Updated: May 19, 2022
There are LOTS of tips for parents of college kids in this blog in the TIPS section. However, if you just want to make sure you didn’t forget to pack anything and don't need any input, then click here for a downloadable and printable Best College Packing List Ever (PDF and DOCX versions).
This year, my fifth-born begins college in-state, while two of her siblings return for their junior and senior years over 700 miles away. As I approach the time when I have to send my college kids out the door into the great big world, I am emotional from the anticipation of being a mama bird in an empty nest with nothing left but cracked eggshells surrounding me. Okay, that is a little melodramatic…I still will have one little chick and my hubby, but you get the idea. When I was pregnant with my little-bitty college students, each time I was getting close to the delivery dates, I would keep myself distracted from the waiting by “nesting”—getting everything perfectly ready for the new transition. I’m not sure why mamas are always compared to birds, but 18 years later, I find myself nesting again for the same reason for the same hatchling; only this time it will be followed by an exit instead of an entrance.
I have been asked if my kids brought too much or if they were missing things when they went away their freshmen years. The answer is that we (me included) absolutely packed too much! My Mama heart will not allow any possibility of my darlings being uncomfortable, unsafe, unhealthy, or missing any essentials—or non-essentials—the first time living away from home. What if they get cold? Sick? Hot? Hungry? Sleep too late? Smell bad? The “what-ifs” could go on. It makes me feel better knowing I am doing all I can to keep them comfortable for the just-in-case scenarios when I won’t be there to give them what they need. The freshmen are excited about having their own things they don’t have to share with siblings and love the idea of organizing their belongings onto new shelves. Even new comforters and towels are fun. Some will want to bring more than they need, because it offers a sense of comfort and excitement during an anxious time. At the end of the first year, each of my kids brought back boxes of things that they didn’t use, and they left them home the following year. I’m perfectly okay with that (even though my hubby could have said, “I told you so”—like a hundred times)! I think it is part of the process. If it makes them feel better to have something you don’t think they’ll need, let them have it. If they don’t use it, it’s no big deal! If it makes a Mama (or Dad) heart happy to pack something, then pack it. The inconvenience of a little more cramming into the trunk and an extra trip or two up to the dorm room are worth the sense of peace it brings to pack a little—not a lot—extra. As you keep that in mind, also remember that whatever is brought to college, must also come home from college, along with all the other things they’ll collect over the year. The lighter the load, the less time unpacking, which means more time exploring new territory and less hassle at the end of the year.
Lists make me happy because I can check them off and feel accomplished and not worry that I forgot something. Whenever my family travels, I make lists of everything we need to bring. It works great, as long as I remember to ask everyone one final time if they have the items they were to gather before we leave. One summer when we were headed to a beach and fishing vacation, we got 90 minutes from home when we realized the fishing reels didn’t make it into the car so had to turn around and get them. (We have a big family – new reels were not an affordable option!) I don’t want any college students being without something they might need, so I compiled a list of everything college students may need to feel at home in their new homes…right down to the fishing gear.
Please know before you panic at the length of the list and are wondering how much it will cost to rent a semi-truck, this is not the “we-must-pack-everything-on-here-list.” It is more of the “if-it-isn’t-on-here-then-we-don’t-need-to-bring-it” kind of list. When I was making packing lists for my oldest kids, there were so many different ones out there, I went from list to list to list to get the best ideas from each of them. Hopefully I can save you the trouble—this one has it all! Print it, gather what’s missing, and check those squares only when the items are packed up and ready to go…and don’t forget the reels.
Below are some tips from what I’ve learned after helping to pack for five college move-ins. Please note that this list is geared for on-campus living, but there is a section to add additional items if you need them. Seriously though, if you think of something that is not on this list (besides the kitchen sink), please email me at email@example.com so I can update it for future packers. Be sure to read the section at the end: PARENTS FOR MOVE-IN DAY AND BEYOND.
Before you go through the list, here are some tips:
BUY ONLINE—PICK-UP NEAR COLLEGE—Bed, Bath, & Beyond offers a convenient service. You can purchase your items online from home and have them held at a store near your college. In order to use this, you must place your order at least 14 days before you plan on picking it up. Wal-Mart offers a similar service. It is a great way of making sure they have what you need because stores are super busy during move-in days and stocks are limited. Another option is to place your order a day or two ahead of time at BBB, Wal-Mart, Target, Kohl’s, etc. and pick up near your college. Supplies will be more limited than getting them early, but it’s very convenient and you’ll only have to move them all home and not there. Dollar stores are another great option for last minute necessities.
