College essentials - gift edition
June 25, 2014 6:00 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking to put together a gift basket filled with college essentials for a soon-to-be college freshman living in the (driving distance from home) dorms for the first time. I can afford to drop some money on this, but the big things (computer, etc) have been covered. I can coordinate with the parents so that there aren't too many doubles of the same thing as well. What did you bring to college that was absolutely worth it?
posted by fermezporte to Shopping (42 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
an uncomfortable amount of condoms and lube.
posted by mullacc at 6:01 AM on June 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Big comfy bath towels. I still have mine 12 years later.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 6:02 AM on June 25, 2014 [10 favorites]

I still have my bath towels from college, too!

Get the kid a set of high quality basic tools.

Free condoms flow like wine in college. Sending any more than a small box is stupid.
posted by phunniemee at 6:09 AM on June 25, 2014 [1 favorite]


A travel coffee mug for taking to morning classes.

I have other suggestions, but they really depend on the campus - is it urban or rural?
posted by schroedingersgirl at 6:12 AM on June 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I lived in a dorm/residence all four years of university. I speak from experience.

Quarters for laundry
A small coffee maker (one that brews right in to a travel mug is extra nice) and some good coffee
NICE set of sheets/comforter/pillow for the shitty dorm bed
NICE set of towels
A sizeable gift card for a nearby pizza place with instructions to use for a "pizza party" of sorts for the people in his dorm. INSTANT FRIENDS!
Earplugs (or noise cancelling headphones). SEEEEEERIOUSLY.
Bar fridge (yes, even if there is a communal one)
A frisbee
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 6:15 AM on June 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Nice picnic tools: knife for slicing food, eating surfaces, place "settings," cups. The smaller the better but big enough to not annoy, and a bag to carry it in. Bamboo is sturdy, light, withstands many washings. They won't have a real kitchen, but with this setup they can buy less expensive ingredients than assembled salads, lunches in plastic boxes.
posted by Jesse the K at 6:16 AM on June 25, 2014

Mini-fridge and hotplate, though the latter is probably banned nowadays. (You might find out if there's a communal kitchen or something, someone living away from home for the first time probably needs supplies for that.) One roommate worshipped her coffeemaker. Today, I'd go with high-end noise-cancelling headphones.
posted by Iris Gambol at 6:16 AM on June 25, 2014

A lamp for task lighting with a good, bendy neck that stays where you put it and an even, white light. If possible make it a clamp light.

Those detergent stain pens.

A nicely sized gift card for the local supermarket with a selection of no-cook "recipes" for produce.
posted by Mizu at 6:17 AM on June 25, 2014

Electric kettle. Having the ability to make tea and ramen in your room at unholy hours is priceless.
posted by ActionPopulated at 6:24 AM on June 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

Some kind of fun thing - a dippy videogame, a gift card to a music store, something like that. My mother got a lot of "essentials" when I was getting ready to go to college (although she went WAY overboard because I was the first baby to leave the nest and that's how she manifested her Feels), but my father got me a copy of Eric Clapton's box set as well, which balanced Mom's pile really well. It was a good reminder that "yeah, you're going have to be grownup and responsible and all that, but you are also still allowed to enjoy yourself and have fun too."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:28 AM on June 25, 2014

Seconding the electric kettle - I once got snowed in in my dorm and ate oatmeal for two days thanks to that thing :)

Whiteboard for their door. And, yes, a huge volume of quarters!
posted by kalimac at 6:30 AM on June 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Laundry: find out how close it is to their room, whether there's an elevator, and how paying works (not all colleges have machines that take quarters). If there's a long haul, a decent set of hamper/laundry bags/those little sock bags.

Like a billion Tide to Go pens.

Several small trash cans, made of plastic (aka lightweight and cheap), and extra plastic bags.

Giant roll of paper towels.

Duct tape.

Tea or coffee if they're into one of those; electric kettle is nice for tea drinkers if allowed in their room. Maybe instant espresso if they like coffee but aren't super picky about brewing.

Extra towels, extra set of sheets, mattress topper.

Large bowl: useful for large servings of popcorn, coins, chips if you have friends over, and so forth.

Packet of Sharpies.

