What NOT to Pack for College

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.

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For those of you–both college students and parents–who are about to head out to dorms this month and next, here are two very interesting sources of information (in addition to my highly insightful comments linked above :-)) that can guide you in that ultra-important area of what to leave behind.

The first comes from our old friend, Consumerist.com. They ask readers to Tell Us What You Thought You’d Need At College, But Really Didn’t. There are some interesting responses:

A giant house and 3 roommates. Definitely didn’t need them.

Seriously, though:

– anything my roommate already had (check with them before moving in and buying unnecessary duplicates like TVs, microwaves, little fridges)
– More than two bowls, two plates, two sets of silverware. If I had more, they just got dirty and I ignored them until they smelled. With less, you have to wash more and that’s a good thing.
– Anything fancy or too nice. Buy the cheap stuff because nice things will likely get ruined (if you’re living in the dorms).
– Anything the college already provides (don’t buy a mini-fridge if you’re already going to have one in your room).
– Car as a freshman/sophomore. If you live on campus, you likely won’t be using it much and it will just cost you money.
– A backpack. A laptop bag will serve you better as it doesn’t crush papers and notebooks as often.
– All of your clothes. Bring enough changes to last two weeks, then do laundry. You’ll have less clutter, cleaner clothes, and room to change your style when you realize that your high school football letter jacket isn’t getting you any play.
– Clothes inappropriate for the climate. If you’re going to school someplace it never gets below 70 degrees, don’t bring all of your snow clothes. Likewise, if you’re going someplace it averages 50 degrees during the school season, you probably don’t need more than one pair of shorts.
– 90% of the things I got as graduation gifts. Well intended, but money would have been better.

When there’s a post about things you didn’t think about but definitely need, I have some suggestions there, too.

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A landline. We only ever used it to call other people on campus (everyone had an extension). Eventually we stopped using it entirely because we just called cell phones, texted, or IMed each other. Then I moved to an apartment off campus and a landline was completely moot.

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a tv, a microwave, a minifridge, basically any amenity whatsoever. The dorms in the common rooms have everything worth having or doing. Consider your actual room like the cabin room on a big cruise ship. Don’t take anything you’d miss if it went missing, and take only the absolute minimum, giving you plenty of reason to get out of the tiny room — outside that room is where everything worthwhile in college generally happens.

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1. A dorm room. Finding an apartment with fellow students was less expensive, gave us more space and more freedom than the dorms allowed.
2. A campus meal plan. Some schools actually require you to buy the meal plan as a freshman, whether you’re living on campus or not, but skip it if you can. The food doesn’t change much and you’ll get sick of it fast. Better to cook your own food, and if you do it right you could save money.
3. A car. Even if you’re in an apartment, you should really be within walking distance of the school, or at least biking distance.

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Textbooks – Find out what your library privileges are and check there before you buy. If you’re in some kind of honors program, you probably have term-length library privileges, so you can get a lot of your books there for free. Don’t ever buy novels for English classes – the library will definitely have those and you won’t spend that long on them in class.

Meal plans – If you are required to have one, buy the cheapest and re-up as you go. You’ll use it less than you think.

Anything to decorate your dorm room – I hauled boxes of pictures and knick-knacks to college to make my dorm room less sterile, but never did anything with it. Between my less than trustworthy assigned roommates, all the people tromping through, and moving every year, decor was more trouble than it was worth. Take sheets, a comforter, and pick up posters you can throw away at the end of the year when there’s a sale on-campus.

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I was living in the desert southwest and then went to college 1500 miles away in the “lake effect snow” area. I only had a suitcase and 2 footlockers to pack in (for the flight) so I stripped down to the bare essentials.

I’d almost recommend not bringing anything besides yourself, a week or so of clothes, basic bedding/toiletries, computer and an alarm clock. Save your money and buy things as you discover you need them.* The $16 you spent in August on the XYZ you didn’t use would sure come in handy later in the year.

*This is especially true if the parents come to visit or the student goes home w/in the first two weeks of the semester. Wait for mid-September and you’ll probably see some sales on “back to school” goods.

(15 years ago, a coworker spent a week or so checking on textbook pricing for her daughter who went to Big Name School. This coworker found that half her daughter’s textbooks where also being used at the local community college and sold for 25% to 60% less in the CC’s bookstore.)

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The other source of sage data comes from the College Confidential discussion forum, in a thread brilliantly entitled–exactly like the title of my blog post here-What NOT to Pack for College. Some comment highlights:

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?

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For girls:
You definitely don’t need to go overboard on jeans and shoes (about 5 pairs of nice jeans and for shoes: black pumps, black flats, flip flops, brown and black boots, wellies, uggs, and 1-2 cute pairs are all you’ll need for most schools)
but shirts dresses and skirts are another story! you want enough cute going out tops and tailgating dresses that you don’t really have to repeat much while in the same groups of people. you also want to have an array of nice skirts and blouses, or conservative dresses, because you never know when an impromptu job offer of career fair will come around.
i definitely did not have enough going out tops my first year and had to do major shopping fall break!
but i did bring too many jeans and too many t-shirts! also you can never have enough leggings or nike shorts, since you’ll wear them a lot and cant wear them more than once without washing.

as for the question about purses, etc… i always have my purse and phone on me. i only brought purses that cost under $500 and can be easily replaced (vintage chanel = a no no!!!) i dont mind leaving things in my room because my roommate and i are good about locking the door, and i trust her to respect my things. i bought a laptop lock and never used it because there was no need. when i was in the library, i just asked a friend to watch it while i used the restroom and it was safe in my room because we locked the door.

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Things I second:

1. Don’t bring clothes you don’t already wear at home. Seriously. If it’s useless now, it will remain useless.

2. Don’t buy a winter coat until you get there.

Some obvious ones:

1. Don’t bring toiletries, don’t bring those lotions you have but rarely use in your bathroom at home, etc. Buy them as you need them.

2. Don’t bring uncomfortable shoes. Duh.

3. Don’t bring more than a few books/DVDs/etc. from home, because time is short, space is tight, and your school has a library.

4. Don’t bring a TV if your school provides internet TV access.

5. Don’t bring decorations/rugs/curtains/etc. unless you know both the tastes of your roommate(s) and the precise measurements and policies of your dorm.

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There are lots more comments, but these represent some good thinking. I’ll leave you with one final thought about what not to pack: When in doubt, leave it out!

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Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.