The Practical Mom's Guide to Outfitting Your Student for College: Dorm Life

7 years ago
Young woman lying on bed in student dorm, writing in exercise book

Have you gone to your student’s college orientation yet? What’s the number one thing on your mind? If you’re like us, it’s not about the variety of programs the university offers, how fancy the rec center is or how to pay bills -- a subject close to college administrators hearts.

No, the real questions most moms have are mom questions.

What does my teen need to set up their dorm room? Where can we get the best stuff for the least amount of money? What are the things we might be forgetting that our babies will need when we’re not there?

That’s where we come in. Between us we have moved five kids into college dorms (and then moved them on into apartments -- a whole other topic). We’ve learned a lot between kid #1 and kid #5, and we’re ready to share what we’ve learned about what’s worth purchasing, what’s useful and what you shouldn’t waste your money on.

This series has four parts. In this first part we’ll share general tips. Part 2 focuses on Office/Tech/Toolkits.  Part 3 focuses on bed/bath/linens and kitchen/cooking supplies and Part 4 on on Health & Storage Items. Finally we have “Julie’s Ultra-Complete College Packing List” created by Nancy’s daughter. Julie created this list three years ago when she entered freshman year. She gets requests for it all the time. We promise, if you use “the list,” your student won’t be missing a thing.

General Tips

  • Dorm rooms come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Some colleges provide dorm-sized refrigerators and/or microwaves while others don’t. Knowing the room layout and what is provided is the first step in determining what you will need to bring. Check dorm rules before shopping.  Most have limits on allowable appliances, microwave wattage, refrigerator size, etc.
  • Coordinate with roommates to avoid duplication. You do not need and will not be able to fit two 42” flat screen TVs in a dorm room. We don’t know of any kid who doesn’t want his or her dorm room to be the coolest, hippest place on campus. Talk about expectations and reality.
  • Talk with your student about what you’re prepared to provide. It’s much better to have a discussion in the kitchen rather than an argument in the middle of Target.
  • Make a list. Devise a strategy. We recommend shopping early for the best selection. If college is away from home and you decide to wait to shop until you get there, map out your “go-to” stores before you leave. Make sure your car is large enough to fit the biggest item on your list.
  • Fast-forward a couple years. Is your student planning on living in the dorm for multiple years, or moving into an apartment as a sophomore? Make your purchases with that in mind. If the dorm is only for freshman year, some items will only be used for nine months, like extra-long twin bedding, bath caddies, etc.  (Girls seem to be especially keen on lots of dorm-specific accessories that don’t transfer well to apartment living.)
  • Students need a bit of home. Wall and desk space is precious, but if your student hasn’t made the effort, make sure a family photo and a couple shots of good friends makes their way into the dorm room.

Additional Tips for Unfamiliar Cities

  • Find a doctor and a dentist. Kiplinger's financial magazine suggests using your own medical insurance (if there is coverage in your student's college town) is a significant way to save money during the college years. We discovered that campus health clinics don't always operate at night or on weekends. Joan’s daughter Libby developed a severe case of strep throat on the weekend when the college medical clinic was closed. She also had a tooth infection that ended up requiring a root canal. Nancy’s daughter Megan had a severe case of mono two weeks into her first semester. Lesson learned: Find out where the closest 24-hour medical clinics are. Figure out ahead what dental practices in town accept your insurance. Don’t wait until everyone is in panic mode.
  • Explore the town. Take the time to figure out where the closest grocery store, mall and restaurants are.  Joan and Libby searched for fun, inexpensive restaurants and a couple of them became Libby’s comfort food hangouts that first year away from home.
  • Check out public transportation. If public transportation is available, get some maps at the least or, better yet, take a few rides, especially if your student isn’t familiar with using it.
  • Make a connection with something they love. The college campus may not support an important part of your child’s life. While you’re still in town, find a course for the golfer, an art supply store for the painter, or a studio for the dancer who might want to take a class once in a while. In the chaos of preparing for the next adventure in their life, it’s easy to forget that this new school stuff is not 24/7 and doing something familiar can ward off homesickness.
  • Care packages are essential. We’ll remind you of this in a few months, but dropping something in the mail is a great way to stay in touch.

Useful Tips for Moving into a Dorm

  • Pack in laundry baskets and/or plastic crates. They are easier to carry than boxes. Leave what your student wants to use and bring the rest home.
  • A mover’s dolly is useful.
  • Suitcase/duffel bags. If your student is away from home he/she will need some sort of suitcase for traveling home. Libby brought a suitcase and stored seasonal clothes she wasn’t wearing in it. Julie used a duffel bag she could roll up. Very few, if any dorms we know of, have storage areas for sets of luggage.

Last Bit of Advice

Be forewarned. Of course you will be fighting off tears the whole time. Walking away from your child to the car when it's time to leave? Whether it's #1 or #5, we can't sugar coat how hard that is. The whole transition is stressful for everyone. If your teen quits talking to you or flies off the handle, it's normal! Don't flip out if your daughter has a meltdown in the middle of Target. As the saying goes, "Keep calm and carry on!"

Also in this series:

The Comforts of Home in the Dorm

Dorm Tech Tools and Office Supplies

Practical Storage Ideas & Assembling Health Kits for the Dorm

Julie's Uber-Complete College Dorm Packing List

Nancy G

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