Extra microwave-safe mugs, especially if extra large. Useful for ice cream, soup, indian leftovers, and all sorts of caffeine.

Box of plastic cutlery: sure, they might be responsible enough to look after a set of IKEA flatware, but give them a semester to figure that out first. In the meantime, they'll never have to steal the dining center's spoons.

Gift certificate to the closest cheap restaurant of their choosing and maybe a look at the delivery options through GrubHub or seamless- like Indian, Chinese, local pizza/wings place, whatever they really like.

Umbrella (climate depending.)

Unless their folks really prepared them, just loads of extra socks. (Or a Target gift card, for when Laundry Day is just too far away and you really need underwear.)

Extra phone charger. Extra power strips with surge protection.

External hard drive and explicit instructions to 100% absolutely back everything up all the time. Or a Dropbox account. Something. Anything.
posted by jetlagaddict at 6:31 AM on June 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

Also, I would have appreciated some advice, especially stuff like:
- It is really easy to sort of partner up with someone at the beginning simply because you don't know anyone. Spend the first week being nice to people but don't be all besties with anyone YET. Be a little guarded at first until you get a better sense of who people are. I ended up being friends/partnering-up with someone who ended up being absolutely crazy pants and it took a while to finally pry her out of my life and to have people not associate me with her bullshit. So be friendly but be a little selective with who you decide to be FRIENDS friends with.
- Go to class. For real. Even if you don't think there is any point, I guarantee you that you will have a much better grade if you just show up.
- Never say ANYTHING bad about ANYONE that lives in the same dorm as you/them. It WILL get back to them and all hell will break loose. Oh my god, you have no idea. The gossip and the rumour mill in residence is insane. It is way WAY worse than anything in highschool.
- Join a non-competitive intramural sport. Good to stay a bit active, and it is a good way to burn off some stress, AND it is a good way to meet some people.
- Avoid dating someone in your residence. When it turns sour it REALLY turns sour and it hella awkward.
- ALways have emergency food in your room. Instant oatmeal, ramen, etc. There WILL be times when you won't want to/be able to get real food and the emergency food will be a lifesaver
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 6:36 AM on June 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

To me, a bunch of nice lamps (so I never had to use the gross flickery blue dorm overheads) and some yellow semi-sheer curtains made the biggest difference.
posted by you're a kitty! at 6:37 AM on June 25, 2014

Definitely throw in a gift card to whatever coffee shop is on campus - that will be hugely appreciated.

Extra toothpaste, laundry detergent, things that students will never remember to buy.

A roll of quarters for laundry!! Definitely useful and thoughtful. I never had quarters and thus never did laundry.

Pre-addressed and stamped envelopes for writing mail home would be cute, depending on the kind of person this young student is.

If it is not too expensive, my cousin did very well with a projector that he could hook up to his laptop and watch tv/movies on the wall. Makes for a good social occasion with people on the floor.
posted by hepta at 6:37 AM on June 25, 2014

oh man also a decent first aid kit with cortisone cream and decent bandaids and ointment and stuff-- I was always the only one who ever had bandaids and having to walk five blocks to get Tylenol or Tums or whatever was always a huge pain for everyone else.
posted by jetlagaddict at 6:39 AM on June 25, 2014 [4 favorites]

Oh, and get them a rain poncho. The kind that folds in to a little pocket thingy.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 6:42 AM on June 25, 2014

Great advice from jetlagaddict.

We had a mini fridge in our room and a hot water kettle. We really loved having those, especially for winter tea and hot chocolate.

Ask about the bathroom setup. Ours were down the hall so a plastic bucket or caddy was great to have to tote shampoo, toothpaste, toothbrush, etc. to the bathroom and back. Even with a suite bathroom that would probably still be good. Again, depending on the bathroom setup, a nice terry bathrobe to get there and back or to lounge around in your room without feeling exposed.

As others have said, gift card for a local coffee place or restaurant, or food delivery that is a student favorite. I mostly had to depend on the kindness of my boyfriend or dorm mates to get a slice of pizza or snack. A little fun money for food would have been great.
posted by gudrun at 6:49 AM on June 25, 2014

I own a small business making personal care kits ( If you're interested, I can send you some options for custom kits for college students!
posted by jcatus at 6:51 AM on June 25, 2014

I'm thinking about things I still have in my apartment from the beginning of college: towels makes the top of the list, I still have a desk lamp (why ever replace it?). I have a hot water kettle I bought then and got a ton of use out of (made a lot of ramen in an insulated mug). Over-the-ear noise cancelling headphones to facilitate working when their roommate is skyping with their S.O.

