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From the College Dorm Trenches: What to Bring, Leave at Home

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For the uninitiated, outfitting a college dorm room can be a dizzying experience. Doing it at a time of high inflation can make it even more daunting.

The first step: Meticulously go over what the school allows and provides. If you want a microwave and minifridge, are the energy-saving combo models required? Do you need foam pool noodles to avoid hitting your head under an upper bunk, and if so, might the school provide them? Exactly how thick can a mattress topper be?

“You can see the look of terror on parents’ faces,” said Marianne Szymanski, an independent product researcher who has sent two kids to college. “You know, did I get the right mattress pad? It’s crazy.”

Etsy’s trend expert, Dayna Isom Johnson, said self-expression is top of mind for dorm-bound kids in such things as faux headboards and unique dresser knobs.

“Two of my favorite dorm trends right now are mood-boosting hues that incorporate bright and energetic colors like neon tones, and heritage styles, a nostalgic trend that embodies the traditional collegiate look with items like plaid linens, wood-toned furniture and monograms,” she said.

There’s no end to help out there, from parents swapping tips in social media groups to seasoned college students offering hacks on TikTok.

Some suggestions:

LIGHTING & CHARGING

Dorm rooms have notoriously bad light, and notoriously few electrical outlets in convenient spots. Many schools don’t allow extension cords. For power strips, which are almost always permitted, consider going vertical with a tower that offers surge protection, USB ports and outlets that can accommodate a range of differently shaped plugs.

It may be time to get a three-way charger. Storage carts, headboards and stands with charging capability are plentiful.

Use double-sided tape or hook-and-loop strips to fasten a power strip to the frame of an elevated bed for easy access.

For students so inclined, putting on makeup can be a problem that a lighted makeup mirror can solve. A desk or clip-on lamp is a must for studying. Consider a shared floor lamp. Neon signs are also popular as decorative lighting.

BEDDING & LAUNDRY

Think extra-long twin sheets, mattress protector and thick, cozy mattress pad, but do know some schools don’t allow certain types of gel toppers, Szymanski said. As for all those throw pillows, where do they go when it’s time to sleep? Usually on the perhaps-not-so-clean floor, so maybe buy fewer. Better yet, take along a body pillow.

Buying two or three sets of sheets does mean using up some already limited storage, but students not terribly laundry-responsible won’t go into crisis when the dirties pile up. And if beds are elevated for storage, get curtains to cover the clutter.

What type of laundry hamper to get is a hot topic, and depends on how far from the room the washers and dryers live. There are rolling hampers, compact mesh hampers and all manner of bags. For trekking up and down stairs, huge laundry backpacks (some with padded shoulder straps) are perfect.

A hack: Invest in a clothing steamer or wrinkle release fabric spray rather than an iron.

SHELVING & HOOKS

Extending storage with shelving is a dorm-size jigsaw puzzle. Is there room for over-the-bed shelving? Does the school permit hutches on top of desks, or provide them?

Pro tip: Not a great idea to swap sturdy shelving for an over-the-toilet bathroom version that might not be able to handle something heavy, like a microwave. Also, if a bed will be elevated but not all the way up, a tall bedside stand with extra shelves or drawers might be useful.

Ask the school: Can shelving or stands of any kind be placed in front of windows?

And remember those locker shelves from high school? Use them to extend space in a nightstand or desk.

Those Command stick-on hooks? Bring oh so many, along with the removable poster strips made not to damage walls. Also pick up a couple of over-the-door hangers for bags, coats, robes and hoodies.

CLOSETS & OTHER STORAGE

For the closet, consider sturdy vertical hanger extenders and hanging shoe and clothing storage. Yes, such storage takes up space and adds weight. Can an extra rod be installed?

Storage cubes can triple as seating and step stool, as opposed to a decorative pouf that is simply pretty and comfy.

Under-bed or in-closet storage drawers are essential, along with extra baskets, or at least a bowl for random, easily lost smaller items. Medium plastic baskets for scarves, socks and the like can be used on the top closet shelf.

CLEANING & COOLING

Vacuum cleaners are often available, but they’re usually heavy and must be lugged back and forth. Szymanski has a hack for that. Not your run-of-the-mill portable vacuum but an ultra-mini handheld and battery-operated version called the Ayla. It’s tube-like and just 11 inches tall.

Some students recommend a duster with cling power, along with a dehumidifier or air purifier.

Portable fans are tiny but mighty. Woozoo, a cult favorite, makes oscillating and remote-controlled versions.

Another Szymanski hack: A roll of Rakot75 towels for cleaning. They’re 100% bamboo, come in a 75-count roll, and each sheet can be reused up to six months. Just rinse and reuse.

Don’t forget small trash cans for the bathroom and sleeping area, after coordinating with roommates, of course, on this and other shared items.

DECOR & STYLE

Style is everything for some dorm dwellers.

“People really take pride and they really strive for a sophisticated, grown-up space,” said Adar Kirkham, a DIY designer and star of the new digital series “Freestyled” on HGTV.com. “It’s now considered cool to decorate your room.”

The pros are mixed on whether removable, peel-and-stick wallpaper is a good idea. Some schools may not allow it and it might not adhere to textured walls. Kirkham suggests using it to decorate desk drawers or other storage units.

Some kids bring along decorative mirrors to hang, rather than the usual all-body vertical kind, or they hang strings of twinkle lights.

The site Dormify.com is full of design inspiration and products. This year’s freshmen are more confident than last year’s about personalizing their dorm room, said Amanda Zuckerman, Dormify’s co-founder and CEO.

“More saturation and color is really popular, so bringing in bright pink, bright orange, bright green and turquoise,” she said.

According to Pinterest, searches are up for hippy and preppy dorm styles.

“People are increasingly searching for things like funky mirror ideas, which have tripled since last year. Indoor plant styling is also on the rise. Searching for preppy dorm room has increased 80%. Pink and blue are some really strong colors for that preppy aesthetic,” said Pinterest’s data insights lead Swasti Sarna.

BATHROOM & MISCELLANEOUS

Consider getting some scented Steripod toothbrush protectors. Dorms are dusty. Bathrooms get gross. Toothbrushes might have to be toted around. It should be changed every three months.

Bathrooms are often shared, and stuff gets mixed up. An organizer is essential. Pro tip from the trenches: Use an over-the-door organizer for bathroom stuff. Dormify sells one with a small face mirror built in.

Kirkham suggests a rolling bathroom caddy with just the essentials for quick trips in and out.

Minifridge tip: If allowed leeway on what kind to use, pick one with a separate freezer compartment. It might just guard against freezing food below. Some kids forgo the freezer completely to get more fridge space.

Kirkham, whose show premieres July 24, suggests a minifridge stand that elevates the unit and includes additional storage.

“Everything in a dorm room has to have multiple functions,” she said.

A small, portable, battery-operated blender could be useful. It doesn’t take up a lot of space and it helps students eat healthy options stored in room fridges. Szymanski likes the Blendi.

A tool kit comes in handy, as does a first aid kit. To help elevate a bed, Szymanski said, bring along a rubber mallet.

And rather than a bedside canvas caddy, try an attachable bunk bed tray table. It can hold a drink, a phone and more.

Last but not least: a permanent marker good for labeling fabric as well as plastic.

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