The Best School Supplies for Back to School

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Whether you’re a teacher furnishing a classroom, a parent prepping your kindergartener for their first day, or a college student setting out on your own for the first time, everyone could use a hand when it comes to shopping for supplies. That’s why we’ve spent more than 160 hours evaluating school supplies to find the best for any student.

Last Updated: This month
L.L.Bean has altered our elementary school backpack pick, the Junior Original Book Pack, by adding a water-bottle side pocket. The company says that the versions are otherwise identical. We’ll be testing the new feature soon, and we have updated our links to point to the new versions. We’ve also checked the rest of our recommendations, and we are confident that they are the best supplies for the fall 2017 school year.
Expand Most Recent Updates
12 months ago: We’ve added previews of our picks for the best school backpacks for kids and high school/college students to our review of the best school supplies. We hope to get the full reviews up in the coming weeks. In the meantime you can also check out our guides to our favorite laptop backpacks or messenger bags for some more-stylish options.

This review covers school supplies. If you’re interested in gear for your dorm room, please check out our review of college dorm essentials.

Table of contents

School backpacks

L.L.Bean Quad Pack
Great breathability and a large variety of pockets make it great for schlepping books and electronics. It’s also big enough to work as a weekender.

After loading up five top-rated school backpacks with supplies, gadgets, and books, and living with them for several weeks in the hot-and-humid New York City summer, we’ve determined that the L.L.Bean Quad is the best school backpack for teenagers and college students. The Quad is a great, tough, all-purpose backpack that has useful pockets and won’t leave you with a too-sweaty back after a walk in the summertime.

Compared with similarly priced competitors, our pick balances comfort with a smart blend of school-bag and hiking-bag features at a nice price. You can find cheaper bags that will hold up fine for a few years at school, as well as pricier options that might serve you better on a mountain trail, but the Quad is a pick that’s nicely versatile and affordable. We particularly love its large, zippered exterior pouch, which gives you almost instant access to anything from a light pair of running shoes to a fully packed bag lunch.

The North Face Recon
This model is more water resistant and tougher than our top pick, so it’s better for hiking. But it’s also a touch heavier, and the stiff straps aren’t as comfortable.
The North Face Women’s Recon
This is the same design with a back panel and straps for a "women-specific fit," but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll fit your body better. Test both types if you can.

If being a student is only your day job and hiking is your passion, you might prefer the pricier unisex North Face Recon. (We also like that North Face offers a version with a “women-specific fit.”) Next to the Quad, the Recon is tougher and water-resistant (albeit a touch heavier); it also has a few more fleece-lined pockets, making it a good choice for gadget lovers. While the Recon and the Quad have similar breathability and comfort, we preferred the Quad’s more versatile pockets and softer shoulder straps. The Recon is available in a wider variety of colors and patterns, for what it’s worth. If the Quad and Recon were the same price, the choice would be harder, but since the Recon tends to cost about $20 more, the Quad is the clear pick for most students. —Michael Zhao and Mathew Olson

L.L.Bean Junior Original Book Pack (Solid Colors)
This durable, basic pack is sized right and built tough enough for younger students.

We’ve also tested backpacks for younger students, but a classic pick is an early favorite: L.L.Bean’s Junior Original Book Pack won last year because it’s extremely durable and appropriately sized for the K–3 set (fourth- and fifth-graders might want to look at the company’s larger options). It’s big enough to carry the necessities—the dimensions allow for composition books, spiral-bound notebooks, and letter-size folders and portfolios, and the pack can easily fit a reasonable day’s load along with a sweater, lunch, and a pencil case—but it isn’t so big that it’ll overwhelm its wearer when full. (The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that a backpack “should never weigh more than 10 to 20 percent of your child’s body weight.”)

The Junior Original is just as hardy and simply designed as its bigger sibling, with an easy-to-access main compartment and rugged zippers. The front pocket, which is adorned with a big, visible Scotchlite reflective strip for safety, includes a well-thought-out organizer panel. And at $25 (currently) with a lifetime, no-questions-asked guarantee, this pack is a better deal than anything else out there.

