Back to School: College Checklist

Whether you’re going back to school or going away to college for the first time, equip yourself with the things you need to make next semester—and the rest of your educational adventure—a resounding success.

To get you ready, our researchers have put in more than 150 hours over the past two years tracking down and testing the best school supplies, gadgets, and dorm-life gear you’ll need to make your return to campus as easy as it can be.

Shopping for a younger student? See Back to School: K-12 School Supplies

Table of contents


Student laptop

We think that an ultrabook-style laptop, if you can afford one, is the best choice for college students. These small, thin, and light laptops offer long battery life, making them ideal tools for powering through a whole day of classes or an entire evening of studying. Such computers usually include great screens and keyboards, and although they might not have enough horsepower for work in advanced engineering or scientific modeling, they’ll easily handle the moderately demanding tasks you’ll run into on a daily basis, from note-taking to graphic design to number crunching. In other words, they represent the best compromise for most students.

Before you buy any laptop for college, find out whether your department has any particular hardware or software requirements, and see what discount and support options might be available through your school.

13-inch MacBook Air
A lightweight, stable, easy-to-use workhorse for carrying around campus.

We’ve been reviewing Apple laptops for years, and the 13-inch MacBook Air is the laptop we recommend for most people. It offers great performance and battery life, the latest chips and the most-used ports, an unbeatable keyboard and trackpad (which other companies are still struggling to match), and an amazingly solid one-piece aluminum body. The MacBook Air has no major flaws. It doesn’t have the high-resolution Retina display of the MacBook Pro—or even a 1080p screen—but we think that’s okay given everything else the Air does have, and it’s lighter and less expensive than the Pro. In our recommended configuration (8 GB of RAM and a 256GB solid-state drive), it should be able to handle all but the most-demanding student computing tasks, from spreadsheets to coding to design, and even light video editing (though you’ll probably want to seek out a department desktop for doing 3D modeling, performing CAD tasks, or analyzing gigantic data sets).


We also like the MacBook Air for reasons other than its hardware: Apple’s OS X is stable, easy to use, and bloat-free. And if you ever have a problem, Apple’s legendary service and long commitment to education means you’ll find service centers at many colleges as well as discounts on computers and AppleCare service plans. -Dan Frakes

Dell XPS 13
If you need Windows, this system offers powerful specs in a light, small package.

If you prefer Windows—or if your department requires it—and you need a lightweight machine with good computing power and a great display, the Dell XPS 13 is our current favorite Windows ultrabook. We picked the XPS 13 after more than 70 hours of research and testing in part because it has the longest battery life and the best keyboard of any model we tested. The XPS 13, priced at $1,100 at the time of our review, has specs similar to our favorite 13-inch MacBook Air configuration, including 8 GB of RAM, a 256GB solid-state drive, and an Intel Core i5-5200U processor that offers enough power to handle graphics work or data analysis.


Kimber Streams

This Dell model also offers a higher-resolution 13-inch display than the MacBook Air, in a slightly smaller and lighter package—in fact, the XPS 13 is closer in size to the 11-inch MacBook Air than to the 13-inch model. Our recommended configuration should be up to most tasks you’ll encounter around campus, and the keyboard and trackpad are about as good as you’ll find on a Windows laptop these days. Like Apple, Dell offers education discounts, in this case via the company’s Dell University program. Check with your school for details. -DF

ASUS Zenbook UX305
Slim, 2.65-pound machine has nine hours of battery life.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $700.

If you need to run Windows and your budget won’t stretch to cover the XPS 13, get the $700 ASUS Zenbook UX305. It’s the best cheap ultrabook we’ve found—you have to spend between $200 and $400 more to get a better one. This slim and light model has great battery life.

We recommend the UX305FA-ASM1 configuration with a 13.3-inch 1080p screen, an Intel Core M-5Y10 processor, 8 GB of RAM, and a 256GB solid-state drive. Thanks to the Core M processor, the Zenbook is perfect for taking notes, doing research, writing reports, or watching Netflix, but it won’t be as good as the XPS 13 or the MacBook Air at handling serious graphic design or heavy number crunching. The Zenbook weighs just 2.65 pounds—less than a 13-inch MacBook Air—and offers over nine hours of battery life, so it should get you through all your classes and then some. No other ultrabook in this price range comes loaded with 8 GB of RAM and a 256GB solid-state drive, both requirements for a fast and smooth Windows experience.

