The time has come. Your high school senior has graduated, made it into the college of their choice, and will soon be flying the nest. It’s hard to let them go, but we do want them to feel prepared, not only for the academics of college life, but also the unfamiliar territory of learning to be an adult without having mom or dad close by.

When my own child left for his first year of college, a seven-hour drive from home, I wanted to make sure he had every possible thing he might need. I followed the lists provided by his school, but quickly realized that those lists are by no means comprehensive. There are a lot of other useful items they’ll need during freshman year that might not be on those school supply lists, and some of the items that are on the lists are more important than others.

Based on mine and my son’s real-life experience, here’s a breakdown of some of the must-haves your teen should bring as they head off to their first year of college:

Extra-long twin comforter set AND a mattress topper

Most dorm rooms are equipped with extra-long twin beds, which is why you’ll see extra-long twin bedding on college supply lists. Don’t make the mistake of thinking your teen can “make do” with regular twin sheets — they won’t fit. And adding a foam mattress pad or thick topper can go a long way to making those narrow mattresses comfier, as well as contributing to better sleep.

Desk lamp and chair cushion

Your teen’s room should come equipped with a desk and chair, but make sure to pack a small desk lamp for well-lit study sessions, and a cute chair cushion because those chairs tend to be pretty unyielding. Better yet, get them their own computer chair for their room. Their back and legs will thank you after hours of studying!

Surge protector outlet

Sure, dorm rooms tend to have multiple electrical outlets. But I’m guessing your teens also have multiple electronics. Making sure they can safely plug in their computer, phone, or gaming systems not only reduces the frustration of trying to find an outlet that isn’t already being used, it helps prevent electronics from accidently getting fried in case of power surges or outages.

Microwave and mini fridge

Initially, my son didn’t think he’d need a fridge or microwave in his room, since there was a common kitchen in his dorm. But he quickly grew to appreciate storing his groceries in his own space, as well as being able to heat up items without having to walk down two flights of stairs.

Once the thrill of cafeteria food wore off, he bought his own groceries fairly often, and having a fridge and microwave was very convenient.

Portable vacuum cleaner

Let’s face it, dorm rooms can get messy. Being able to quickly vacuum up spills and dusty carpets can go a long way toward maintaining at least a moderately clean space. A small handheld or upright vacuum can be easily stored in a closet or under a bed, and if nothing else, it might encourage your teen to be tidy!

Basic room set-up supplies

Everyone likes to make their space their own, so be sure to include tape, thumbtacks (if allowed), favorite posters or prints, and maybe even some string lights. Extra throw pillows for the bed are also a cozy addition to the room, and makes it easier for them to use the bed as a pseudo-couch to sit on while studying or binging a show.

First aid kit, plus medications and prescriptions

A basic first aid kit should be kept handy for minor injuries, and should include not only things like band-aids, but also medicated ointment, burn cream, ibuprofen or aspirin, Pepto-Bismol or similar, and antacids. If your teen takes regular medication, don’t just make sure they take it with them, but also arrange for a pharmacy near (or on) campus to have their prescription info on file. That way if they run low, or misplace their medication, they can easily get a refill.

Toiletry kit

Your teen is probably already planning to take their favorite shampoo, hair products, makeup, etc. But you should also include a small toiletry bag with a few extras. Nail clippers and a nail file, sanitizing wipes, travel size lotion, sunscreen and aloe Vera gel if they’ll be living in sunny weather, Q-tips, cotton balls, shavers, and an extra toothbrush.

Shower shoes, caddy and towels

College dorms often have communal showers, and it’s very easy to pick up fungal infections from steamy shower spaces that aren’t cleaned between every use. A pair of inexpensive flip flop sandals are a must, as well as a portable shower caddy to transport toiletries. And don’t forget to pack at least a few towels and washcloths, as packing only one set is likely to leave your teen reusing the same towel for weeks until they get a chance to do laundry.

Credit or debit card

If your teen doesn’t already have a bank account and a debit card, now’s the time to get one set up. You may also want to download the money transferring app, Venmo (ask your teen, they can help!) so you can quickly transfer money to them if needed. For bigger money emergencies, it can be a good idea to add them as a user to one of your credit cards, just in case they have a situation and aren’t able to reach you. Of course, with cards comes responsibility, and you’ll want to make sure your teen fully understands how the cards work, and set a price point limit with them on how much they can spend.

Streaming service subscriptions

We all need a little downtime, and having subscriptions to services like Netflix or Hulu can be nice way for your teen to unwind. If you already have an account, you can share your login info with them, as most services allow use on multiple devices, or you can set them up with their own subscription.

AAA service if they’re taking their car, and a vehicle emergency kit

If your teen is driving to college, you’ll want to make sure their car is in tip-top shape; tire pressure checked, oil changed, fully serviced for the coming school year. 

Signing them up for AAA or another roadside assistance service (most auto insurance carriers offer this) is another good safety precaution, as you don’t want them to be stranded on the side of a highway somewhere. A basic car emergency kit that includes jumper cables is also important, and I always threw in a couple bottles of water and protein bars.

Family photo book

Before my son left for school, I created a family photo book via an online photo service, and gave it to him as a gift. He loved it, and really appreciated having an album to thumb through when he was missing home.

Care packages or box subscriptions

I think everyone loves getting care packages in the mail, and while I sent my share of homemade goodies to my son, I also set up regular deliveries through online box subscription services. There are a million different kinds of box subscriptions these days, from monthly snack packs, health and beauty samples, books, or tech gear, all in a wide range of prices.


Journaling probably feels a little antiquated for today’s tech-savvy teens, but they might really enjoy the opportunity to write down their thoughts, especially during such a hugely transitional part of life. Going to college is an exciting, emotional, and even slightly scary time, so having an outlet where they can express what they’re feeling can be helpful.

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About Jody Ellis

Jody Ellis is a freelance writer who specializes in beauty, health, travel, fashion and social justice. She is currently part of a fellowship with Community Change, a non-profit focused on writing about social policies that impact low-income families. Her work has appeared in publications such as LennyLetter, Huffington Post, BBC Future Planet, Civil Eats and Eater.

View all posts by Jody Ellis