Older students looking for something more fashionable than functional should consult our reviews of our favorite laptop backpacks and messenger bags, which feature a variety of styles to fit almost any budget. —Michael Berk

Pens, pencils, and correction tools

Ballpoint pen

If you need a pen to take notes in class or write exam essays, the one to grab is the Uni-ball Jetstream (just don’t lend it out, because you might never get it back). When we interviewed pen experts with more than 17 years of combined experience writing about writing tools, they all agreed on one thing: The Uni-ball Jetstream is the best pen for almost anyone. It’s pretty widely available, and it creates one of the smoothest, quickest-drying lines you can find. It won’t bleed, it won’t skip, it won’t feather. It will dry indelibly—and so quickly that left-handed people can use it without worrying about smudging.

The Jetstream also requires little pressure to write with, so once you get a feel for how to use it, you can write incredibly fast since it pretty much glides over the page, especially if you write in cursive.

The Jetstream isn’t the cheapest pen in the world, but it’s not so expensive that if you loan one to a classmate it’ll be a huge problem when you discover that they chewed on the thing. It’s available in a wide array of sizes, from 0.38 mm up to 1.0 mm, with a bunch of different bodies in different styles. For most people, though, the 0.5 mm version is easy to find, a joy to write with, and ready to use after lingering at the bottom of your bag for a few weeks. —Tim Barribeau

Felt-tip pen

For elementary-schoolers just developing their penmanship, a fine-point (in the 0.8-mm-to-1.0-mm range) felt-tip pen makes a great all-around writing and drawing tool. Such a pen provides a more confidence-inspiring writing experience than a rollerball pen like our main pick. After spending six hours researching 20 popular models and testing five alongside a number of ballpoint, roller, and gel pens, we think Paper Mate’s Flair felt-tip pen is the one to get. The Flair is a common item on school supply lists across the country, and we think that’s for good reason: Its porous tip doesn’t require as much pressure as a ballpoint, it’s easier to handle on writing paper than a speedier rollerball or gel pen, and it still produces smooth, consistent lettering. And its water-based ink dries more quickly, making for less smearing and mess. (It’s also easier to get out of clothes than a permanent ink.) —MB

Highlighter

After testing seven top-ranked highlighters over the past two years by marking up many pages of handwritten notes, printed documents, and books, we’ve determined that the Sharpie Clear View is the best because its see-through tip doesn’t block the text that you’re highlighting. This design seems like a gimmick, but we found that the Clear View made drawing straight, accurate highlights easier than any of the other markers. In our tests, the bright and visible ink worked well over print, pencil, and pen ink (though it smeared a bit on wet rollerball and marker) and exhibited minimal bleed-through save on the thinnest pages. —MB

If you can’t find the Sharpie Clear View, the Staedtler Textsurfer Classic, our favorite from last year, remains a great pick. The Textsurfer Classic offers a comfortable barrel shape, great ink visibility, and long life. It’s also low smear, especially over fresh ink, so if your primary use for a highlighter is keeping track of important ideas in your own notes as you go, it might be a better choice for you than the Sharpie. This highlighter is even refillable, though the refills can be difficult to track down. —MB

We also like the Sharpie Gel Highlighter, a fluorescent-hued crayon that goes on dry and works well for highlighting books since it avoids bleed-through on even the thinnest papers. Since the Gel Highlighter is dry to begin with, it won’t dry out. In our tests, we struggled a bit with accuracy given the broad, rounded tip, and this highlighter smeared handwritten ink and pencil notes a little more than the other products we tried. Still, if you mainly want to highlight in books and need something you can throw into your bag and forget, the Gel Highlighter is worth considering. —MB

Mechanical pencil

The Uni-ball Kuru Toga mechanical pencil sets itself apart from the 127 other models we evaluated through research, interviews, surveys, and testing. Unlike any other widely available pencil, the Kuru Toga has a unique ratcheting internal mechanism, so each time you lift the pencil from the page, the lead rotates a tiny amount. What does that mean? The sharpest point of your lead will always touch the paper, and you won’t constantly fidget to rotate the pencil in your hand.

Because the point never gets blunt, your notes, diagrams, and charts will look exactly as sharp when you finish the page as when you started it. And your lines will always have the same width. It’s like writing with a ballpoint pen but with all the flexibility of a pencil.