The ASUS Zenbook UX305 has a decent keyboard and a reliable trackpad, but it lacks a few amenities such as a touchscreen, a backlit keyboard, and current-generation wireless. But those are worthwhile sacrifices if you need a great, cheap Windows ultrabook to get through school. -Kimber Streams

Toshiba Chromebook 2
Affordable performance, with a brilliant 13.3-inch screen.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $280.

If you’re on a really tight budget, consider a Chromebook—a good one costs only about $300. Chromebooks are inexpensive laptops that run Chrome OS, a stripped-down version of Linux that essentially uses Google’s Chrome browser as the computer’s interface. Chromebooks can’t run the dedicated apps you’re used to—no Microsoft Office, iTunes, or Photoshop, no games, and certainly no MATLAB. But between a Chromebook and the full-fledged public desktops around campus, you should be able to cover most of your computer needs.


Kimber Streams

The best Chromebook right now is the Toshiba Chromebook 2. Of all the Chromebooks we looked at, it strikes the best balance between screen quality, portability, performance, and affordability. It isn’t the lightest of the bunch, but at 2.95 pounds it has the same weight as the 13-inch MacBook Air, for a lot less money.

The Toshiba Chromebook 2’s brilliant, 13.3-inch screen is better than the competition’s, and though this machine slows down under heavy loads, it’s fast enough for taking notes and building class presentations. Most recent Chromebooks use ultra-low-voltage processors, which allow for long battery life and thinner, quieter laptops but can’t compete with Intel’s Haswell or Broadwell processors when it comes to performance. The Toshiba’s 4 GB of memory, however, makes it fast enough for most coursework. Like most Chromebooks, our pick has limited internal storage, in the form of a 16GB solid-state drive. But the Toshiba Chromebook 2 comes with 100 GB of Google Drive cloud storage, and you can add an SD card or an external hard drive for extra space.

If you can get by using Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides as your office suite, and if you use Gmail or access your school email via the Web, a Chromebook may be for you. Though some of Google’s apps have offline options, Chromebooks pretty much require a full-time Internet connection. The upside is that all of Google’s apps automatically save your work in the background, so you’ll never have to worry about losing a term paper to a crashed hard drive. -DF


Apple iPad Air 2
A beautiful screen, plus the best education apps.

While competition is fierce in the smartphone market, we see a clear-cut winner among tablets: Apple’s iPad. Although an iPad costs a bit more than a similar-spec Android tablet, iPads currently offer better build quality, a more responsive user interface, more internal storage, far better cameras (plus better software features to take advantage of those cameras), and long-term OS support. Perhaps most important, the iPad currently has the best selection—by far—of tablet-optimized apps, and that advantage is especially pronounced in the education category, where you’ll find PDF-annotating software, advanced note-taking apps, powerful calculator replacements, and design tools.

We think the iPad Air 2 with 64 GB or 128 GB of storage is the best tablet for most people. It has a fantastic screen, a fast processor, great battery life, and Apple’s super-useful Touch ID fingerprint sensor—and it’s the only current iPad that will take full advantage of all the new multitasking features in the upcoming iOS 9. It’s thin and light enough that we recommend it even over the smaller iPad mini 3: The Air 2 isn’t much heavier, but it gives you a much larger screen and the latest hardware. (The iPad mini 3 uses internal components identical to those of last year’s original iPad Air.) We also think that the proliferation of larger smartphones is making smaller tablets like the iPad mini less appealing—and most people will appreciate the Air 2’s larger screen. Put simply, the iPad Air 2 is as safe a technology buy as they come, even if (as expected) Apple releases new models this fall. -DF

iPad keyboard

Logitech Keys-To-Go
Better feel than a keyboard case and just as portable.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $62.

An iPad makes a better laptop substitute if you have a real keyboard to type on. Though iPad keyboard cases are popular, we think many people would be better served by a great portable Bluetooth keyboard (for a computer) and a sturdy iPad stand. You get better keys and better ergonomics, and you can still use your favorite iPad case. When you want to travel light, you can leave the keyboard behind, and if you ever upgrade your iPad, you won’t have to buy a new keyboard case. (The biggest drawback? Using a separate keyboard and stand on your lap can be tough.)

Kanex Foldable iDevice Stand
Pocket-size (2.8-by-3.2-inch) stand has three angles. Comes in a pack of two.

