her second semester as an RA at the University of Connecticut, agrees. “They have a whole brand [Room Essentials] tailored to college dorms,” says Addi. These woven-style bins create less visual clutter than your standard clear plastic ones, and a set of three will only set you back $13.

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. With all of your essentials at hand, Addi likes that this wood organizer keeps students from wasting time digging around for what they need.

Both Addi and Feliciano say metal desk organizers are popular as well, and this set allows you to configure the pieces in a way that works best for your studying style.

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 this 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 used by University of Connecticut RA Samantha (who asked that we not use her last name) is another option for storing your footwear. “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.

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.”

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.