The biggest downside of the Kuru Toga is its tiny little nub of an eraser. If you prefer to use a built-in eraser rather than a standalone one, we love the Pentel Twist-Erase with its gigantic, retractable and refillable eraser. Critics don’t herald its praises like they do for the Kuru Toga, but the Twist-Erase is by far the most popular pencil of its kind and was one of the most popular models among our reader survey.

Available in a number of sizes, shapes, and styles, the Twist-Erase will actually have a large enough eraser to deal with the various requirements of people who need to go back and correct things a lot. It has a large, soft rubber grip, a fairly basic and durable plastic body, and a click action to advance the lead, and a twist on the back extends the eraser. —TB

Wooden pencil

While many students these days prefer mechanical pencils, a good #2 (or HB) woodcase pencil is often a requirement for test taking and makes a nice option for writing. After testing 15 woodcase pencils—including a mixed dozen recommended to us by pencil expert Caroline Weaver, who stocks an unbelievable range of traditional graphite options at her CW Pencil Enterprise shop in New York City—we think General’s Cedar Pointe is a great choice for any student who’s particular about pencils.

Made in the United States by one of the few remaining domestic pencil manufacturers (General has been making pencils in New Jersey since 1889), the Cedar Pointe is a nicely balanced, solid-feeling, and smooth-writing pencil that sharpens to a lasting point. It’s also one of the best values you’ll find in a domestic pencil.

The unfinished cedar is comfortable to hold, and the General pencil is quite handsome in comparison to an everyday yellow and black painted pencil. The graphite isn’t overly soft (as in some luxury pencils), and it writes a precise, smooth line. The black rubber eraser is pretty effective too, though it doesn’t compare to our eraser pick.

For the value conscious, the Dixon Ticonderoga remains a good choice if you can find it at around $3 per dozen, though some users have complained about a dropoff in quality control since Dixon outsourced pencil production overseas. Our samples wrote smoothly and offered good erasers, though they felt less substantial than our Cedar Pointe samples, and the graphite cores weren’t as consistently centered from pencil to pencil. If you’re picky about such things, you might want to buy locally so you can check them out first.

If you’re looking for a kindergartener-friendly pencil, the Ticonderoga is also available in a larger-diameter version for the youngest writers as My First Ticonderoga. If you’re willing to explore the $10-per-dozen tier, you can find high-quality US-made pencils for smaller hands and writers who need more support; we especially like the smooth-writing, easy-to-hold J.R. Moon Try-Rex (supposedly the first triangular pencil, according to Weaver) and the similarly shaped Musgrave Finger Fitter. —MB

Eraser

As with the pencils they spend their lives combating, eraser choice is definitely a matter of strong personal preference. Still, after testing a dozen rubber, plastic, gum, and kneaded erasers, we think that for general graphite-pencil work, a plastic eraser makes the most sense for most students—it does the best job of lifting graphite from notebook, sketchbook, and copy paper, it leaves the least residue, and it does the least damage to the paper. Our favorite is the widely available and affordable Staedtler Mars Plastic, the most efficient and least messy of any option we tried. If you can’t find that, the Pentel Hi-Polymer is also a great choice.

Caroline Weaver of CW Pencil Enterprise suggests the Tombow Mono Sand Eraser (a rubber eraser impregnated with grains of sand) for colored pencils. Tombow markets the Mono Sand Eraser as an ink and type eraser, but although it can lift enough ballpoint or roller ink to leave you a clear path to correct your notes, it can’t remove the ink completely (that’s what correction tape or fluid is for). Our experience with the Mono Sand Eraser on colored pencil was similar: It definitely removes more colored pigment than plastic and rubber erasers do, but it can’t work magic (used with a lighter touch, it’s nice for blending colors). —MB

Pencil sharpener

After spending four hours researching 20 portable pencil sharpeners and then testing five popular models with a wide range of graphite and colored pencils in daily use over a two-week period, we’re confident that the KUM Magnesium Alloy 2-Hole Barrel Pencil Sharpener best meets the needs of most students from kindergarten through college.