Wirecutter staffers have been testing Bluetooth keyboards for years, and for students on the go, we recommend our sturdy runner-up pick for the best Bluetooth keyboard, Logitech’s Keys-To-Go. It’s light (about 6 ounces) and thin enough to slip into your bag, but it’s also surprisingly rugged and nearly impervious to liquid spills. To hold your iPad, Kanex’s Foldable iDevice Stand is sturdy, lightweight, and inexpensive. -DF

Belkin QODE Ultimate Pro Keyboard Case
The most versatile keyboard case we’ve tested.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $120.

If you really need an iPad keyboard case, however, the best one is the Belkin QODE Ultimate Pro Keyboard Case. At about $130, it isn’t cheap, but it is the most versatile and complete keyboard case we’ve found. For starters, it offers a good keyboard with all the keys in the right places, which can’t be said for most models. The keys are backlit, which is useful in a dim lecture hall, and the keyboard pairs with two devices, so you can use it with your smartphone, too.


Jesse Dittmar

But it’s the QODE Ultimate Pro’s versatility that makes it our top pick. Unlike most iPad keyboard cases, the QODE Ultimate Pro can work with your iPad in landscape or portrait orientation, the latter being especially useful when you’re editing documents or taking notes. You can position your iPad at either of two angles, as well. And whereas most keyboard-case models make it difficult to remove the iPad when you don’t need the keyboard, the QODE Ultimate Pro’s protective top case easily detaches from the keyboard, so you can bring just the iPad with you. Even better, that top case is a perfect fit for Apple’s Smart Cover, letting you keep your iPad completely protected.

Our one significant complaint is that, in order to conserve battery life, the keyboard goes to sleep after a too-short period of inactivity. But I’ve tested close to 100 keyboard cases over the years, and none match the QODE Ultimate Pro’s flexibility. -DF

iPad stylus

Adonit Jot Pro Fine Point Stylus
An unusual plastic-disc tip provides a precise, pen-like experience.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $30.

We partnered with a professional graphic designer to test 11 iPad styluses over more than 10 hours to find the best option for note-taking and sketching—the tasks we think most students will want to use a stylus for. We’re sure that the best stylus for most people is Adonit’s newly redesigned Jot Pro ($30). The Jot Pro allows for precise input thanks to its unique clear-plastic-disc tip, which doesn’t block the iPad’s screen the way rubber-tipped styluses do; as a result, you can see what you’re drawing or writing as you go. The Jot Pro is also comfortable to hold, and a number of small details—such as a spring-loaded tip that better mimics the feel of pen on paper, a pen/pocket clip that’s machined into the stylus’s shaft, and a machine-textured grip area—make the overall experience a pleasure. -Nick Guy

Pocket USB battery

Anker 2nd Gen Astro 6400
Can charge up an iPhone 6 twice, and is small enough to fit in a pocket.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $22.

We’ve spent more than 40 hours looking at 85 small USB battery packs, plus 65 hours testing a handful of the best, and the Anker 2nd Gen Astro 6400 is the best pocket-size pack we’ve found.


Jesse Dittmar

A pocket-size USB battery pack is a convenient tool for those long days on campus when you just can’t let your phone or tablet die. You can charge on the go rather than remaining tethered to an outlet, and the pack won’t weigh you down.

With its rubberized coating and smooth, rounded edges, the Astro 6400 is sturdy enough to withstand the daily grind. About 4.8 ounces and the size of a granola bar, it’s small and light enough to slide into a book bag or jeans pocket. It holds 6,400 mAh of energy (a handy eight-segment LED lets you know how much juice is left), enough to charge any current smartphone at least once. It charges as quickly as any other small pack we tested—even some that claimed to be faster—and among similar packs, it’s one of the most capacity-efficient models for its size and price. And unlike tiny lipstick-style battery packs, the Astro 6400 won’t need to recharge after every use; you can just leave it in your bag, use it as needed, and replenish it on Sunday nights. -Liam McCabe

USB 3.0 flash drive

32GB SanDisk Extreme USB 3.0 Flash Drive
One of the fastest we’ve tested, plus it’s small and equipped with a retractable plug.

If you need a flash drive to print papers or to pass around for group projects, we like the SanDisk Extreme USB 3.0 Flash Drive. The 32GB model is cheap at about $25, and it reads files at about 245 MB/s and writes them at 120 MB/s. It’s one of the fastest flash drives we’ve tested, and for a couple of years it’s been our long-standing favorite out of the more than 50 drives we’ve looked at for our full guide. (The 64GB version can be faster, but at about $40 it’s too expensive for a flash drive you could potentially lose; the 16GB model has half the storage, but you save only about $7.)