Also my parents sent me off to college with a couple of gigantic containers of food from CostCo - pistachios and gummi bears are the ones I really remember.
posted by dismas at 6:52 AM on June 25, 2014


- Really nice bathrobe.
- If a coffee drinker, get a nice electric ketlle and a french press. If tea, a nice electric kettle and a big pot
- Decent lamps -- I had two of these and they added a lot of warmth to my tiny room
- "Fun money" or a gift card to whatever local foodsource there is.

- Condoms. Look, they're available everywhere on campus. And the last thing this young person needs as they sit alone in their dorm (everyone does, sometimes) is a reminder that aunty fermezporte assumed he'd be getting endless ass and he just isn't.
posted by AmandaA at 6:53 AM on June 25, 2014 [6 favorites]

The three most awesome things that I was sent off to college with were
- a laundry kit, with detergent, stain-removals, dryer sheets, a roll of quarters, and a handy instruction card
- a "medicine cabinet": tylenol, tums, band-aids, allergy medicines, cold medicines, itch cream, sunscreen
- 1-2 old "rag" towels. It was awesome to be able to spill something and not have to choose between using my bath towel and running down the hall to the bathroom to get a whole stack of paper towels.
posted by aimedwander at 7:09 AM on June 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

one of my college friends had a featherbed mattress topper and a down duvet on her shitty dorm bed. those, plus flannel sheets/duvet cover in the winter basically made her bed a paradise. sometimes 3-4 of us would make a big cuddle pile in it. cuddle piles make for good college memories.
posted by dynamiiiite at 7:13 AM on June 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

If they have their own printer... printer ink. That shit is expensive and stores aren't open at 2am when you finish your paper (or 4am)
posted by magnetsphere at 7:14 AM on June 25, 2014

One more thing: Dorm beds suck. Foam mattress topper thing, doesn't have to be fancy to dramatically improve the sleeping experience.

Also, yeah, don't do the condom thing. I had friends whose parents/aunts/uncles did that for them and they just were weirded out by it, even though they were generally sex-positive people.

Here's a story about condoms and my mom:
I attended a liberal arts college that, in the health center information sent to incoming students/parents, included the fact that we were entitled to two free condoms a day from the health center.
My mother, a devout Catholic who had basically never discussed sex with me, was reading this letter and summarizing the details to me. She read that line, paused, and then said "[dismas], if you're needing two condoms a day from the health center, you need to study more." Drops the mic, walks out of the room.

posted by dismas at 7:16 AM on June 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

A wheelbarrow-ful of quarters for laundry. (Check first to see if the campus is on a swipe-card system, in which case money for filling up the card.) Maybe you can package it up with some detergent, Oxy, a not-flimsy laundry basket, and a Tide pen.
posted by Liesl at 7:49 AM on June 25, 2014

A well-stocked medicine kit: pain relievers, band aids, tweezers, over-the-counter allergy meds - whatever kiddo would be rummaging around for at home.

Several dishware items - travel mug, cereal bowl, spoon, etc., for late night dorm room snacking.

A small fan - the kind that can clip on to the side of the bed or sit on the desk.

Gift cards


Power bars and/or nuts and/or candy
posted by Ink-stained wretch at 7:56 AM on June 25, 2014

A really nice pair of headphones, both for listening to music and blocking out noise.
posted by Elly Vortex at 7:56 AM on June 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Currently have a child in college and did lots of recent tours:
1. None of the ones we visited required quarters for laundry - several were "free" as in included in your high tuition payments or used their ID swipe cards.

2. Son brought home nice comfy towels aunt gave him because they took too long to dry while hanging on the door and in the dryers. Took back some of our cheap thin towels instead.

3. Many dorms provided minifridges and microwaves or you could only rent from their services. I think it's all about energy efficiency and safety (plus their revenue) so check first. Also banned things like toasters and toaster ovens and other electrical appliances.

