gift guide for first-generation college-bound students

This is not a shower basket.

Graduation season is upon us, which means a lot of high school students are looking forward to starting college in a few months. Many friends and relatives who are shopping for gifts for a high school graduate look for items that will be useful at college.

If you’re shopping for a teen who will be the first in her family to attend college, there are probably a few must-haves she hasn’t thought of. That was definitely the case when I headed to my dorm 11 years ago.

My life would have been easier if someone had told me about these items on the universal packing-for-college list. Of course, I would have been happy with anyone who would have bought them for me.

  • Shower caddy: The packing list from my college mentioned something about a basket for ferrying your toiletries to and from the communal shower. So I headed to a thrift store and bought a small yellow plastic basket – the kind meant for organizing your closet. Everyone else in my hall brought a plastic shower caddy like this. I was embarrassed to walk down the hall with it. Plus, the basket was usually slimy despite my washing it regularly.
  • Mattress topper: I somehow missed the memo about bringing a mattress cover to college. Everyone else seemed to have a more comfortable bed than I did because they knew to bring one (we called them “egg crates.”) Buy something like this and any college student will sleep better on that institutional dorm mattress. Just check on the school’s website to see if the college your student is heading for uses extra-long mattresses.
  • Bedding: If your student’s school uses standard-sized mattresses in the residence halls and he has a standard-sized twin mattress already, there’s no need to buy new sheets. But a lot of schools have extra-long twin mattresses, in which case he’ll need new bedding.
  • Whiteboard: Most students put dry-erase boards on the doors of their dorm rooms so their friends can leave messages. A small one like this will work perfectly.
  • Non-halogen lighting: During my last year of high school I cashiered at an office supply store. A lot of students from the local college came in with their parents to buy dorm supplies. Many bought halogen desk lamps and returned them hours later after learning that college rules prohibited halogen bulbs. Eventually I started asking customers in my line if the halogen lamps they were buying were meant for the dorm, and if so advised them to pick out new light fixtures. A year later this experience saved me some time and trouble, too.

For the most part, students heading to a college dorm can find the supplies they’ll need by scouring their homes or nearby secondhand stores. But being gifted with a few items that are specific to the residence halls can go a long way toward helping a first-generation student feel comfortable in this new environment.

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