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.
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.)
“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.
“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.
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.
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. They’re mounted with Velcro strips, which Tang says makes them easy to set up and take down without damaging your wall.
“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 pre-game 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.
Samantha has and loves this 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.
While many students — and most freshman — 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. 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.
For storing everything from shampoo and conditioner to toothpaste and face wash, RAs say a shower caddy is essential for trips to a communal bathroom. This multi-compartment, mesh tote is a top pick for Feliciano, Addi, and Maier-Katkin. Addi says she prefers this style to a plastic caddy because it has a compartment for everything (including your cell phone), dries fast, and won’t start to smell if water lingers on it. Plus, you can hang it up in the shower to keep it off the floor.
Most RAs recommend wearing flip-flops in the dorms’ shared showers to keep your bare feet off the germy floors. Tang says she and most of her residents opt for these cheap ones from Old Navy, often picking up more than one pair at a time because, as she says, “they can get gross.” Feliciano agrees that the Old Navy sandals are “comfortable, cheap, and long lasting, [and] can help prevent a student from acquiring things like a fungal infection.”
If you’re looking for something sturdier that will better protect your feet from the gunk in a communal shower, Min likes these slide sandals, which she prefers to standard flip-flops. “They drain well and the soles are thicker than the usual flip flop, so your feet never accidentally touch a stray hair ball,” she says. “I had a lot of people ask me where I got them.” (The answer to that question, she told us, was while visiting her grandma in China.)
Instead of a flimsy bag for laundry, the RAs we spoke with suggested going with a sturdier hamper, because you’ll want something that’ll be able to hold a heavy load without ripping and withstand a trip to the laundry room. “If you get lazy and don’t do laundry for a week, you don’t want it ripping,” says Addi, who recommends a durable, stand-up style. Feliciano agrees, saying to look for one with handles “because you will need to carry your dirty clothes from your dorm room to the laundry room.”
Wolfe says it’s a good idea to have a vacuum in your room to “tidy up snack crumbs, paper bits, or dirt and mud from shoes.” Addi, who told us that residents frequently ask to borrow her vacuum, agrees it’s useful to have your own. Tang calls this bagless model “the vacuum” for college students since it’s cheap and lightweight. “If you have a rug or your dorm is carpeted, it’s useful to vacuum here and there,” she says. “Otherwise your room gets super gross superfast.”
For quick cleanups, Addi and Sosoli advise keeping cleaning wipes on hand. As Wolfe says, “disinfectant wipes can be used to tackle any mess, from a coffee spill to dust bunnies, but they are also a must during flu season, [as] germs spread like crazy on campus.”
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