4. Emergency kits are awesome. Include flashlights because he did have power failures (candles are banned). All sorts of medicine that you need but don't think about (Over the counter stuff). Band aids, ace bandages, cold pack, heat pack.

5. Cleaning stuff - even my son found things disgusting.

6. Shower shoes - my son didn't get why I thought this was so important until he moved into a dorm!
posted by maxg94 at 8:08 AM on June 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

LED battery puck lights if candles are banned.
A CFL or LED torchiere with a clear or translucent bowl.
posted by brujita at 9:06 AM on June 25, 2014

I vote for a small plastic bucket and some cleaning supplies. A Swiffer (it's collapsable for travel and wonderful for getting the dusty stuff on linoleum floors.)

A Target Gift Card (for dorm supplies) a Pizza Gift Card, an iTunes Gift Card, an Amazon Gift card, with Amazon Prime Student account. (Great benefits, plus can order toiletries online for delivery.)
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:57 AM on June 25, 2014

I nth the idea for gift cards to nearby restaurants or Target , but make sure to get them in small increments - it would suck to get your $200 Target card lost or stolen.

Or maybe mail her a $20 gift card each month, or however much you want to spend.
posted by nakedmolerats at 10:01 AM on June 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

The most useful thing I owned as a college student was a Swiss army knife: knife, can opener, bottle opener, cork puller, little scissors, tweezers, and regular and phillips-head screwdrivers. I used it all the time.
posted by artistic verisimilitude at 11:40 AM on June 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I really liked items that would made my dorm room seem cozy: a couple of throw pillows, a small area rug, throw blanket, posters, picture frames, a small plant, lots of lights, etc... (I wonder if a candle warmer would be allowed?) I hesitated to spend my own limited funds on these types of items, but they made a big difference to my mental health and overall sense of well-being.

I also appreciated food gifts: gift cards, homemade treats, a membership to Costco, etc... (The membership to Costco might sound a little odd, given the size of a typical dormroom. But at my school first year students were not allowed to have cars so when we did find a ride to a grocery store, we tended to stock up. We would usually split items among our floormates/roommates, and save quite a bit of money.)

Having to walk to class, I developed a new awareness of dressing for the weather. Depending on location: rainboats, umbrella, snowboats, rainjacket, etc...

Now that I teach, I really wish college students were willing to spend a bit more on school supplies. Maybe consider putting together an office supply basket: a stapler, staples, pencil sharpener, nicer than average pens, post it notes, printer paper, ink, notecards, etc...
posted by ASlackerPestersMums at 12:10 PM on June 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

a few pestemals (turkish towels). THey can be used as towels, thows, light blankets, head wraps, table cloths, etc. Easy to wash and air dry very fast in stank ass concrete jail humid dorms.
posted by WeekendJen at 12:20 PM on June 25, 2014

My best friend from high school and I gifted the rest of our friends closet organizers for graduation (things like this, for shoes, or this, for clothes. We received lots of thanks, and some of our friends still use them in their homes. Storage space is often at a premium in dorm rooms, and anything that helps to pack as much as possible into a shared closet, under the bed, etc. will likely be useful. (Skinny Huggable Hangers, which were not a thing when I went to college, might also be useful this way.)

If you want to include some kind of small appliance like an electric kettle or mini-fridge, definitely check the college's policies on having these things in dorm rooms first. At my college, we were not allowed to have any appliances that were meant to heat food or beverages (no electric kettles, microwaves, toasters, etc.) in our rooms, and refrigerators had to have certain dimensions that were just a bit smaller than all but one of the models we found in stores. It would be a shame to spend the money and effort hauling something like a fridge to campus only to have his parents haul it home later.

Cleaning supplies will be useful almost instantly. My dad always brought a small laundry basket full of paper towels and rags, garbage bags, oil soap, disinfecting wipes, etc. on moving day, and then left it with me. (On that note, a couple of actual laundry baskets might be useful - I used the same baskets all four years, while friends who had the pop-up mesh hampers from Bed Bath & Beyond or wherever seemed to tear them hauling their clothes and bottles of detergent around.)

