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The Dorm Room Cheat Sheet: 15 Essentials Every College-Bound Kid Needs

A curated packing list for parents and students alike!

It’s that time of year when thousands of young men and women around the country prepare to leave home to begin their freshman year of college. Most of those students will spend their first year living in a dorm, a.k.a. a small, generic, concrete box housing at least two young adults who may or may not know one another (and who will likely either love or hate one another by the end of the year). Some students approach college with a very minimalist view—just give me a bed, a desk and my computer and I’ll be set. Others go into full-on interior design mode, carefully decorating every inch of their rooms until they resemble something you’d see on Million Dollar Listing.

Having been through the dorm move-in experience myself in recent years with my daughter, I can tell you that regardless of where you, or your son or daughter, falls along that spectrum, there are some things (15 to be exact) that are non-negotiable for dorm living. We have not only provided that list for you, but we’ve also scouted out the best products in each category. So before you head to campus, get ready to do some shopping for these essentials. Consider it your first assignment!

The Memory Foam Bed Topper

Colleges vary in so many ways—big, small; public, private; rural, urban—but here’s a universal truth: dorm mattresses are not very comfortable. Even if they aren’t as old as the dorms themselves, they tend to be thin and stiff. That’s why I think a memory foam mattress topper is one of the most essential items for a dorm—because how can you be a successful student if you aren’t getting a good night’s sleep?! This one from Therapedic provides incredibly plush comfort, thanks to a 2.5-inch memory foam inner layer that’s topped with a half-inch quilted outer layer—three inches of heaven!

BUY FROM: Bed, Bath & Beyond, $199.99

The Desk Organizer

Get a jumpstart on staying organized with this compact mesh organizer from Mindspace. At just about nine-inches wide and 5-inches deep, it’s small enough to fit on any desk, but it has plenty of compartments (six to be exact) to store things like pens and pencils, scissors, tacks, glue sticks, notecards, and more. The back compartment is wide enough to hold full-size papers and spiral notebooks.

BUY FROM: Amazon, $18.99

The Refrigerator

Yes, a dorm fridge needs to be small, but it also needs to be functional. This one from Haier is compact enough to meet dorm requirements (most say no bigger than 4.5 cubic feet), but it has a large refrigerated section and a separate freezer compartment that’s big enough—and cold enough—to store a few small pizzas and some ice cream.

BUY FROM: Walmart, $128

The Shower Shoes

Do not, under any circumstances, walk into a communal shower barefoot. Instead, grab a pair of these unisex flip flops, made of durable rubber with holes so water drains out and they dry quickly.

BUY FROM: Bed, Bath & Beyond, $16.99

The Laundry Hamper

This durable bag can fit in your closet or the corner of your room to catch all your dirty clothes. When it’s full, just grab the carrying handles and trek down to the laundry room. It’s big enough to hold a lot of clothes, but when you’re not using it, it collapses for easy storage. The good news: It comes in two colors. The bad news: It doesn't not come with instructions on how to do your laundry!

BUY FROM: Amazon, $12.99+

The Surge Protector/Power Strip

Here’s a two-in-one must-have. Most dorms have a limited number of electrical outlets, so this power strip turns one outlet into six. It also protects your valuable electronics if the electricity spikes or takes a hit from lightning. The device has an on/off switch so you can easily shut down all electronics when they’re not being used.

BUY FROM: Amazon, $8.99

The Desk Lamp

This may be the ultimate desk lamp, with a simple, sleek design, rotating head, auto-off timer and USB charging built into the base. And it offers four lighting modes: super bright white light when you need some help to stay awake; softer white light for reading; a mix of yellow and white light for a more relaxing vibe; and a soft yellow for when you are trying to wind down. Each one has five levels of brightness.

BUY FROM: Amazon, $24.99

The Wall-Safe Tape

Whether your tastes run to photography or artwork or vintage posters, wall decor is the easiest way to turn a drab dorm room into a cozy, personalized space. This new tape from Scotch brand promises to adhere to painted walls, metal, wood, glass, and more but when you are ready to remove it, it comes off easily, leaving no residue or damage behind.

BUY FROM: Target, $2.99

The Microwave Oven

A microwave is a great all-purpose appliance for a dorm room. Use it to heat water for coffee or tea, make popcorn, cook frozen food, and more. This unit from Oster is compact but offers six express cook options and ten power levels.

BUY FROM: Bed, Bath & Beyond, $99.99

The Storage Tote

Grab a few of these sturdy containers to store everything from off-season clothes to blankets, shoes, or extra toiletries. They’re clear so you can easily see what’s inside without having to rummage through. An optional dorm hack: stack a couple of them, cover with a piece plywood and fabric and you have an end table or nightstand!

BUY FROM: Target, $7.99

The Wall Ledge

Command is known for making a wide variety of hooks and hanging products that don’t damage walls—and you’ll definitely want to grab some of those—but you may not know they’ve added new items like this picture ledge. This is a great solution to make use of dorm wall space, whether to display photos and other decorative items or to provide a repository for keys, phones, and other things that can get lost in the (inevitable) clutter on the floor. The ledge mounts easily with Command’s damage-free hanging strips, and can then be removed to reuse in the future. It comes in white and dark grey, holds up to five pounds, and measures 21-inches long.

BUY FROM: Amazon, $17.17

The Mirror

It’s always a good idea to check your look before you head out the door (reminder from mom: check for food in your teeth!). This mirror can hang over a closet door—meaning no holes in the walls—so it’s great for a dorm. And at nearly 51 inches long, it provides a full view of your daily style.

BUY FROM: Target, $14.24

The Flatware Set

For those times when you want to eat something that’s not finger food, this five-piece set has you covered. You’ll have a knife, two forks, and two spoons, in your choice of ten colorful handles.

BUY FROM: Amazon, $11.99

The Dinnerware Set

For a quick bowl of cereal in your room or a late-night piece of pizza, this is a great basic set that includes a bowl and two sizes of plates. And it’s all microwave-safe.

BUY FROM: Amazon, $15.14

The Shower Tote

Whether your shower is connected to your room or down the hall, you’ll want to have a container to keep all of your supplies in one place. This tote has double stitching so it can hold heavy bottles of shampoo, body wash, and more, and it’s made of mesh so water drains out, keeping it dry and mold-free.

BUY FROM: Amazon, $11.87

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