Back to School: What to Pack for College Dorm Life


College students are getting ready to head off to campus, where they will try to cram as much stuff as possible into a tiny dorm room.

Here are some tips on figuring out what your student really needs, and what they should leave at home.

1. Check the rules. Before buying anything, check dorm policies at your school to see what you are (and are not) allowed to bring. Many schools prohibit hot plates and other appliances with a heating element. Halogen lamps and air conditioners are also on some schools' "banned" list.

2. See what's already there. Know exactly what (if anything) the school provides. For example, schools such as Penn State have fridges and/or microwaves already installed in dorm rooms. Check sizes of existing furnishings – for example, most dorm beds are extra long twins, meaning standard length sheets won't fit.

3. Scout out local stores. Most large college campuses have stores like Target (Stock Quote: TGT) or Wal-Mart (Stock Quote: WMT) nearby. If you don't want to transport more stuff than necessary – or if you realize you forgot a few essentials – you can probably stock up on whatever you need. Don't delay, though: stores near campuses often experience a high demand for dorm staples like desk lamps and computer supplies during move-in week.

4. Leave big-ticket luxuries at home. Pamela McDowell, director of Residence Life at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., has seen students hauling in big-screen TVs and other large pricey electronics – only to discover they won't fit in the room. "Besides, we don't have cable in the student rooms," McDowell says. "Having a $750 television makes no sense." 

5. Remember these little lifesavers. Ross Bryan, director of residential communities at The University of Alabama, says every student should bring extension cords. "The outlets in their room will always be on the side opposite where they want to put their television," he says. Better yet, bring power strips with surge protectors. Bryan recommends bringing masking tape to secure cords and wires to the floor and prevent tripping hazards. Other must-have essentials: a reliable alarm clock, batteries, mattress pad and a shower caddy for toting shampoo and soap to the bathroom.

6. Stay safe and secure. A computer lock keeps your laptop secure, and a bike lock is a must if the student brings a bike to school. Students who will be walking around campus at night may feel more secure with a small personal alarm that attaches to their keychain. If your student doesn't have a cell phone, get them a prepaid one so they can at least call for help in an emergency.

7. Comfort is key (within reason). Students don’t need to feel like they're at the Four Seasons, but they should be fairly comfortable. Dorm rooms can get hot, so window fans are a must if air conditioners aren't provided or allowed. Also, replace the stiff wooden chair with something comfy enough for the student to survive an all-night study session without suffering major muscle cramps.

8. Keep things clean. Dorm rooms are never spotless, but having a few cleaning supplies on-hand can at least keep the room livable. With space at a premium, pick a few essentials: all-purpose spray cleaner, a small dustpan/brush and maybe even a small handheld vacuum, such as this Electrolux, which has a hand vac built-in.

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