Nice bedding and towels were such a comfort to me when I lived in dorms. (I had one of the foam finger pads that someone mentioned above plus a cushioned mattress topper - Dorm beds can vary in size, so it would also be worth checking on that first. My dorm beds were always the "extra-large twin" size, but when my brother went to college he moved into a fancypants dorm that had recently been given a makeover and had full-sized beds. For towels, the largest bath towels/bath sheets you can find would be a godsend for trips to and from the bathroom.

Having recently taught college, I wholeheartedly endorse ASlackerPestersMums' suggestion about office supplies. (If you buy just one thing, a nice stapler and some staples would be really, really useful.)

Honestly, most college students are inundated with new stuff and large quantities of dry goods when they move in, and dorm rooms are small. Driving to the local big box store to stock up on snacks and toiletries or choose a rug or a lamp with your new room-/floormates is an easy way to get to know people during the first few days on campus, too. I'd get a gift card that can be used for this purpose, rather than send a lot of these kinds of things along for the move.

If you want him to remember and love you FOREVER, though, send along a care package with quarters, some snacks, and a gift card for Target or some coffee three or four weeks into the term.
posted by Austenite at 12:59 PM on June 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

18 year old me would have said "fake ID." 24 year old me says "merino wool sweater."
posted by oceanjesse at 1:00 PM on June 25, 2014

Kinetic 2 back for a few weeks from college in NYC says:

printer cartridge refills
electric kettle
cases of Luna bars or other relatively healthy protein bars
microwave popcorn
microwave oven
those one-use sanitizing wipes
hand cream
lots of stretchy gloves
flip flops for the disgusting shower
washcloths or loofahs or other scrubbies
really good face cream
nail polish remover
card for CVS
Amazon prime membership
Netflix membership
cotton balls
nail files
paper clips
posted by kinetic at 2:09 PM on June 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Basic tool kit (hammer, screwdrivers, pliers, measuring tape, level, etc). I had one of these in college and met so many people with it. At first google, this one seems to be nice (dunno about the price):

First-aid kit:
bandages (bandaids, liquid bandage, gauze bandages)
first aid tape
alcohol pads - also handy for getting deodorant marks off clothing
antibiotic ointment
ace bandage
fever reducer/pain reliever (ibuprofen or acetaminophen)
ice pack
hot pack
allergy medicine
cold/Flu medicine
anti-diarrhea medication (e.g. Pepto Bismol)
cough drops
sore throat lozenges
a small book of first aid procedures
posted by wiskunde at 7:20 PM on June 25, 2014

+1 amazing sheets and towels - I appreciated mine well after the college years
A cheap, mini, rice cooker (I made soup, a sort of fried rice by dropping an egg and spam into cooked rice, made instant noodles with it, etc)
Instant coffee packets
posted by like_neon at 1:51 AM on June 26, 2014

If they haven't got a printer yet id recommend a black and white laser printer over an inkjet, bonus if it can printed double sided automatically.

The toner that came with my £100 printer lasted halfway into my second year at Uni, and I printed every single lecture slide out.

Most of my classmates couldn't afford to feed their printer ink at £40 a go, so went without the resources.
posted by chrispy108 at 4:24 AM on June 26, 2014

Nthing the first-aid/illness supplies. They'll be in an enclosed space full of common surfaces with a bunch of new people. They will be eating differently, might be being less active and will probably get less sleep. They will definitely get sick.

Being sick in your dorm is miserable. For your standard cold/flu/stomach issues, it's good to have not only medications and first aid supplies, but the kinds of foods you might be able to tolerate when sick. There may not be anyone to run to the store for Gatorade/Pedialyte, saltines, chicken soup, Kleenex, etc.

On a related note, you might talk to the student about the fact that they'll be responsible for realizing when a cold or flu might be something more serious (or might just not be clearing up on its own). This may sound insultingly basic, but if you're 18 years old and used to being parented, *and* you're busy being sick and miserable, it might not occur to you that it's time to haul ass to student health. If you've already talked with your student about this, it'll be in the back of their mind, at least.
posted by Flipping_Hades_Terwilliger at 9:59 AM on June 26, 2014

« Older Prospects for UK law grad in the US?   |   Best A3+ printer for printing mockups, wireframes... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.