The Essential College Packing List: What You Actually Need to Bring

The time to start thinking about what to pack for college is here! Whether you are a new student or returning, knowing the absolute essentials of what to bring can be a godsend. It can be easy to buy items “just in case” for the school year, trying to imagine something you will presumably need in every situation. However, I’ve seen it for myself last year in the dorms: students tend to overbuy and overcrowd their rooms with already limited space. 

Based on my freshman year experience, below is my take on the essential must-haves, the items you may want, and the items you can skip entirely! This list includes everything on the official University of Michigan packing list from Housing, plus some extra items frequently seen on other college packing lists.

*Items marked with an asterisk can be shared with your roommate, so reach out and coordinate so you both don’t bring duplicates!

Sleeping 🛏️

Yes, Pack It!

  • Sheets and pillowcases (Twin XL)
  • A pillow
  • A blanket or comforter – Make sure to get one that will keep you warm in the winter and fit your Twin XL bed.

Maybe

  • A mattress cover
  • A mattress pad – Consider trying your mattress out before packing one of these. Some people prefer a pad, but U-M provided mattresses are not too thin or uncomfortable, so I’d hold off at first.
  • A backrest or floor cushions – You can use your sleeping pillows as a backrest against the wall. Most people I’ve spoken to didn’t need floor cushions or an additional backrest, but it’s up to you.

Don’t Need

  • Throw pillows – These are often used more for décor than for function, and they generally just end up gathering dust on the floor.
  • Bed risers – These are not allowed in the dorms.

Studying 📚

Yes, Pack It!

  • A laptop – Most classes have online homework or have in-class remote activities. There are places on campus to rent/buy a computer for a discounted price, like the U-M Tech Shop.
  • Writing implements – You will need something to write with. But, you don’t need to buy new pens, pencils, highlighters, markers… just bring what you already have at home! And you probably won’t need a box full of them. 

Maybe

  • A desk lamp – Some people are big dorm-studiers, so having a desk lamp (with LED lights) is practical. If you are unsure how much you’ll use it, or prefer to study outside of your room (check out these green study spaces across campus), hold off on the desk lamp at first. I studied in my room a lot in high school, but always went elsewhere during my Freshman year.
  • Paper – I would not buy lots of paper, whether printer or binder, right up front. Printers provided around campus will have paper if you need to print something. Additionally, Central Student Government (CSG) gives out free green books on the third floor of the Union, so you don’t have to buy any notebooks! I overbought paper and hardly used any of it because I took all of my notes on a device.
  • A calculator and I-clicker – There are calculators and I-clickers for rent through CSG so it’s not necessary to bring your own.

Don’t Need

  • A printer – Michigan has over 400 printers across campus for your use. Students get $24 per term to spend on printing, automatically loaded onto their MCard. 
  • Tape, stapler, or scissors – The community center in each dorm has tape and staplers for use. These cannot be taken from the community center, but there is no need to buy your own set.
  • Desk organizers – You can organize your desk with stuff you already have, like small containers, old mugs, or even upcycled cans and shoe boxes, etc. Don’t worry about buying an elaborate organizational system.

Eating 🍽️

Yes, Pack It!

  • A plate
  • A cup, mug, or thermos – Many coffee shops on and off campus will give you a small discount for bringing your own thermos or mug. Just ask!
  • Utensils – You likely only need one set of fork, knife, and spoon.
  • Food storage containers* – Tupperware can hold leftovers and can also double as bowls. It’s not necessary to have many different sizes, though.
  • A reusable water bottle – There are over 300 water bottle refill stations on campus, and having a water bottle on you can be helpful if you want to drink more water throughout the day.
  • Reusable tote bags* – It’s a good idea to have a reusable shopping bag. Argus Farm Stop and the Target on State Street are popular places to grocery shop very close to campus. And Target will give you a small discount for bringing your own bag.

Maybe

  • A microwave or mini fridge* – These items can be rented through the University, if you think you will use them. That being said, there are refrigerators in the Residence Hall Community Centers for your use, and most academic buildings have a microwave in the student lounges.
  • A can or bottle opener* – Most people don’t have these, but I’m sure if you needed one, someone in your building would have one to borrow.

Don’t Need

  • A coffeemaker – The dining halls have coffee, so you don’t need a coffee maker in your room. Note that coffee pots without automatic shutoffs are not allowed in the dorms. 
  • A toaster – Toasters are not allowed in the dorms. The dining halls have toasters you can use!
  • Salt and pepper shakers – They have these in the dining halls.

Bathing & Staying Healthy 🛁

Yes, Pack It!

  • Shower towels – You don’t need five of them; two will be enough. 
  • Shower shoes – Flip flops work well if you’d rather not buy specific shower shoes, but definitely pack some form of shower shoe.
  • A shower caddy – This is incredibly useful when transporting all of your toiletries to and from the bathroom each day. 
  • Toiletries – The most essential toiletries to bring are shampoo, conditioner (if applicable), soap, deodorant, a toothbrush, toothpaste, and sunscreen. While Michigan is chilly for many months of the school year, the sun is often still out when it’s cold. Sunscreen takes care of your skin! Consider buying sunscreens that are people and environment friendly.

Maybe

  • First aid items (bandages, antibiotic ointment, antiseptic wipes, ice pack, gauze)* – You likely can make yourself a little first aid kit from items you have already have at home. This isn’t an absolute must, but it doesn’t hurt to have the basics nearby, just in case. 
  • Over-the-counter medicines* – At the beginning of the school year, my parents and I bought an array of medicines to have in my dorm room “just in case.” I did not open half of them. Although it’s good to have the absolute essentials on hand, like pain relievers and any allergy medicines, other types can be bought on an as-needed basis. You will avoid overbuying and will save lots of money.