The 32GB SanDisk Extreme has a retractable design that protects the USB plug when the drive isn’t in use. It also has a loop so you can attach the flash drive to a key ring or backpack if you’re prone to leaving flash drives behind in the computer lab. -KS

Portable hard drive

Seagate Backup Plus Slim
Thin and light enough to slip into a backpack.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $90.

The $90 2TB Seagate Backup Plus Slim is the best portable hard drive for backing up coursework and storing your photos, music, and movies. Our pick is thinner, lighter, and faster than the other portable drives we spent 40 hours testing, making it ideal for quickly backing up data or (gently!) tossing into a bag to take with you.

The Seagate Backup Plus Slim weighs one-third of a pound and measures less than half an inch thick. In our tests, our pick had read and write speeds of about 87 MB/s. The Backup Plus Slim isn’t rated to survive significant shocks or drops, but the sturdy cover doesn’t flex under pressure and withstands light scratches from keys. Our pick also has a low failure rate and comes bundled with decent backup software if you need it.

If you’re on a budget you can opt for the $60 1TB model, but we strongly recommend the 2TB model if you can afford it—this version is priced better per terabyte, and though you may not need the space now, data tends to expand. -KS

Scientific calculator

Texas Instruments TI-36X Pro
Capable, intuitive, and welcome on any exam that allows calculators.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $17.

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 $18 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 $100 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.

This recorder also has a better collection of features than the competition. Like many of the other recorders we looked at, the ICD-UX533 comes with 4 GB of onboard storage but supports microSD cards too, so it’ll have more than enough room for hundreds of hours of recorded audio. Once you’ve finished recording, the ICD-UX533’s built-in, slide-out USB connector makes transferring files to a Mac or Windows computer easy. Although it relies on a AAA battery for power, you can recharge it via USB if you install a rechargeable battery (sold separately). Such features are individually available on other recorders in this price range, but the ICD-UX533 is the only one in our test group that offers all of them in a single package. -MZ

Mini power strip

Accell Home or Away
Three AC outlets and two USB ports in a tiny package.

Most college campus buildings were constructed before everyone had a laptop and a smartphone to charge. That means outlets are a lot scarcer than they should be. If you manage to claim an outlet, plugging in a portable power strip will let you share the love among all your devices.


Our pick is the Accell Home or Away surge protector (or the identical Tripp Lite model). About the size of a MacBook power brick, the Home or Away three-outlet power strip offers easy portability. It safeguards your gadgets with surge protection rated at 612 joules. The Home or Away also has two built-in USB charging ports that output 2.1 amps each‚ which means it can quickly charge most phones and tablets at or near full speed. But the main thing that sets the Accell power strip apart is that each of its three outlets sits on a different face, so using one won’t block access to the others—a big problem we had with a popular Belkin model in our testing. We also like that the Accell’s prongs fold in, which keeps them from bending in your bag—yet another problem we had with the Belkin. -MZ

Cheap printer

Brother HL-L2340DW
A solid machine with dirt-cheap toner, though you may want to use the school’s printers instead.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $95.

We’ve spent more than 200 hours researching and testing printers over the past few years, and of the 100 cheap printers we’ve come across, the $120 Brother HL-L2340DW (or, if it’s cheaper, the HL-L2360DW, which adds an Ethernet port but is otherwise nearly identical) is the safest bet for most dorm dwellers.


Before you buy, however, consider using your school’s printers, especially if you print in color. Many colleges and universities give their students a few hundred pages’ worth of free printing each semester, as part of tuition or student fees, while tons more offer cheap credits. Even if your campus charges a steep, 10-cents-per-page rate, you’ll still have to print more than 1,000 pages before a cheap printer like the HL-L2340DW pays for itself. That said, if you’re in a writing-intensive course of study and you need to run off draft after draft of text-heavy documents, it’s really handy (and not too expensive) to have a black-and-white laser printer in your room.

For college students, the dirt-cheap cost of ownership is the best thing about the HL-L2340DW. Each page costs just 2.7 cents’ worth of toner and drum wear, less than with any other printer out there. The HL-L2340DW also provides automatic two-sided printing, a paper-saving feature that’s missing from competitors costing twice as much. On top of that, this model supports mobile printing standards like AirPrint and Google Cloud Print, as well as printing over Wi-Fi (though in a dorm room it’s probably easier to connect to the printer via USB).

