Campus Life

Packing It In for College

Many colleges have already started classes. Others won’t receive students until after Labor Day, which arrives early this year. If you’re a college-bound freshman-to-be who has yet to depart for your halls of ivy, you may be wondering what all to take and, perhaps more importantly, what not to take.

Well, in the spirit of saving you the expense of hiring an 18-wheeler moving van, allow me to advise you about the art of packing for college. Take notes! (Incidentally, if you’re a high school senior who will apply to college this fall, or the parent of one, you should take notes too. You’ll be surprised how fast late August gets here next year.)


Most new college students pack way too many things when they prepare for that first year away on campus. The problem is that they many times forget to take some important items that will come in far more handy than those galoshes that Mom secretly slipped into your bag. A while ago, I was interviewed by a reporter for a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania newspaper about the art of packing for college. The article was sagely entitled “What to pack for college and what to leave behind.” I say “sagely” because the “art” of packing includes knowing what to pack and, perhaps more importantly, what not to pack.

My wife and I are eight-year veterans of college packing. We have a son and a daughter who went through the college years with tons of stuff shuttling between their college homes and ours. Now, many years after their graduation, a good deal of all that stuff takes up space in our downstairs storage areas, a tribute to this family’s pack-rat syndrome.

The challenge comes in knowing what to leave behind. One of the best ways to determine what you need to live is to do a “lifestyle inventory.” A lifestyle inventory is a chronicle of what you use in your everyday life to maintain your current standard of living. It involves taking some notes and pausing for thought, but the result can be quite practical.

Pick a week when you anticipate that your life will be “normal” within the context of your family’s lifestyle. Then pick two weekdays and either Saturday or Sunday as your three sampling days. Get a small notebook and devote two pages to each day. Divide each day’s pages into sections for morning, afternoon, and evening.

For each of your three sampling days, make entries in your notebook at the end of each day’s three periods. At noon, review the morning and write down everything of yours that you needed during the morning. At dinner, recap the afternoon, and before bed review your evening’s needs. You’ll then have a list of 85-90 percent of everything you’ll need to pack for school. The other 10-15 percent will come in the form of suggestions from your Mother.

Women tend to pack much more than guys. In fact, guys tend to forget stuff they need, requiring supply runs during the year. If you have to travel long distances to get to your school, it will pay to do your research now. A good generality is to think cool for early Fall and late Spring and think warm for late Fall and early Spring. At a minimum, you’ll need your fan and a warm coat (and gloves) to meet this requirement.

If you want to go directly to a semi-scientific (at least well-organized) list for packing, head to Campus Grotto. Their approach tells us:

With college starting soon, use this packing checklist as reference when determining what to bring.

Notes about what to bring to college:

  1. Coordinate with your roommate on who is bringing what so you don’t end up with two of the same thing. There is only so much room in a dorm.
  2. Check with your college and see what items are allowed. Some dorms prohibit certain small appliances.

Quick tips for purchasing items for college:

  1. Check campus classifieds and Craigslist. Buying used is obviously going to be cheaper.
  2. Shop thrift stores and places like Target for more affordable items.
  3. Order from Amazon.com and get it shipped for free with Amazon Prime (free for college students).

Plus, they even pay attention to gender specifics:

Here are some more print-friendly versions of this college packing list for both Guys and Girls.

This is a very helpful site. But perhaps the most realistic, in-the-trenches information comes from the College Confidential discussion forum. Here are some insights from that magnificent resource:

Another consideration isn’t just what to pack but how many.

For instance, when my family went on vacation last month, I knew I’d need t-shirts, but I realize with hindsight that I could have survived without six. Likewise, you college students probably don’t need to bring your entire set of “Days of the Week” handkerchiefs. You should be able to get away with just “Monday.” (But your “Days of the Week” underwear collection could be a different story. I wouldn’t stop packing before at least “Friday.” )

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And sometimes there are even stores in the wilderness. One time, in fact, I climbed Mt. Washington and sweated through all the t-shirts in my backpack. So, when I reached the summit, I was freezing in a wet shirt and finally succumbed to the overpriced gift shop where I bought another one for the climb down.

