Take it From a College Student: Packing Dos and Don’ts for First-Time Dorm Dwellers

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By Lena Pothier

August 11, 2023

College move-in is coming up for freshmen across the country. Here’s what you need to know.

I’m the oldest sibling in my family, and I remember how stressed out we were when college move-in came around. I didn’t have an older sibling to show me the ropes, and my parents were just as lost as I was since they never had to move a kid into college before. We had no idea what to bring, and coupled with the mess of moving in during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was a rather complicated experience.

By the end of my first year, I realized that there were a lot of things I was really happy I brought with me, and that some things maybe weren’t worth shoving into my bags.

To make this process a little easier for parents of students heading off to live at college for the first time, here’s some suggestions on what they should bring and what’s unnecessary—courtesy of a current college student.

DO: Mattress Topper

Picking out new bedding and decorating your dorm room is always lots of fun. Finding new throw pillows, blankets, and sheets that you love will help make adjusting to a new space easier.

But dorm beds are notoriously uncomfortable, and may be smaller than the bed you have at home. When shopping for dorm bedding, I suggest getting a mattress topper. It can make a huge difference in making that Twin XL go from a piece of cardboard to a more comfortable sleeping arrangement.

When I added the mattress topper to my dorm bed, I actually thought it was more comfortable than my bed at home. Creating a space that feels safe and comfortable is so important for this transitional moment in life, and investing in a mattress topper is one way to make it feel just a little bit better.

DO: Shower Shoes and Slippers

Communal showers can be a frightening experience, especially for people that haven’t experienced one before. Along with whatever shower caddy you use to hold your shower products, add in a pair of shower shoes or old flip flops. It may feel weird at first, but I promise you it is worth it. Getting shower shoes will save your feet from whatever mysteries are baked into the shower tiling, and if nothing else can at least give you some peace of mind.

I also suggest getting a good pair of slippers or slides. Dorm rooms can get gross, especially if you don’t sweep or mop the floors regularly. Nothing drives me crazier than the feeling of walking barefoot on the floor and stepping on little crumbs of dirt or food. Having a pair of slippers that I would only wear indoors helped solve this problem and made moving about the dorm much easier.

DON’T: Too Many Nice Clothes

One of the most exciting things about going to college for me was reinventing my wardrobe. Back to school shopping is always fun, but it’s extra fun when you get the chance to start over in a new town and change up your style from what high-school-you would wear.

But there are some downsides to packing too many nice clothes for college. For one thing, some clothes will get ruined from day-to-day wear, frat parties and football games, or from learning to use a laundry machine for the first time. Plus, when you have an 8 a.m. class, the chances of putting on your cutest outfit ever are slim.

Balance those cute new clothes with ones that you know you already have and will wear often. Try to pack as light as possible, but still bring items that make you feel good and confident.

DO: Wrinkle Spray or Steamer

Figuring out where all your clothes will go when moving into a dorm is a bit of a guessing game. If you’re like me, you may have overpacked just a little bit and had to shove all your clothes into a too-small drawer. Or, maybe it’s halfway through the semester and you’ve fallen behind on laundry and keeping your clothes neat, tidy, and folded.

A dorm is far too small of a space for a full ironing board. For me, wrinkle spray was a saving grace. I would just spritz it on my wrinkly clothes and after a few minutes, it would look crisp and smooth. Handheld steamers can also get the job done if you prefer that, but can be a bit messy if the water starts to leak. Having one or the other is a great thing to bring with you to college, especially for those days where you have a big presentation or job interview and want to look a little bit nicer.

DON’T: Brita Filter

This may be a bit controversial as a Brita filter is on most college packing lists, but I found that it became more of a nuisance than something that was helpful. Water filters are great if you live in a dorm with a refrigerator, but this isn’t the case for most students, and finding a place for this bulky item can be difficult.

Many colleges have water fountains or water bottle filling stations around campus and the dorms. I suggest bringing a water bottle that you like and sticking with that instead. If you are looking for something with a filter, plenty of brands sell water bottles with filters in the straw already. This will not only save you space, but will also spare you from arguing with your roommate over who left the Brita filter empty because trust me, people do not fill it back up.

DO: Toolkit and Step Stool

The best graduation gift I got was from my next door neighbor. She already had two kids that had graduated from college, so she knew what she was doing when she handed me a toolkit and a stepstool to take to college.

This is one of those things that seems obvious to bring, but is often forgotten. You never know when you might need a screwdriver or batteries, and being prepared will avoid the setback for when you do eventually need these items. I cannot tell you how many people on my floor would come knocking on my door to borrow a hammer or take some nails because they didn’t bring a toolkit, and we used it all the time.

A step stool is great for reaching the tops of your drawers or cabinets (if you have them) to use as extra storage space. It’s also helpful for hanging up your new dorm decorations so you don’t have to stand on your desk, bed, or chair.

DO: IKEA Bags and Storage

Unless you have to take an airplane to your college destination, ditch those suitcases and use IKEA bags instead. Unlike suitcases, the big blue bags from IKEA are cheaper and won’t take up any space after you empty them. They hold just as much, and can be folded up small and flat and tucked away until you need it to move out afterwards.

I’ve also found that IKEA has some great under the bed storage options, though various sets of drawers and bins can be found at other locations. Finding something that is compact while still flexible is an ideal for dorm living, and you can pack your clothes right into the storage containers you’ll use rather than having to re-organize.

DON’T: Printer

So many people bring printers to college and then never ever use them. College libraries all have printing services that are available to students, and some schools even have printers located in the dorms or other buildings. But the biggest reason that printers are not needed is because most assignments are turned in online.

The decision to bring a printer or not ultimately comes down to personal preference. If you prefer to print things out yourself or want to avoid the headache of finding an available printer, then maybe a small printer could be worth it. Just be sure to consider how frequently you believe you will actually use it, and check out the resources on campus first before wasting the space and money.

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