BEDDING—We have purchased directly from discount stores and ordered the sets from the companies who work with the colleges to supply bedding and towels. I like the convenience of selecting the all-in-one packages, but the quality isn’t that great. The towels are small, and the sheets pill easily, but they serve their purposes. We prefer looking for sales and letting the kids pick out their bed and bath items directly from the stores. A pillow with a backrest on the bed to lean back on is well liked, as is a mattress topper. As far as buying one sheet set or two…we go with two, so the kids don’t have to worry about the washer being immediately available if they clean their sheets (notice I said if). Our kids all appreciated having the extra set. One of my sons used his extra sheet to make a hammock and another time he used it to cover the bright, overhead light in his room—at least he put it to good use.
BATH—The items in this section depend on the kind of bathroom your student will have. One shared by two people will require different items than a bathroom shared by an entire dorm floor. Find out if the roommate has certain color preferences or wants to split buying things that are shareable like rugs, trash cans, toothbrush holders, shower shelves, curtains, etc. You may think you are being nice by arriving early and putting the rug and curtain up, but the roommate may have been hoping to do the same thing.
CLEANERS—Communicate with the roommate ahead of time and divide a list of cleaning supplies so you don’t double up. (Yay for lists!) My kids prefer the stick vac over the broom and the steamer instead of an iron. Be sure to check what is permitted and already provided at your college. A great tool for washing dishes is the sponge with the handle that holds soapy water. It’s easy to bring to the bathroom sink, if necessary, and works well.
CLOTHES—Check online for temperature averages if you aren’t sure what the weather will be like near your college. It’s a good idea to have some dress clothes, even if your student thinks they aren’t needed. We had to mail a suit jacket to one of my sons when he learned he had to dress formally for presenting speeches in his communications class.
ELECTRONICS—Before purchasing a computer, consider what will be needed for the major. There are different brands, sizes, memory options, etc. and many of them depend on preferences. Be sure to read reviews and ask other college students with the same major what worked well for them. Battery life is important! Most colleges provide students with free versions of many types of software—photo and film editing, finance, digital art, word processing, etc. Find out before you purchase anything unnecessarily. It is also good to note that there are very reliable, free software versions available online. A couple of my favorites are Inkscape for vector/graphic designing and Gimp for photo editing. Google Docs is a free word processing option if you need it. Your student might just want a projector instead of a TV, so ask about preferences before looking for those TV sales.
FOOD—This varies so much so I just listed some basic ideas. Find out if the roommate has severe allergies before making purchases. Even if you bought the most inclusive food plan, there will be times when a snack will need to be grabbed in the room so it’s a good idea to stock up. Breakfast is sometimes difficult to get to before those early morning classes, so have some simple breakfast foods readily available. My daughter was able to come home a lot of weekends, so I would make her pancakes to bring back and she would keep them in her freezer and grab some each morning to eat while walking to class. Even if home is far, favorite homemade foods can often be sent back or mailed. My kids LOVE getting cookies in the mail at college. I always send enough for them to share.
HAIR—Check your campus’s rules about hair tools that use heat. Automatic shut-off ones are the best. Get a silicone heat-proof pad for them, too, since there won’t be somebody reminding your student to turn it off.
KITCHEN—All students need a microwave and a refrigerator, if permitted. They will use them. At my sons’ college, there are small refrigerators in every dorm and students are not allowed to bring their own. The problem is that they don’t have freezers and there are a lot of things my boys would store in a freezer – ice and ice cream, for starters. If you can bring your own, I strongly recommend the kind with a separate freezer door. Every discount department store carries them just before college starts. My daughter kept frozen fruit in hers for smoothies. Frozen grapes make a tasty, sweet late-night healthy snack when studying. If freezers aren’t there and your student can’t survive without ice, consider a counter-top ice machine. Some dorms have full kitchens and those students may need more items for cooking and baking. Most dorms have water bottle refill stations, but if they don’t, a water filter pitcher works well if the water tastes different than home. Consider two each of bowls, plates, and silverware so friends can eat in the room. One of my sons had regular Ramen noodle gatherings and they would see how spicy they could eat it—don’t forget the microwave safe bowl. My daughter recently purchased a bowl that she can put popcorn kernels in and cook in the microwave. She is very excited about using it at college.