It has both a small hole for putting a long point on standard graphite writing pencils and a large opening for inserting oversized pencils or cutting standard colored pencils at a shallower angle. The easy-to-open integrated shavings container keeps your hands clean and lets you sharpen without having to stand near a trash can. Its magnesium frame means easy maintenance—just replace the blades, an oft-overlooked necessity of sharpener ownership. Some inexpensive sharpeners mount their blades on a plastic wedge, which means the tiny screw holes are more likely to strip should you try to replace the blades. In contrast, this KUM sharpener is a high-quality tool at a fair price; it should serve you for years.

KUM’s much-loved AS2 Automatic Long Point puts an amazing, precise point on standard-diameter writing pencils, and it’s our favorite sharpener for a student who never uses anything but a standard pencil. Because it doesn’t offer a second cutting angle for larger or colored pencils, its appeal to smaller kids and to artists is more limited. —MB

Correction tape

Even in this paperless age, sometimes you need to write on paper, and sometimes you need to make corrections, usually when you’re in a hurry or trying to make the cleanest correction you possibly can. That means correction tape is a better option than old standbys like Liquid Paper or Wite-Out. After trying three tape brands alongside the two leading correction fluids, we like the Tombow Mono Original Correction Tape, which is easy to handle, compact, and widely available. (Plus, you can get it in multipacks that provide the most correction tape for your money.) The tape goes on cleanly and is ready to write over instantly—no waiting for paint to dry, and no dealing with odor.

BiC and Paper Mate offer correction tape in their respective Wite-Out and Liquid Paper product lines, but the Tombow dispenser is a better-quality device overall, dispensing its tape more dependably (user reviews bear this out). Some left-handers prefer the slim design of the Liquid Paper dispenser, but Tombow makes a number of variants aimed at left-handers and those who need to cover wider or finer lines of text, and they all perform similarly. —MB

Notebooks, paper, and organization

back-to-school-notebook-mead-five-star

Photo: Katie Hausenbauer-Koster

Spiral notebook

After subjecting a selection of the most popular notebooks to everyday writing as well as heavy abuse (such as throwing them down stairs and soaking them in water), we recommend the Mead Five Star as the perfect choice for an affordable, single-subject spiral-bound notebook—we’ve seen it at a wide variety of prices, and if you can grab it for less than $5, it’s worth the cost.

The Five Star notebook has some of the best paper we found at this price. You can write smoothly and crisply using an array of pens and pencils, with minimal bleed-through with all but the wettest of inks. Its hefty spiral binding survived repeated drop tests. And since it’s both perforated and hole punched, you can easily remove clean-edged pages or snap the whole thing into a binder. Combine all of those features with a plastic cover and pocket, and the Five Star is the best you can get for the money. If you’re looking for something a little more affordable (especially if you find it on sale), the basic Mead Spiral has similar paper quality without the bonuses. —TB

If, however, you’d prefer an even nicer writing surface, the Black n’ Red Wirebound Notebook offers a heavier-weight, premium paper for a better writing experience. It has a smoother surface, which allows for faster writing, and it uses higher-quality paper that creates less feathering and bleed-through. The double spiral binding is nice and tough, and the rubber-band enclosure helps keep everything in snugly. Thanks to the larger and tougher cover, this notebook survived our dunk test better than most. The only drawback is that it isn’t hole-punched, and when you tear out the pages they almost always detach along the binding, not on the perforation. —TB

If you’ve never used a high-end notebook, you might balk at paying between $7 to $20 for something to scribble notes in. But boosting paper quality does more than simply massage the egos of stationery nerds. The pages are dense and smooth, so your pen moves more quickly, letting you take notes faster. Your ink is also less likely to skip, smudge, or feather, so your notes will be more legible. Plus, the pages just feel better to write on. A European-manufactured book will be pretty good, generally speaking, but in particular Black n’ Red notebooks are widely available and an excellent value, as they’re typically priced below other European notebooks with similar qualities.

