Many college freshmen will be living away from home for the very first time this fall, away from the rules and routines set by their parents or guardians. This milestone poses a question: “What do I really need to bring?”
We asked experts, including college advisers, parents of college students and college students themselves. The bottom line: pack light, plan ahead and communicate with your school and—if possible—your future roommates.
Caught up in all the excitement that comes with starting college, students and parents tend to approach the task of preparing with a “better to be safe than sorry” mentality.
Elizabeth Cronk of Cicero, and her daughter Morgan, a sophomore at the State University of New York at Cortland, adopted this approach last fall. “I would say with her clothing and personal items, she definitely over-packed,” Cronk says. “She thought she had to move her whole room (to Cortland), and she didn’t.”
But Morgan learned from her mistakes and has become an efficient packer. “She has learned what she doesn’t need to bring, so I’m sure things will be a little easier this time,” Cronk says with a laugh.
Campus administrators say it’s not surprising that many first-year college students over-pack. For many, keeping some sense of familiarity is important: They simply want the things they know and love around them as they venture into the unknown, both academically and socially.
“We took a lot of time decorating so that Morgan would feel more at home,” Cronk says. Things like removable wall decals and other small touches can be worth the effort.
Cathleen Dotterer, director of residence life at Onondaga Community College, says incoming students are encouraged to make themselves comfortable. “If you’re someone who gets homesick, you bring photos or you bring mementos.”
Rachel Lear, 21, and Shane Hare, 22, both recent graduates of OCC, will be transferring to bachelor’s degree programs at other schools this fall. Both served as resident advisers during their second year at OCC. As they prepare to uproot again, they feel ready.
“Last year, I brought a lot more of those knick-knacky things,” Lear says. “You barely even look at it (when you’re on campus), so there’s no point in bringing it if you don’t need it.”
Lear, who lives near Poughkeepsie, says the fact that she was four hours away from home surely contributed to that initial impulse to bring more “stuff” to college. “I brought a lot so that I could make the space more my own. But I also was not the best packer,” she admits.
Hare, whose family is in Cato, took a minimalist approach to packing and learned some things. “I brought just the necessities at first, because I didn’t know what to expect at college,” he says. “As the weeks went on, I would discover, ‘Oh, I need this’ or I need these papers or binders, or even different clothes, because here at OCC it’s very windy. I used to wear shorts a lot, but I decided that was a bad idea and had to get the rest of my clothes from back home.”
Freshmen are often required, or advised, to reside on campus during the first year of college. And most campus housing involves sharing small spaces. Local college administrators recommend planning ahead with roommates and their parents, to avoid duplication of items such as televisions or microwave ovens. Mark Godleski, assistant dean for student development at Le Moyne College, where most first-year students reside in traditional “corridor living” configurations, says the orientation process includes helping students figure out what to bring to school.
“Don’t do the over-packing thing,” he advises.
For many students, getting used to less space is the first adaptation they will make as they begin college life. “We have students coming from homes where they have never had to share a bedroom,” Godleski says. “It’s a lifestyle change.”
Detailed housing information is typically sent to incoming OCC students in July. The room assignment can affect students’ packing, Dotterer says. “In the suite style, they are moving into a bare apartment, so they need all those cooking supplies and bathroom supplies. But in our new building, they’re going to have a different environment where bathroom supplies, like the toilet paper and soap, are going to be provided.”
As for appliances, Cronk says a small refrigerator and a fan were the two most useful items Morgan brought.
Morgan Cronk shared a refrigerator and television with her roommate—which was arranged before they arrived on campus.
Ideally, the opportunity to communicate with roommates before classes start means less duplication of items that can be shared. Hare jokes that, for guys, it’s most often a parent that makes the first telephone contact with their son’s roommates.
“Guys never call,” he says with a laugh. “It’s the parents calling, saying ‘What is your son bringing?’ Otherwise, they’ll bring five microwaves, but no toaster. They’ll bring pots and pans but no dishes to go with it.”
Other seemingly obvious, but often forgotten, items include a rug and a good hand vacuum, says Cronk. “The floors in a dorm can be cold. And, while college students probably won’t be spending much time cleaning, a hand vac is good for quick pickups,” she says. Other tips: Choose a laundry bag over a hamper, and buy extra-long bedsheets.
