A Toilet Plunger? Yep. Dorm Must-Haves You May Not Have Thought About

An experienced mom and her college student give advice on what to make sure to take to move-in day

By Christen Reiner, publisher of Macaroni KID Lakewood-Littleton and Macaroni KID Downtown Denver, and Jackson Reiner, college sophomore July 17, 2023

College move-in day is right around the corner! I asked my son, a sophomore in college, for a list of dorm must-haves, especially those things we didn't think about — until that precise moment he needed them.

Here is our list of college dorm must-haves that we're sharing with you so you can learn from our mistakes:

The Essentials


Okay, you've probably thought of the basics... comforter, sheets, pillow... But when your kid's bed is directly under a large window or right up against the AC vent, they may need something more substantial to keep them warm and give more coverage.

We opted for a queen-sized comforter instead of a smaller twin-sized one, and my son says that having the queen size was one of the best purchases we made.

MOM TIP: Double-check the size of the bed... regular twin sheets won't fit an XL twin bed.

Extension cords and surge protectors

Until you get there, you won't know how many outlets there will be in the dorm or if they will be located where you need them. And surge protectors are a must to protect laptops and phones!

Wireless mouse

Even if your student is used to a laptop with a touchpad, they may prefer the ease and quickness of a mouse for some classes. I ordered one online to send to my kid because he was losing his mind with the touchpad.

Headphones or earbuds

My son needed headphones that worked with his laptop; surprisingly, not all of them do. The earbuds he had for his phone didn't work with his laptop. We had no idea!  

Trash bags

Listen, I'm not talking about recycled grocery store bags here (although a stash of those is helpful, too). I'm talking about the big black trash bags. You would not believe how much trash teens generate. And when the dining hall offered grab-and-go, it was even worse.

Most dorms require that the residents deposit their trash into dumpsters, and that task will be much easier with the big bags.

MOM TIP: Get the drawstring bags. Have you ever seen a teen trying to figure out how to tie the flaps on a trash bag? It's comical.

Extra phone charger

My son took his charger to a friend's dorm and forgot it. And then that friend went home for the weekend. Need I say more?

Wall hooks and hangers

Find out what the walls are made of in the dorm and what is permitted to be used to hang items on those walls. Hanging up flags (the preferred decor of most college guys today) makes the dorm feel more like home. Your college kid may not admit that this is important, but it is.

Laundry supplies

Unless your freshman is taking advantage of the laundry service at school (yes, that's a thing), they will need laundry soap, dryer sheets, and something to collect and transport their clothes.

Plus, get this... my son's school doesn't allow detergent pods. Thankfully, our awesome orientation leader gave us a heads-up.

A second set of toiletries

My son said the toiletries he started with ran out intermittently, which meant several trips to the store or living without toothpaste for a few days (um, gross).

He thought it would have been good to have a second stash to pull out so he could make fewer trips to the store to restock.

Toilet plunger

So, yeah, most universities DO NOT PROVIDE THIS. Talk about not knowing you need something until you need it.

Side note: The front desk might have a plunger your student can check out. But that's gross, and time is typically of the essence when a plunger is needed. Just sayin'.


Create a first aid kit for your freshman that includes general things like ibuprofen, antibacterial ointment, hydrocortisone cream, and bandages.

Also include cold medicines they are used to, because inevitably, they WILL get a cold, and they will be super thankful that they have those meds to help them feel better without having to hunt them down.

Even if they make fun of you when you give them said first aid kit. Or so I hear.

Junk food

Unless you want your kid to buy their cravings from the vending machine at $1+ a pop, give them a selection of their favorites to get them started. Most dining halls don't carry things like candy, gum, and savory snacks, and your kiddo will want them every once in a while. Or on the daily. (Remind them to ration.) 

Other stuff he had to have

When I asked my son to help me create a list of the must-haves for dorm living, he also insisted that I include a few "nice to haves" as well. Here's his list of non-essential nice-to-haves:


Wireless is best, but a wired speaker will do if necessary. Speakers can be used to block out unwanted noise from roommates or neighbors, provide entertainment, and will get you pumped up on those rare (but necessary) cleaning days.

LED strip lights

Sometimes the bright ceiling lights in most dorms just won't do. LED strip lights offer some additional (and fun) options. You can find them in a variety of price ranges, but my son suggests getting the ones that stick to the wall. 

Coffee maker

Your child WILL struggle with getting to class on time, particularly if they take an early class like mine (even though I STRONGLY suggested staying away from the 8:00 AM time slot). Having the option to fill a travel mug with coffee will save them time, money, and their sanity.

More mom tips

With a year under my belt of moving a kid into a college dorm, here are some tips on how to make the process go smoothly:

  • Pack stuff to take up to the dorms in big plastic totes. They stack up nicely and can store things like extra toilet paper, winter coats, and cleaning supplies.
  • Bring some cash to stash in your college student's stuff. They will need it, and it will be a fun surprise to let them know you are thinking about them.