The Black n’ Red Hardcover Executive Notebook, which holds 192 pages of 90-grams-per-square-meter paper, has a sturdy cover that protects the pages from backpack drops and impacts, and during our dunk tests it helped to keep the pages dry. Even difficult pens like Sharpies put down a clean line, while ballpoints feel ludicrously smooth on this paper, and our much-loved Jetstream is a joy to use. Both covers are packed with information and special fields, too, and the Executive Notebook also comes with a bookmark. —TB

Composition book

Among traditional composition books, those made by either Norcom or Tops are all but identical, so get whichever one is cheaper where you shop. At Amazon right now, that’s Norcom. Both books are very smooth to write on, with paper that’s nice and flat—no warping or bubbling here. They’re great for use with a variety of pens and inks, everything from cheap BiC pens to our Jetstream pick to a Sharpie.

If you feel the need for something a bit more ecologically friendly, the Decomposition Book is by far the best recycled-paper notebook we’ve found—plus it comes in an array of fantastic binding designs. While its sheets are rough compared with traditional paper, they are smoother than the pages of most other recycled-paper books. In our tests this book was surprisingly nice to write on, especially with fine-tip pens. The paper was fast to dry gel-pen ink, and it wasn’t too soft when we pushed down while writing. That said, it feathered pretty badly when we used soft-tip pens like Sharpies, and in our dunk tests it soaked up more water than just about anything else.

Looking for something a little simpler? The Rhodia Staplebound Orange Lined Notebook goes for about the same price as the Black n’ Red. It doesn’t have as many pages, and the paper isn’t quite as high-quality, but writing on it is still fantastic. The Rhodia notebook is thinner and lighter, too, and its corners are rounded. Next to other notebooks, it’s a lot lighter and generally more svelte, which is convenient if you want it for just one subject. If you like using pencils or if you tend to write very small, you’ll appreciate the fact that the Rhodia’s ruled lines are lighter in color than the Black n’ Red’s, so your writing will be less obscured.—TB

Binder paper

After four hours of research and testing, and writing on and abusing nine different pads of paper, the best binder refill for you to scribble your notes in is Sparco College Ruled. It’s the smoothest paper we tested, which means your pen or pencil will move more quickly across the page compared to rougher papers, like Target Up&Up or Tops. Its smooth texture has almost no feathering or bleedthrough (unless you use permanent marker, which you shouldn’t). This couldn’t be said for paper from Staples, which was one of the worst we tested for both. Its price is solidly average, and its bright white color will make your notes stand out clearly when you’re revising them late at night.

As for the Sparco’s drawbacks, we didn’t like that the binding holes weren’t as strong as some others (it was able to lift 1.5 pounds of binder and paper to a height of around 10 inches before tearing). Sparco does sell a reinforced version, but it’s astronomically priced. Furthermore, while its smoothness feels great on pencils and ballpoint pens, it can cause some ink pooling if you use a fountain pen. But these are minor nits to pick with an otherwise excellent package of paper.

If you want something with tougher binding holes, we recommend the Office Depot Reinforced Filler Paper. While a bit more expensive, the reinforcement means that you can lift up your entire binder by a single sheet of paper and not worry about it breaking. This paper was almost as smooth as the Sparco, but slightly worse for bleedthrough. Like the Sparco, it’s bright white for easy reading, but it has lighter ruling lines, which are easier to read your writing against. The Office Depot regular paper is also very good, if you’re shopping there anyway: it’s almost as smooth as the Sparco, is marginally tougher, feathers less, but has darker lines than the reinforced version.

If you’re in a store that doesn’t stock Sparco or Office Depot products, want lighter lines than our main pick, or are tempted to use a fountain pen, both Mead and Mead Five Star papers are good options that are available in almost every shop in the country. They’re less smooth than either of the other picks, which is a bit better for fountain pens but worse for ballpoints and rollerballs; have very light rulings which are easier to read writing on; and the Mead Five Star was super tough in our rip testing, able to handle vigorous shaking without a tear. —TB

Three-ring binder

After researching 17 three-ring binders and testing 6, we recommend the Avery Heavy-Duty binder as a durable, easy-opening, and affordable choice for most students who need to keep papers, handouts, and other supplies organized. Its polypropylene cover is more durable than vinyl, which can crack or sag in fluctuating temperatures. And its single-lever D-ring mechanism opens and closes smoothly with one hand—even elementary school-aged kids should have no trouble with it. We greatly preferred this to the double-lever mechanisms found on the Target Up&Up and cheaper Avery Durable view binders, which require both hands and a bit more physical effort. We also prefer this D-ring style to round ring mechanisms because they hold more paper and keep the papers more neatly aligned on the right side, which makes them better for organizing school materials.