LAUNDRY—I have two laundry must-haves to share—Color Catchers and Awesome. Color Catchers can be purchased near laundry detergent in most stores. They look like dryer sheets but go in the washing machine. They will literally catch any laundry mistakes your students might make. If students wash the red shirt with the white one, it will survive with a Color Catcher. My other secret weapon is Awesome. I have only ever seen it at the dollar store. Yep, only one dollar for the most amazing stain remover ever. It removes everything—coffee, blood, berries, juice…even ink and Sharpie!
LEGAL DOCUMENTS—We don’t want to think about our kids being incapacitated in any way, but if anything should happen while they are away at school, parents have no rights to have access to anything or make any decisions on their adult children’s behalves without prior permission. In the eyes of the law, 18 is the same as 46. Get the necessary documents legally signed and notarized and keep a copy at home and with your student. You may need to obtain documents for each state if your student is attending college out of state. If you want to see your student’s grades, you must fill out the FERPA form from the college. Do it at the start so you don’t forget. You will also want to get on the school’s emergency notification text/email list.
MEDICINE—I would suggest packing lots of variety but not giant bottles of each kind since medicine expires. At some point, your student will probably get sick and it is best to have medicine on hand instead of having to ask somebody for a store run.
MISCELLANEOUS—If your student is the active type, send (or mail as a surprise) fun things to do with others! Remember they aren’t in jail and can still enjoy hiking, fishing, camping, sports, etc. if they have the proper gear. Hammocking is super popular at colleges—you don’t want them to be left out, so order one and have it mailed to the college. Some colleges allow students to play Nerf or laser tag indoors. Scooters and skateboards are sometimes permitted in long hallways in the dorms. Remember a travel bag for trips home!
ROOM—What goes in a dorm room largely depends upon the size of the room and the contents in it. If you have a lot, then you’ll need shelves or boxes for storage. Think of the best way to be organized so everything has an easy-to-find home. Check with your college about what kinds of lights and cords and extension cords are allowed before buying them. Remind your student that Command Hooks will only protect the wall paint if the tab is pulled straight down. Some colleges allow small nails—check the rules. Wall tapestries can be bought on-line in different sizes with a huge variety of pictures. My kids really like having them on their walls. Black-out curtains on tension rods (if the windows are made for them) are great additions to help with sleep and keep the room dark during movies and video game playing. They also work well as dividers between spaces in the room. If your student is sad about leaving a pet behind, check to see if any are allowed. Fish and hermit crabs are common dorm room friends. See what the roommate is bringing to make sure there won’t be too many big, comfy chairs and not enough space.
TOILETRIES—Obviously the students will need their toiletries, but the one that I think needs mentioning is Poo-Pourri (there are other brands, too). Spray a little in the toilet before sitting on it, and the smells don’t escape it. It’s great for a small room with a bathroom attached that is shared by multiple people—way better than air freshener, in my opinion.
MOVE-IN DAY AND BEYOND—Bring the stuff on the list in a tote bag so you can easily bring it back home. Enjoy the move-in day with your student, knowing each kid is different; some want parents to stay until the last possible minute and others want to say a quick good-bye and be on their own in their new home-away-from-home. Remember that this is a big adjustment for them, too, so let them handle it how best suits them. Get a feel for what they want—linger if that helps or take their hints to leave. Help unpack and decorate, explore the campus, find classes, talk with the roommate, grab a meal with the roommate’s parents, buy food and drinks to stock the fridge and food shelf, hide a hand-written note of encouragement to be found later, pray over your student and the new room, give big hugs and kisses, then head to the car and get out those tissues. Find a fun stop on the way home for something to look forward to and play games in the car or plane to give you something different to think about. If you are a single parent, bring a friend or relative along for company on the way home. Talking to God also works wonders. Be sure to read Letting Go Letting God: 30 Day Devotional for Moms of College Freshmen for the next 30 days…then reread it if you still need encouragement. Throw away those eggshells and clean up that nest for the next college break. It will be here quicker than you think. God’s got your all-grown-up-little-bitty-college-kid in His arms and He’s also holding you! It will be move-out day before you know it!
Be sure to get your copy of Letting Go Letting God: 30 Day Devotional for Moms of College Freshmen. I'd love to hear from you with comments, questions, and prayer requests. Jena@lettinggolettinggod.com