Back to School: Essentials for Your Dorm Room

Andreea Draguleasa
September 25, 2023
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Heading off to college?

Deciding what to bring to a dorm room can be a total headache, but breathe easy. We have a packing list for dorm rooms that is going to save the day. We cover all those easily forgotten yet essential items and even some goodies that can turn your dorm room into the ultimate haven. We’ve also included sneaky tips to maximize space and make your room feel like home. 

Find Out What Is Provided in Your Dorm Room

Before you start stuffing every corner of your suitcase, take a moment. It’s crucial to figure out what your college or university already furnishes in their dorm rooms. A majority of dorm rooms are outfitted with the basics: a bed, a desk, a chair and some sort of storage (drawers or shelves). Lucky you if your college even throws in a mini-fridge and a microwave!

Make sure to visit your college’s website or call the housing office to get the lowdown on what’s provided and what’s a no-go. Being in the know before the big move can keep your wallet happy, save you time and spare you the agony of lugging unnecessary stuff all over campus.

And remember, it’s always smarter to start with the essentials and grab anything else you need later on. Take it from Gillian Tomlinson, a junior at Mount Holyoke College, who learned this lesson the hard way.

“Walking up four flights of stairs in the summer heat carrying awkwardly shaped items is an excellent way to learn how NOT to overpack,” she said.

Heads up: Although dorm beds come with a mattress, all the bedding is on you. It’s helpful to think of it as moving into a semi-furnished pad, not a hotel.

Find Out What Your College Prohibits

Knowing what to bring to your dorm room is important, but so is what you definitely should NOT. Colleges have a list of no-no’s and trust us, they are serious about them. Take Columbia University, for example — no air conditioners, no candles and definitely no electric scooters. And over at the University of Virginia? No pets (except tiny fish), no weapons (obviously) and no bulky furniture.

Here are a few usual suspects that get a big red cross from most colleges:

  • Halogen lamps and those multi-head lamps with plastic shades.
  • Extension cords (though, UL-listed surge protectors with a shut-off safety function are usually a-okay).
  • Cooking appliances like hot plates, toaster ovens and indoor electric grills.
  • Air conditioners and space heaters.
  • Candles, incense and oil lamps.
  • Firearms, weapons and other dangerous stuff.
  • Pets (although, some colleges make an exception for small, non-lethal fish).

Keep in mind that this is just a general list. Your college might have its own set of rules, so you should confirm what’s allowed and what’s not, especially when it comes to essential items like lamps for dorm rooms. Better safe than sorry, right? Plus, this way you have time to adjust and find suitable replacements.

For instance, an unexpected must-have for Tomlinson was a clothes steamer. “My college does not allow students to bring an iron, so in order to get my shirts looking crisp and neat I found myself using a steamer frequently. When my mom first suggested I bring one I was skeptical, but now I use it all the time,” she added.

Packing List for Dorm Room (Essentials Only)

Moving to college is a big step, and while it’s tempting to pack everything, you should really stick to just the essentials. Doing this won’t just give you more room — it will also keep your living space neat and tidy. So, what to bring to your dorm room?

Bedroom Items

Include the basics like bed sheets (usually, Twin XL-size fits college dorm beds), comforters, mattress pads, pillows and pillowcases. Throw in an alarm clock (though your smartphone can serve this purpose if you can remember to charge it every night!) and earplugs if you are a light sleeper.

Bathroom Items and Personal Toiletries

Don’t forget towels, shower shoes (like flip flops), and a shower caddy to carry bathroom supplies.

“Your feet will thank you for the shower shoes,” Tomlinson said. “People underestimate how gross those showers can be.”

Toilet paper, tissues and under-bed storage bins are also necessary, as are basic toiletries like soap, shampoo, conditioner, toothbrush, toothpaste and deodorant. A small first-aid kit, razors and any prescription medications should also make the cut on your essentials packing list for the dorm.


Pack a variety of clothing options, including casual wear, sportswear and a set of formal attire. Also, pack adequate underwear, socks and season-appropriate outerwear. Don’t forget laundry supplies like detergent, a laundry bag and quarters for laundromats.

School Supplies and Electronics

A backpack, laptop or tablet, notebooks, pens and pencils are essential. Also include a planner or calendar, highlighters and sticky notes. According to Tomlinson, power strips are a must-have.

“Some of the dorms I have lived in have only had 2-4 outlets,” she said. “Plugging in a power strip can more than double the outlets, allowing me to plug in my phone, laptop, Nintendo Switch, tea kettle, fairy lights, desk lamp, all at once.”

Plus, you can switch it off when you are not in the room, to conserve energy. 

Room Decor and Lighting

While it might not seem like a top priority, a little bit of room decor can really make your dorm feel like home. Bring a few things that make you happy — photos, posters or even a small plant. Another thing is the standard dorm room lighting can be, well, pretty dismal. So, consider bringing some additional lamps for your dorm room.

A desk lamp is a must-have for those late-night study sessions. And some string lights or a cool floor lamp can totally transform the vibe of your space and make it so much cozier. Just remember to check with your college’s regulations to make sure they are allowed!

Extra, Extra

Remember, this is just a basic packing list for your dorm room. Depending on your personal needs, you might need to add or remove certain items. Also, coordinate with your roommate before buying shared items like a microwave, fridge or cleaning supplies to avoid duplicates on your list of dorm necessities.

While you are having that conversation, Tomlinson suggests also bringing up sharing items or chores. She hosts movie/game nights with her roommate and their friends on a regular basis, so they had to come up with some rules for all.

“We’ve had to discuss things like what’s yours, what’s mine, what’s community property, what’s off limits. I’ve developed a personal system regarding my blankets, pillows and stuffed animals that are only for me and items that anyone can use,” she said.

And Tomlinson offered a hint on what is NOT so essential, “I would suggest only bringing books you refer to often or you know you’ll find time to read,” she said. Fall semester of freshman year, she brought so many books that she never had time to read. “I was either too busy with schoolwork, spending time with friends or reading books from the library,” she added.

Note: You can always purchase things locally or have them shipped if you realize you need something after you’ve moved in.

How To Pack for College

Packing has a lot to do with being smart with your space. You are going to be taking storage bins and organizers with you anyway, right? So let’s make them work double duty. Pack your things directly into them — it’s like a two-for-one, you are packing and organizing at the same time. Use plastic stretch wrap for moving to keep everything in place. Genius, right? 

Here are some more pro packing tips to get you through your move:

  • Roll your clothes instead of folding them. It saves so much space and helps you say goodbye to wrinkles.
  • Don’t forget to label everything. It will make your life so much easier when you are trying to find your stuff amidst the chaos of moving in.
  • Keep the important stuff like documents, meds and your outfit for the first day somewhere you can grab them easily.
  • Before you dash out the door, do a final sweep to make sure you didn’t forget anything.

List of Dorm Necessities Checked

One last thing to consider is that whatever you bring with you, you will have to move out and in to a new dorm between every semester. Finding a self-storage unit near your college to keep your things in during breaks is essential.

The good news is that with each ‘back to school’ time under your belt, Tomlinson feels the process goes more smoothly. “Moving in gets easier every time you do it because you know your needs and the way your school runs the move-in process,” she added. 

We have laid out everything from the must-haves in your bedroom to the right dorm room lighting. And don’t forget those clever packing hacks to save space! Heading to college is a big leap away from home, but a bit of planning can turn that dorm room into your own comfy corner in no time.

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