Office Depot’s Heavy Duty View binder and Wilson & Jones’s Ultra Duty D-Ring binder are virtually identical to the Avery Heavy-Duty. All three binders have covers made from stiff cardboard sealed between sheets of polypropylene, with clear plastic view sheets and four interior pocket sleeves. The single-lever D-ring mechanisms are identical as well (in fact, all the binders we tested featured ring hardware made by this company). But the Office Depot and Wilson & Jones binders cost several dollars more, depending on the color.

Staples Better View Binder
It costs a bit more, but offers more pocket storage, comes in an array of hues, is made of more durable, solid polypropylene.

For a few more dollars, you can get the sturdier Staples Better View binder, which has some neat design features and comes in an array of colors. It was the only binder we tested that had a solid, semiflexible polypropylene cover, with rubberized seams and edge guards. This makes it a worthy upgrade if you or your student has a history of tearing through binders by mid-semester. Its single-lever D-ring mechanism was a tad harder to operate than the Avery, but it still opened and closed fairly smoothly. Inside, the binder has an envelope pocket made of clear plastic, with a button band closure. It holds about 100 sheets of paper, which is more than what could easily fit inside the pockets on the Avery. It’s also much easier to insert and remove labels on the spine of the Staples binder. Instead of slipping a label down the spine, as with the Avery and other binders, the Staples binder has a hard plastic window with a flexible tab that holds the label in place. —Courtney Schley

Sticky notes

After researching 14 popular products and testing six offerings from Highland, Office Depot, Redi-Tag, and 3M, we think that the best basic 3-by-3-inch sticky notes for the money are Highland Notes, which you can typically find for half the price of 3M’s category-leading Post-it Notes (as of this writing, a 12-pack of 3-by-3 Highland pads costs about $5, whereas a 12-pack of Post-its of the same size and count will set you back around $10). Highland Notes stick effectively on a useful range of papers and surfaces, from printed books to loose-leaf paper to refrigerator doors, and they provide a pleasant surface for writing with pencil or pen.

That said, Highland Notes are available in a pretty limited range of colors and sizes compared with Post-it Notes, which offer a dizzying array of colors, sizes, and styles. If you need the most options, we advise picking up the Super Sticky variety of Post-its, available in a recycled version (which never hurts).

One piece of advice, whatever brand you choose: Avoid “pop-up” notes, which are glued accordion style, unless you plan to use a dispenser. Our testers and researchers concluded that the accordion fold simply got in the way of using the pad on its own, and such pads tended to unfurl when carried around in a book bag. —MB

Stapler

A stapler for school should be capable of stapling a lot of pages yet light and small enough to carry along if you need to staple your assignment right before class. (It happens!) The Swingline Compact LightTouch Reduced Effort Stapler is the best portable stapler we tested: It isn’t much of a burden to carry in your bag (it weighs 1½ ounces), but it’s heavy-duty enough to staple most lengthy term papers.

We tested it against two less-expensive compact PaperPro staplers, the Evo and the StandOut. The Swingline had no trouble stapling 20 pages of copy paper, which neither PaperPro was capable of doing consistently. With some deformation of staples, the LightTouch proved capable of handling up to 40 pages—well beyond its 20-sheet rating, and impressive for any portable stapler. It’s also simple-to-use and quick. The “LightTouch” in its name refers to Swingline’s claim that the model “only needs half as much manual force as standard staplers,” and we did find that it worked with very little pressure. —JW

Arts and crafts

back-to-school-colored-pencils-prismacolor-scholar

Photo: Katie Hausenbauer-Koster

Colored pencils

After researching a dozen popular pencil brands and testing five colored pencil sets designed for students, we think that the Prismacolor Scholar Colored Pencils are the best choice for students who want high-quality pencils at a reasonable cost. They’re a bit more expensive than popular offerings from Crayola, Prang, and Staedtler made for younger students, but they’re still a good value—in their pigment quality and their smooth, waxy, paint-like application, they compare favorably not just to their direct competitors but also to the company’s significantly more expensive professional pencils. A quality tool makes it easier for the developing artist of any level to get results.

