The Ultimate Checklist for Freshman College Students

Yes, this is about dorm room living but hold on everyone who isn’t sending anyone off to their first year of college. If you’re looking for storage ideas for living in small spaces like me; this has ideas for you too! I use almost all of these ideas in my home and life. 

If you are or know someone who is sending someone off to college for the first time, I have the ultimate college packing list for you.

Annie in her freshman college dorm room
This is pretty much her entire space. The only thing you don’t see is a wardrobe behind her for her clothes

Dorm Rooms are Small

The dorm rooms are small. For most, that’s just a fact of college life. 

You’re probably not going to have a sprawling suite with its own living room, kitchen, and bathroom like you might see on TV. 

You’re going to have a small space with a bed, desk, and maybe a small table or dresser. And that’s it. 

Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to have a dorm with a private bathroom, but chances are you’re going to be in a communal bathroom situation with at least a few other people. Pack some shower shoes. You will thank me later.

So what do you need for your college dorm room with very limited space?

First, you’ll need basic essential items like bedding, towels, and toiletries. Then you’ll want to add some personal touches to make your dorm feel like home. 

Here’s a checklist of dorm essentials to help you get started:

  • Bedding: sheets,  (dorm beds are Twin XL) blankets, pillows, and mattress pad – College mattresses are typically old and maybe 4″ thick
  • Towels: bath towel, hand towel, washcloth
  • Toiletries: soap, shampoo, toothpaste/toothbrush in a shower caddy
  • Electronics: laptop, TV (optional), plugs, chargers, and extension cord with extra USB ports
  • Desk Chair,  desk lamp, desk fan, and basic school supplies
  • Decorations: posters, pictures, plants (optional)
  • Storage
  • Portable Safe – You will want to provide your student with some type of safe where they can keep important items and important documents like their passport, cash, jewelry, and medication.

You can get my complete printable college dorm checklist in my FREE Resource Library. You will have access to all of my printables when you become a friend of living large in a small house

While all of our kids are finally done with college, it’s pretty fresh in my memory the things we needed to set up a college dorm and a college apartment. 

Having brought three kids to college, we have knowledge of the process.  

We always found it so amusing on college move-in day to see loaded trucks pulling a U-Haul.  

Clearly, they spent too much time on Pinterest and have no idea that dorm rooms are just slightly larger than prison cells.  

We have seen very exasperated dads hauling a futon back out to their car. We’ve seen trucks with full-sized couches in the back in front of the dorms. Really!!  

College Dorm Desk Under the bunk bed
This is basically her whole room. Bed loft with desk underneath. There is a small dresser at the end of the bed. This is her entire space.

What you need for a College Dorm Room

Here are my tips for dorm shopping and packing.

  1. Only pack clothes for the next few months, given that your child will probably be coming home in October or November, and can swap out shorts and t-shirts for more sweaters and sweatshirts. If that isn’t the case then you may have to pack for the colder months. Packing clothing in plastic bags is much easier to fit around things in your vehicle than in plastic bins. 
  2. Also, keep the decorating to a minimum.  There isn’t room for much.  We limited ours to a fabric pinboard, fun string lights, decorative pillows, a throw, and an area rug.  We framed some favorite pictures and were done.
  3. Have your students coordinate with their roommate(s) so that they each have one or two large items (mini-fridge, microwave, printer, Kuerig) that they can share.
  4. Unless you’re sending your child to college in “The Bush” of Alaska, I promise you there will be a Target and/or Walmart in every college town and they are very well-prepared and have the best deals for incoming students.  Don’t haul food, bottled water, or paper goods all the way from home.
  5. Amazon Prime is amazing.  We found that we couldn’t get a few items including the right length USB cable anywhere.  In two minutes the items we needed were purchased and scheduled for delivery on Monday (FREE Shipping) to her Dorm.  In addition, your student can stream hundreds of movies and TV shows with your Amazon Prime membership
  6. Chances are that unless you are living on the first floor of a dorm, you will have to climb stairs with all of their stuff. This is incentive enough to keep things to a minimum. 
  7. In our case, our son was much easier than our daughters. He didn’t care about what kind of bedding he had. Additionally having decorations was of no concern to him. However, he did want 30 pairs of socks and underwear so he didn’t have to do laundry very often. 
  8. Speaking of laundry your child will have to do their own laundry so make sure you supply them with quarters. Some but certainly not all college campuses have updated their laundry facilities to accept the swipe of their student ID which can be loaded with “college cash”. A laundry bag or laundry basket is a good idea to help keep clutter down and make taking clothes to the laundry area easier.