As a resident adviser, Lear took note of the items students often forgot to bring, or figured would be included in their dorm or suite. “You get people who don’t realize that they do need to bring certain basic things like shower curtains or shower mats for the bathrooms, or even pots and pans or dishes. So, they come here and they’ll ask, ‘Well, where are the dishes?’ It’s one of those things where you kind of have to have your own. Even something as basic as toilet paper, they expect you to provide it for them.”
Cronk suggests avoiding the campus store for necessities. “Don’t buy bedding, or even school supplies through the campus store,” Cronk warns. “Everything is much more expensive on campus.”
Basic school supplies—which Cronk says could easily be forgotten in the excitement over going off to college—can usually be purchased more affordably at the so-called big-box stores. Many students don’t realize that you still need things like pens and notebook paper in college.
“You still need 3-by-5 cards and binders and all of that stuff,” Cronk says. “We bought the things you take for granted when you’re at home, stuff like scissors and tape.”
Lear approaches her supply needs in college much as she did as a high school student. “I still get a notebook and folder for each class. And, always, halfway through the semester I realize that I should have bought a pack of loose-leaf paper,” she says. “You need it for those random things. I’ll grab a big box of pens and pencils just to have them.”
Hare says he, too, still ventures down the school supply aisles each August. “I use binders for each class, and they’re labeled so I know which one to grab for which day,” he says. “A three-ring hole puncher is great because a lot of teachers give you papers you need to keep for the whole semester. You just punch it and put it in your binder instead of throwing it in a folder and you have it with you at all times.”
Hare adds that for many students, another holdover from high school days will be a backpack. “A lot of people say you don’t need a backpack in college, but I hardly see anyone without a backpack.”
Susan Ames, assistant dean for academic advising and engagement at Le Moyne College, says while it is great to have the basics on hand, no matter what your major, students should wait until they get information from their individual professors about what other supplies they may need.
“The syllabus in each class is your bible,” she says. “It’s important for students to read everything from their professors carefully. This will help decide: Do you really need a laptop? Do you need a particular calculator? There are many variables depending on the professor. There are professors everywhere who don’t like laptops in their classes.”
Ames, who has sent each of her own three children off to college, says packing advice and information on computer needs are part of the orientation process at Le Moyne. She advises parents and students to ask questions as soon as they occur. “For example, we do have antivirus (software) on campus, but parents may wonder about its compatibility. The best advice is to ask now, before classes start.”
Dotterer says students should talk honestly before they arrive on campus about what items each roommate or suite mate is comfortable sharing—or not. “If you decide you’re going to bring the TV for the common area, and you’re only going to have that one TV, then you really have to have a conversation about how everyone can use that.”
Part of Lear’s role as a resident adviser was helping students establish ground rules for using each other’s things. “You’ll get people who are like, ‘Oh, the dishes are for everyone to use.’ But then they’ll come to you complaining and screaming because their roommate didn’t wash those dishes. They’ll say, ‘Well, I’m not going to let them use them if they won’t keep them clean.’ You have to let them know that.”
At Le Moyne, and other campuses, advisers have begun using actual contracts to avoid misunderstandings and conflicts. Item sharing is one aspect of those contracts. Roommates are encouraged to talk about who will bring what, and what items will be shared. Resident advisers visit every set of roommates to help them develop their contracts and ensure the documents are signed.
“Students—not their parents—need to fill them out honestly,” Godleski says. “I can’t emphasize that communication piece enough.”
Getting everything on campus is one thing. But it doesn’t hurt to remember that, eventually, it will all have to come back home. The key to moving back and forth? Storage bins.
“I pack all my stuff in plastic bins, and a lot of it just goes into a basement or attic when I get home—except for my clothing,” says Lear. “Even my bedding will stay in storage because I have bedding at home. The bins make it easier when moving in and out, too. Instead of carrying things individually to just be able to throw it in a giant bin and take that out is a lot easier.”
For students attending out-of-state schools, Hare says, renting a storage facility can be a cost-effective option. OCC has students from as far as California and Washington state, and some international students, and they don’t want to travel with bins full of housewares and prefer to put their stuff in storage.
Besides the question of “stuff,” the most important thing a new student can bring to campus this fall is the ability to embrace new experiences and adapt to challenges, Ames says.
“Bring your personality,” she says. “Everyone has different attitudes and habits. This is the time to start learning how to deal with different kinds of people and situations. The ability to be flexible is a skill students will need long after they graduate, no matter what their major.”
Award-winning writer Tammy DiDomenico lives in DeWitt with her husband and two sons.
Photo above: Michael Davis Photo