Don’t Need

  • First aid thermometer – This was on the U-M packing list, but I never had any use for one. I don’t know anyone else who used one, either.
  • Heating pad without automatic shutoff – These are not allowed in the dorms.

Cleaning & Laundry 🧹

Yes, Pack It!

  • Dish soap and a rag/sponge*
  • Laundry detergent*
  • Paper towels or reusable dish towels*
  • A laundry bag or hamper – It’s helpful if the laundry bag can be easily carried to and from the laundry room.

Maybe

  • Dryer balls* – Dryer balls reduce drying time compared to dryer sheets, and they are reusable!
  • A swiffer and reusable pads*
  • A clothes drying rack* – You can use this instead of using the school-provided dryers to let your clothes air dry. You will cut your laundry expenses in half if you don’t use the dryer. This isn’t a necessary purchase, though.

Don’t Need

  • Vacuum or handheld vacuum – Residence Hall Community Centers have vacuums you can borrow.
  • Iron and ironing board – I don’t know of anyone who brought an ironing board to campus, even though this is an item listed on U-M’s official packing list. Don’t worry about bringing an iron or ironing board; if by chance you need one, most dorm community centers provide irons to borrow.

Getting Around Town 🚴

Maybe

  • Bike, lock, and helmet – Not everyone brings a bike to campus, but this is a great alternative to driving!

Don’t Need

  • A car – You don’t need a car on campus! Ann Arbor is super walkable, and there is free public transportation for U-M students. If you need to take a further trip, ZipCar offers cars for rent at a discount for U-M students. 

Other Living Needs 👕

Yes, Pack It!

  • Clothes hangers
  • Clothes, including a winter coat – Michigan winters are cold! But, you don’t have to spend $1000 to keep you warm. I spent under $100 at Costco for mine, and I was comfortable all winter. Just make sure to invest in a coat you can wear for many winters to avoid buying another next year!
  • Shoes, including winter shoes – Shoes with good traction are important for the winter, but you do not necessarily need to buy a new pair of winter boots. Hiking shoes or other sneakers paired with thick socks will be enough to walk around campus. 
  • Masks – Reusable masks can be easily washed along with your normal laundry load, and you will not have to worry about running out of disposable masks.
  • A backpack – A waterproof backpack is a good idea. You can always buy backpacks secondhand for a discounted price, or even reuse your high school backpack.
  • Identification documents – You will receive your MCard once you are on campus. If you are interested in getting a student job or internship on campus, you may need your passport to complete the hiring paperwork.

Maybe

  • Storage boxes and closet organizers – It’s a good idea to have some storage organizers under your bed or in your closet. That being said, it can be difficult to predict what size or type you will need until you arrive. If you have some already, I’d encourage you to bring them, especially if they are cloth storage bins since those fold flat and can be moved around easier. Also, you’re creating less demand for plastic in storage bins!
  • A floor lamp* – Some people found that they prefer an alternate light source to their room’s fluorescent lighting. If you find that this is your situation, you can buy a floor lamp (with LED bulbs!), though is something that can be bought later on.
  • Room decorations* – A lot of people enjoy decorating their rooms, and that’s great! Doing so can make your dorm room feel more like a home. Before you buy something, though, ask yourself if you would like it as décor beyond the school year. You’ll save lots of money if you do not redo your room’s decorations every year, and you will reduce your environmental impact, too.
  • Command hooks/strips* – These are helpful if you choose to hang things up on your wall.
  • A power strip – Appliances and electronics use power, even when they are turned off. Power strips are great because they keep all of your cords together, and they stop items plugged into them from drawing power at the flick of a switch!
  • An extension cord – Dorm rooms are not huge, so you may not need an extension cord. I bought one, but did not use it.
  • A portable charger – If you’re finding that your devices are routinely dying, a portable charger will be your friend. I did not need one this school year, but a friend of mine swears by hers, so it really depends on the person.
  • Batteries – You can buy batteries on an as-needed basis. You don’t need to buy them at the beginning of the year just to have them. Also, consider getting rechargeable ones rather than one-time-use batteries.
  • A fan* – Some dorms do not have air conditioning, so having a fan in the warmer months could be a life saver! Note: Alice Lloyd Hall, Couzens Hall, East Quadrangle, Mosher Jordan Hall, North Quadrangle, Stockwell Hall, and West Quadrangle all have air-conditioning, so if you are in one of these halls, you can forgo the fan.
  • A sewing kit* – Having a small sewing kit could be useful for mending clothing items instead of getting rid of them. However, if you don’t know how to sew, maybe wait until you learn how before buying one. Otherwise, it could sit in your dorm, unused, for a while.
  • Games* – This is a good item to coordinate with your roommate on. Also, the Ann Arbor District Library, a few blocks off State Street, has free game rentals.

Don’t Need

  • A clock
  • A rug
  • String lights
  • Candles, wax burners, or incense – These are not allowed in the dorms.
  • Humidifiers – These are not allowed in the dorms, unless approved in advance by Housing.
  • A wireless router – These are not allowed in the dorms. Michigan has campus-wide Wi-Fi, so don’t worry.

Phew! That was a lot! If you’d like the summary, here is a downloadable checklist for your convenience!

I learned from the Office of Campus Sustainability that U-M students in resident halls end up donating around 10 tons of perfectly good but hardly used items at the end of the school year. Use this checklist to avoid adding to that massive total! Buying less in the first place will save you money, and will also reduce the demand on Earth’s natural resources. There are lots of places on or near campus to rent or buy used items from that I never knew about, too, like Property Disposition, the Adventure Leadership Rental Center, and LSA’s Equipment Loans

Good luck with your packing and have a great school year!

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