Unlike most student pencils, the Scholars ship in a reasonably solid plastic case that even folds into a useful stand-up pencil holder. Overall, the experience of using the Scholars is more like using a high-end pencil than using any of the other student offerings. And this set is not too big of an investment, if your budget allows it and you don’t want to step up to “professional” tools.

While most student pencils tend toward soft cores, students who favor a harder pencil should try the Staedtler Noris Club line. Despite their claimed anti-breakage wrapper, in our tests they seemed no more resistant to damage than our other pencils. But their relative hardness allowed them to keep a finer point longer than the other student brands we tested, and as a side benefit, they were easier to erase. —MB

If you’re looking for pencils for a younger student (or if you just aren’t sure about spending more for the Prismacolor Scholar set), the popular and easy-to-find Crayola Colored Pencils are a great choice. While the pigment quality isn’t up to the standard of the Scholars and the wood casings are less substantial (and, out of the box, less consistent in finish from pencil to pencil), the Crayola pencils are the best low-cost option we tested, offering smoother drawing and better coverage for coloring than similarly priced Prang and Sargent models. —MB

Markers

As was the case the last time we updated our guide, Crayola is the overwhelming category leader among markers, judging by the number of schools that request Crayola by name on annual school supply lists. We tested six popular markers aimed at younger students, adding offerings from Prang, Rose Art, and Sargent this year, and we found the Crayola markers’ colors and writing/drawing performance (which, even in a washable marker, are still the most important factors) to be superior. So we’re sticking with our recommendation.

Our testing focused on how Crayola’s popular marker varieties (which are available in a wide assortment of colors and tip shapes to suit almost any student need) compare to one another. After staining a T-shirt, marking up boring old paper, and leaving the pens uncapped overnight, we recommend Crayola’s Broad Point Washable Markers. The eight-pen set strikes the best balance between performance and washability.

We colored a white cotton shirt with blue and green markers from each pack and then hand-washed it with laundry detergent to see how easily we could make the Washable, Ultra-Clean, and Classic Markers inks disappear. The results fell neatly in line with Crayola’s naming scheme: The Ultra-Clean markers washed out with just a soapy rinse, the Washable markers took a small amount of scrubbing, and the Classic markers stubbornly refused to wash out.

Although the Ultra-Clean markers beat the plain Washables in the laundry, the Washables were better at their main task, coloring more evenly than the wimpier Ultra-Cleans. After both sets of markers sat out uncapped for six hours, the Ultra-Cleans were unusable while the Washable markers were still able to eke out a bit of ink, even improving over time. —AK

Safety scissors

If your school requires that students supply their own safety scissors, we recommend the five-inch Fiskars Blunt-tip Kids Scissors. We had a four-year-old tester examine the Fiskars along with three other models—the Crayola Blunt Tip Scissors, the Scotch Kids Blunt Tip Scissors with Soft Touch, and the Westcott Classic Kids Scissors—and our pick outperformed them all, offering the smoothest motion, the most secure grip, and the best cutting ability.

We looked for round-tipped scissors that were about five inches in length. You want your kids to be capable of cutting complex objects but not at risk of stabbing themselves or others. Our tester found the Fiskars pair to have the smoothest action, without any annoying binding that can cause little nicks and tears in otherwise perfectly cut shapes. We also liked the grip, which is a bit larger than that of any of the other scissors we tested and allows kids to fit in an extra finger for added control.

Fiskars attaches the two blades using a small Phillips screw, which has its pros and cons: On one hand, parents can easily detach the pieces for cleaning off glue and other gunk. On the other hand, the screw may come apart more easily than the rivet other brands use to attach their blades. If it does do so, however, rescrewing the pieces together should be easy. Our tester found the blades to be a little sharp compared with the others, but not nearly sharp enough to cause injury. And in a pinch, they’ll work for adults, too. —JW

Glue stick

Elmer's Disappearing Purple School Glue Stick
This purple glue lets you see where you apply it but dries clear.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $2.