And since the HL-L2340DW is a laser printer, it’s low-drama compared with any inkjet. Unlike ink cartridges, toner cartridges have a high capacity, which reduces the chance that you’ll find yourself out of toner when you really, really need to print—like the night before something’s due. Laser printers don’t need to run lengthy cleaning cycles, either, which you’ll appreciate when you’re running late for class. Yeah, you give up color printing with a cheap laser printer, but that’s more trouble than it’s worth at this price. -LM



Sony MDR-7506
Studio-quality sound that fits the student budget.

If you’re into serious listening, or maybe studying composing, performance, or recording, you’ll want some over-ear, closed-backed headphones that can shut out the world as you work. We settled on the Sony MDR-7506 as our pick after researching every available full-size headphones model under $150. A music-industry standard with a flat frequency response, the MDR-7506 is as durable as you’d expect from a professional favorite, with a coiled cable so you can feel free to roll back your desk chair without fear of getting clotheslined by the headphone cord.


Jesse Dittmar

The bass is clear without woofing or mud, the mids have depth and clarity, and the highs are precise without piercing, hissing, or sizzling. You know that what you’re hearing through the MDR-7506 is what the musicians, mixer, and producer intended. And because this pair has metal headbands and replaceable earcups, it will last a long time. Priced at less than $100, these headphones are an affordable investment. -Lauren Dragan

Jabra MOVE Wireless
A solid traveling companion with winning looks and comfort.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $70.

When you need more portability and the freedom of being cordless, go Bluetooth. We tested 55 leading Bluetooth headphones and came to love the Jabra MOVE Wireless, a perfect pair of commuter headphones for the student on the move. With a simple, clean design available in several colors, as well as solid build quality (featuring a cloth-covered headband), these headphones are durable enough for regular use and comfortable enough for extended commutes and then some. More important, our panel said they had the best sound in their price range, with present, defined bass plus clear mids and a touch of boost on top.


Jesse Dittmar

We managed to get 15 hours of playtime and calls out of a single full charge, so the MOVE Wireless should last through even the longest commute. In our tests, recharging took about three hours using a USB port on a MacBook Pro. But if the battery runs out, don’t worry: The MOVE Wireless comes with a simple cable so the music doesn’t have to stop. -LD

JLab Epic Bluetooth
Great sound and fit, whatever your workout.

If you’re an active student, whether on a sports scholarship or just keeping fit in your free time, you’ll want water-resistant headphones that stay put during even the most rigorous training. After researching 75 leading models and testing 38, we think the JLab Epic Bluetooth pair is a great choice. Slim earhooks comfortably keep the headphones in place. A three-button remote allows you to change tracks, adjust volume, and take calls without having to reach for your mobile device, and Bluetooth means you don’t need to worry about a cord getting in the way of getting your sweat on. These headphones sound great too, with (like most sport headphones) only a little bass boost—just enough to drive a workout to the next level.


We put the pair’s IPX4 water- and dirt-resistance rating to the test (the rating means it’ll endure continuous splashing from all directions for five minutes), spraying the Epic Bluetooth with water, banging the headphones around in a gym bag, and taking them on miles of test runs in dusty hot Los Angeles. The Epic Bluetooth performed beautifully and gave us more than 11 hours of music-playing and call-taking use before the battery ran out. Your results may vary, but our tests indicate that you’ll get in a lot of workout before needing to charge.

(A note: For some reason, Amazon’s listing lumps the Epic corded version and Bluetooth version together, so be sure to select the correct model when ordering.) -LD

Bluetooth speaker

Serious sound in a small, versatile, waterproof package.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $100.

The loud and waterproof UE ROLL is the speaker we’d suggest for the student seeking a go-anywhere unit to play tunes. It’s the sequel to our portable Bluetooth speaker pick, which is now discontinued, and it sounds comparably good for its tiny size. But it features a completely different design—more UFO than speaker. We’re in the process of updating our portable Bluetooth speaker guide, so we’re not positive that the ROLL will be our new pick, but it will certainly be hard to beat.


Jesse Dittmar

Like the MINI BOOM it’s replacing, the UE ROLL is unexpectedly loud and good for a speaker this small. The ROLL has a bit more high-end (treble) sound, but it lacks harshness and sounds equally loud from all directions. Considering its size (about the circumference of a CD, with a bulging center), the bass response is respectable, but don’t expect much thump. If you crank it to max volume, the ROLL will surprise you with its indoor performance—it’s much louder than a Jawbone JAMBOX—but it can’t quite compete with loud sounds outdoors. You’d need to upgrade to the UE BOOM or MEGABOOM for that.