But it annoyed me. It seems unnecessary to purchase gear that you already have at home just so you won’t have to pack it. But for those who were planning to buy new stuff anyway before heading to school, it can often make sense to wait and get at least some of it once you get there. Not only will that save some schlepping, but also it can be helpful to see what the campus style is like (and maybe the climate, too) before deciding what you’ll really need.

In other words, there is lots of stuff that can’t go onto the “Put-Back” list but definitely qualifies for the ” Cut-Back” roster!

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Do not try to sneak alcohol in IN YOUR MINIFRIDGE. Some idiot did this a couple years ago and the moment their fridge was set down, the door on it popped open, and the RA just so happened to be walking in. Needless to say, fastest write-up in the university’s history.

@ksar, a mini ironing board and small iron (one that can be stored away easily) are ok, if you HAVE to iron…but honestly most clothes I have at school don’t need ironing. I’m really not sure that there would be an iron/ironing board available from residence life.

@nattilee, it depends on how much you have in the way of clothing, and how close to home your school is. If you live far away from school, more clothing may be necessary, but remember that you have limited space. Pack seasonally, and don’t pack things you never wear. It’s also nice not to have to lug tons of clothes back and forth from school to home for visits because ALL your clothes are at school.

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My daughter is a clothes horse – no matter where we go and for how long, she always has the biggest, heaviest suitcase of us all! We did the “only take 2/3 of what you think you need” and she still blew away every other freshman girl with her quantity of clothes. She also wore almost all of it!

I tried to tell her not to bring clothes that need to be dry cleaned or hand washed. She didn’t listen but didn’t mind bringing her clothes to a local dry cleaners and figured out a way to hang all her handwashables throughout her dorm room.

This year she’s moving into an apartment off campus that is unfurnished(?!) and we just bought her a bed that’s basically a mattress on top of 8 drawers plus a 5 drawer dresser. This is easily 3 times the amount of clothing space as her dorm room and we’re not even including the clothes closet in her room plus the coat closet in the entrance.

Oh, she didn’t use the hot chocolate maker last year so I think she’s leaving that home. Bless you UPS!

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-Books to read in spare time, because that generally doesn’t happen much in college. If you think you may read, pack a couple books and see if you finish them. if you end up reading a lot on your own, then have your parents mail you the rest of the books or whatever or bring them back after break.

-TV. TVs generally go unused more often than not in college, so maybe see if you really want one first before hauling one out.

About the piano, I plan on bringing an electric piano, and I was thinking 88 keys. I ended up freshman year playing almost an hour a day, but now I’d like to play without disturbing people. Should I just not bring one, or downsize, or what?

As I explained to the reporter in my interview:

Avoid redundancy. “Get in touch with your roommates and find out what they are bringing,” Mr. Berry said. Have an idea of the dorm room’s accommodations beforehand by asking the school’s housing or residence life office what type of storage is available. To create extra space, bring bed risers and space bags that compress clothes.

Consider climate. “Because of the geographic diversity in colleges today, kids from the deep South are going to school in Minnesota and vice versa,” Mr. Berry said. “Not being acquainted with the harshness of the climate should be taken into consideration when you plan your packing.”

A good way to find out how to pack for the weather is to ask a returning student. “If you go on a tour there, try to get the name of somebody who is a current student, get the name of your tour guide or contact the admissions office and ask if they can put you in touch with a current student,” Mr. Berry said.

Don’t haul clothes for every season for the first semester. Swap fall clothes for winter wear during Christmas vacation and grab warm-weather gear when you’re home during spring break.

Finally, as you pack up the family car, van, or SUV, remember one crucial thing: Keep the pile on the roof of your car low enough to clear all Interstate overpasses and gas station canopies. You don’t want to lose that priceless Justin Bieber poster. Happy packing!

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Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles on College Confidential.