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What Your Child Really Needs for College

Another child is going off to college, which means I have before me a giant list from a giant retailer. So you get a list from the store and a list from the school. The stores often coordinate their lists with the schools so, for example, they note whether your child’s school has the ubiquitous extra long twin beds, or regular twins. But it’s also good to check the school list because it will include items that are not allowed in dorm rooms. Which is very useful information.

One particular store does a great service for college parents and kids, because you can order in your home city and pick up at the location nearest to the college, which saves shipping, time and money. Also, you should know that when you get there, you don’t actually have to buy all the things you’ve ordered, even though they’ve nicely put them all on a cart for you. You can put anything back.

Here’s some advice to go with all those lists.

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If at all possible, see the room before you pick anything up. Ask yourself where everything will go. How much storage is in there already? Was the college-supplied room inventory accurate? Is the bed actually the same size you thought it was? What did the roommate(s) bring?

And as you go through the lists, ask yourself these questions:

1. Does your child use this item at home? So many items seem unlikely to pass that test. A hand-vac, for example, sounds like a great idea, but has your child ever cleaned her keyboard or her drawers? If not, don’t bother.

2. Are you buying the item because you hope fervently your child will use it? Think about all things related to laundry and storage, for example. Ditto cleaning products. Some items on the store list cry out for either an average parent’s admiration (they’ve thought of everything!), or astonishment, or both: a dry erase board, blackout panels, room fragrance. One retailer’s list suggests an ironing board. I know there are some mostly female, undoubtedly stylish students who would use one. But for my kids? Not in a billion years.

Those two questions shorten your list rather effectively. It doesn’t mean you can’t buy fabric softener anyway, but at least you will have realistic expectations about its use.

But leaving aside the sheets and towels, shower shoes and hangers, I have my own list of freshman necessities. Consider purchasing these or even bringing them from home, if it’s cost-effective. These are items my kids actually used and appreciated:

A refrigerator. Some campuses have rentals; we bought one.

A bicycle. A good bicycle lock.

Basic tools. Small hammer, pliers, small screwdrivers.

Kitchen items. A mug, a supply of tea or coffee or both. Even if they’re not allowed to have a microwave or an electric kettle (a great item if allowed) there is usually common kitchen space in the dorm where water can be boiled.

Don’t forget that you can always send things to your child.

Vitamins/o-t-c medicines. Dissolvable vitamin C, for example, is great when fall turns cold and viruses start their rounds. Then, when when your child calls to complain that he/she is getting sick you can say, “You know that shelf above your desk? That’s where I put the vitamin C and ibuprofen.” You’ll both feel better.

Bug spray. Think of all those mosquitoes just waiting through the summer for the fresh blood to arrive. And, if you have a nature-lover, make sure your child knows about ticks and Lyme disease.

An area rug. Discuss and choose with the roommate(s). It will be nice and warm under their feet. Dark colors are good.

As for computer items ...

Check if your child’s campus offers printing in the library, and/or if professors accept papers by email. You can get great printers for very little money, but ink is expensive so this is a great item to skip if you can.

Everyone these days seems to offer capacious thumb drives for not a lot of money, but so much storage is Internet-based now, that certainly just one will do for file-moving purposes.

I’d definitely invest in a many-outlet surge protector/extension cord. Older dorms (as in pre-1990) don’t often have enough outlets to cover charging all your child’s essentials.

An ethernet cord. Most campuses have their own Wi-Fi networks, but reliable sources tell me they can be slow. Plugging in may be slightly less nifty, but the speed makes up for it.

A fan.

And don’t forget that you can always send things to your child. Packages and mail are thoroughly appreciated and can contain useful items along with care package-type food and gifts. Campus stores also sell everything from textbooks to toothpaste, and though it may not be quite as cost-effective, it means that with or without a car, in big city or a rural village, your child will have access to necessities.

RELATED: What Not to Get a College Graduate

A final note of sanity: My son and I turned up in his dorm room with all manner of items requiring several trips from the car—two sets of sheets, towels, multiple pillows, hangers, a clip-on lamp that never quite clipped right—and we went about busily setting them up. When his roommate arrived, he brought a total of two large-ish plastic storage boxes. One entire box was filled with books. That left one box for all linens, clothing, and supplies. I know for a fact that in spite of his roommate’s lack of creature comforts, he survived without mishap and got fabulous grades.

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