Get Creative in a Dorm Room

The key to successful dorm living is to get creative.

  • For instance, lofting your bed is the best way to create more floor space by using your vertical space.
  • If lofting isn’t an option, you can use bed risers to lift the bed so that under-bed storage is possible
  • Rolling Storage Carts – We found these to be very useful and they could work for both personal grooming supplies or they can be a coffee/snack station. 
  • Stackable Plastic Drawers – My kids all had these either on the top shelve of their closet or on the floor for more drawer space.
  • Hanging closet organizers are another creative space idea. Again, use vertical space to give you more storage. We liked both the shoe organizer and the cube organizer. The cube was great for towels, extra sheets, and sweatshirt organizing. 
  • Don’t forget that valuable storage space on the back of the room or closet door! It can house more shoes, robes, and coats. I honestly use those shoe pocket organizers for all kinds of things. My faux flowers are hanging in a shoe pocket organizer on the door of an extra bedroom.

Amazon Dorm Finds

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Emma outside of her sorority house on bid day
Both my girls also lived in a sorority house which is very much like living in a dorm room

Again, if you would like my complete college dorm checklist for FREE, sign-up to be a Friend of Living Large in A Small House!

College Apartments

All of our kids eventually moved into an apartment. That was probably the biggest and most challenging move.

  1. Many college apartments come furnished which is a huge plus. Then all you have to bring is your clothing and a few items to make it homey and your own. That however didn’t happen with our kids. Our kids lived in apartments that needed furnishing. 
  2. Facebook Marketplace is your best friend. I guarantee that college furniture in the common living space will be junk by the time the year is over. Therefore, I wouldn’t spend a lot of money on furniture.
  3. I found a great $5 chair at Goodwill and deconstructed it and made it into a fun chair for our last daughter’s college apartment. It was actually one of the few things that came back home with us.
  4. “Handy” made pallet furniture for the TV Console and the coffee table. They also miraculously held up very well. 
  5. We did buy her a new mattress for her bed just because I can’t stand the thought of sleeping on a used mattress and it is something that she can use in her apartment when she moves out on her own. 
  6. I love IKEA! Quite frankly, you just can’t beat the prices.  We purchased a lot of kitchen essentials from IKEA. None of them made it home so the minimal cost was a perk. They also have bedding, towels, storage items, and some decorative items all at a reasonable price. Their furniture is also reasonable but assembly isn’t always fun. One of “Handy’s” least favorite things is assembling IKEA furniture. 
  7. Dollar Tree can also be your friend for kitchen items, plates, glassware, and cleaning supplies. They also have great storage bins and totes that are perfect for bathroom necessities. Don’t forget that you can order online and have it delivered to your local store for quick and easy pick-up.
  8. Don’t forget that when they move into an apartment they will also need things for a bathroom like a shower curtain, bath mats, and toilet plunger.

New Adventures

Whether it’s their first dorm room or their first apartment, the college journey is always such a fun new life adventure.  If you’re a Mom like me, remember to step back a bit and let them create their own spaces. Full disclosure, it never gets easier to let your kids spread their wings but take comfort in the thought that they typically end up back home for a bit after college. It’s our job to raise them to be prepared for this next phase in life and if we’ve done our job right they will have a wonderful college experience, meet new friends, and start becoming the young adults we’ve set them up to be. 

We moved our youngest into her first adult apartment last year. We are now officially empty nesters. It was a much different experience than a college dorm or apartment. You can read all about that HERE

I hope this is helpful to everyone moving someone into a dorm or apartment or if you’re just looking for some small space organizing ideas!


If you are going to have to move your student with a moving company, here is some great information from MarketWatch about how to save some money.

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pinterest graphic with a picture of an empty dorm rooms. Small with a bunk and a desk underneath the lofted bunk and an overlay that reads "What do you need for a college dorm?"

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  1. Leslie Watkins says:

    Great tips! Amazon to the rescue brings a whole new way of thinking in setting up today’s dorm room!

    1. Things certainly aren’t like when we went to school 😉