After testing four leading glue sticks, we like Elmer’s Disappearing Purple School Glue Sticks best. They’re cheap, good at sticking stuff to other stuff, and simple to work with. As we discovered, the colored glue isn’t just a gimmick; it’s actually worth the minimal extra cost. The Elmer’s glue applies as an easy-to-see purple and gradually turns colorless, so you can tell which areas you’ve already glued.

We tested our sticks (Elmer’s Washable All Purpose, Elmer’s Disappearing Purple, the clear UHU stic, and the color UHU stic) by making rudimentary construction-paper art projects, gluing dimes and nickels to a piece of paper and suspending it from the bottom of a kitchen cupboard. We also uncapped each stick to see if any would dry out. All of the glues performed well; paper stuck to paper, and even after five days no nickels and dimes fell down from underneath my cupboard. (I’m still waiting.) After sitting uncapped for 12 hours, each glue stick did dry out a bit, but chopping the dried ends off made them usable again.

The color UHU stic’s color-changing option was not as great as the Elmer’s. Although it applied well and did a fine job of gluing, its purple hue turned colorless much too quickly, negating the benefits of using tinted glue. —AK

Electronics

back-to-school-scientific-calculator-ti-36x-pro

Photo: Katie Hausenbauer-Koster

Scientific calculator

Buying a stand-alone calculator is hard to justify these days when every phone has a capable one built in and Wolfram Alpha is easier to use than any graphing calculator. If you need a graphing calculator, typically your school will tell you which one to buy. But if you want a scientific calculator for use during exams where graphing calculators are prohibited, or if you simply love the feel of real buttons, we recommend the Texas Instruments TI-36X Pro because it has all the standard scientific-calculator functions (exponents, roots, scientific notation, etc.) and can solve for equations the way they appear in the textbook—no specialized notation for you to memorize. That makes it a great pick for students.

Out of the nine calculators we considered, the TI-36X Pro was the most user-friendly model approved for the NCEES FE exam—an essential criterion for engineering students. This gives it an edge over the otherwise comparable Sharp EL-W516XBSL. The Casio fx-115 is another fine calculator, especially if you prefer stiffer buttons. But most people who are familiar with TI’s graphing-calculator interface (that is, anyone who has taken a calculus course lately) will find the TI-36X’s interface more familiar and easier to use. —Michael Zhao

Voice recorder

Sony ICD-UX533
A compact, capable, and easy-to-use recorder that captures crisp, clear audio and can recharge via USB.

Whether you find yourself unable to hear your professor from the back of a giant auditorium or you just don’t want to miss a thing while you take notes, a voice recorder can come in handy on campus.

After 36 hours of research and testing with eight devices in real-world settings (including a lecture hall, a boardroom, and a crowded food court), and then running a four-person blind-listening panel to evaluate the clips, we’ve determined that the best audio recorder for taping lectures and interviews is the Sony ICD-UX533 (also available in silver). It recorded the most intelligible and truest-to-life sound clips of all those we tested. It’s easily pocketable (about the size of an iPhone 4 but an inch narrower), and its intuitive, easy-to-press function buttons and legible backlit screen give it the best user interface out of all the models in our test group. —MZ

Laptop

cropped flowchart

If you’re more of a flowchart person, click here to find the best type of laptop for you.

If you’re looking to buy a laptop for school use, we first recommend consulting the teacher. It’s very possible that the school is using Google for Education, in which case, you can get away with a Chromebook for about half the cost of a normal laptop running Windows. Similarly, your school or teacher may be committed to Apple’s education program. So while you may personally prefer Windows or Android, it might make more sense to go with a Mac or iPad to take full advantage of the ecosystem. It’s also worth noting that many college campuses will have an onsite Apple computer store and service center that would make it much easier to fix any problems that may arise down the road. And finally, keep in mind that most colleges will have plenty of computers available for your use in the libraries, or any number of computer labs around campus. These will have all the software you could need for any class and will be paired with far better chairs than what you have in your dorm room. So you may not even need a laptop at all—and if you want one, maybe a Chromebook is enough, even if your school doesn’t use Google for Education. With all that in mind, if you want some advice on choosing a specific laptop, check out our “What laptop should I buy?” guide for advice based on your needs and budget limitations. —MZ

(Top photo by Marshall Troy.)

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