The ROLL is waterproof (IPX7, which means it’ll survive being submerged to 1 meter for up to 30 minutes) and equipped with a built-in bungee so you can hang it. The speaker also comes with what Ultimate Ears calls a “floatie,” a tiny life preserver that lets you float it in the pool. Its versatile design is great for outdoor and indoor use. UE claims a 65-foot Bluetooth range and a battery life of nine hours. -Geoff Morrison



Marshall Troy

For the absolute basics—three-ring binders and dividers, loose-leaf paper, index cards, Scotch tape, pocket folders—we think you’ll get the best deal shopping locally (and you never know what kind of cool options you’ll dig up at your neighborhood stationers). But after poring over school-supply lists for all levels, and from all around the country, wherever we believed we could make a strong recommendation, we picked the best stuff (and the best deals) for you.


The North Face Surge
A heavy-duty book bag for a full course load.

Buying a backpack can be a personal decision that reflects your unique sense of style and priorities. But if you want something that will perform well and look decent without making any kind of fashion statement, we spent six hours researching and tested six of the most popular school bags from five top-rated brands to determine that The North Face Surge is your best bet.


Jesse Dittmar

Its 33-liter capacity—including a TSA-compliant padded laptop compartment, a fleece-lined tablet pocket, a built-in organizer, and dual water-bottle pockets—will accommodate whatever books, supplies, beverages, and electronics you throw in. Its back-panel padding is more sculpted than that of the older Surge II, and as a result it breathes better than any other bag in our test group. It also has a waist belt for when things get really heavy, unlike the otherwise comfortable Timbuk2 Command. But what really sets the Surge apart from the competition is its superb build quality, with a lifetime warranty to back it up.


Jesse Dittmar

The Surge is made mostly of 500-denier Cordura nylon that’s heavier-duty than the polyester material that Patagonia uses in its Transport 30L pack; the Surge’s nylon also has a much nicer finish than the lower-denier Cordura that JanSport uses in its Right Pack. We appreciate that the bottom panel is made of extra-thick 1680-denier nylon, which provides additional toughness where it matters most. Stitching is consistent throughout—unlike with the cheaper AmazonBasics AB102 or the similarly priced Incase ICON Slim, both of which have errant threads here and there. Thick, YKK-branded zippers secure every closure. But the trade-off for all this durability is weight. At 3 pounds, 1 ounce, according to our scale, the Surge is over a pound heavier than the Patagonia backpack (1 pound, 13 ounces). That’s like carrying around an extra iPad at all times. But its superior ergonomics make it feel relatively light when loaded up, which is what really matters. -MZ

AmazonBasics AB102
A feature-rich pack that’s plain but cheap.

If you want something more budget-friendly, we recommend the $25 AmazonBasics AB102. It isn’t a remarkable bag in any way, but it has all the necessary features: a 15-inch laptop pocket, water-bottle pockets on either side, and a breathable mesh back panel. It won’t win any style points, but we do appreciate that it looks less IT-support than the larger AB103. The build and material quality—while good for the price and comparable to that of the more expensive JanSport Right Pack—doesn’t come close to that of the North Face or Patagonia pack. Stitches are spaced farther apart, zippers are unbranded, materials seem thinner—especially the inner lining, which feels like the inside of a cheap suitcase. If you buy this bag, don’t expect it to endure more than a year or two of hard use (it has a one-year warranty instead of a lifetime warranty). Then again, you could buy and destroy five of these each school year and still spend less than you would on our top pick. -MZ


Jesse Dittmar

Mechanical pencil

uni-ball Kuru Toga
Rotates the lead as you write to keep itself sharp.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $5.

The $5 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. -Tim Barribeau


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.

At around $3 a pop, 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 work after lingering at the bottom of your bag for a few weeks. -TB


Mead Five Star
The best paper at this price.

After subjecting a selection of the most popular notebooks on the market 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 back-to-school sale), the basic Mead Spiral has similar paper quality without the bonuses. -TB

Black n' Red Wirebound Notebook
Smoother paper, tough double spiral binding.

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

Black n' Red Hardcover Executive Notebook
High-quality paper and excellent construction at a reasonable price.

If you’ve never used a high-end notebook, you might balk at paying $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

Rhodia Staplebound Orange Lined Notebook
A fine writing experience in a lightweight, simple package.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $7.

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.


Sharpie Clear View
A transparent tip for the best accuracy.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $10.


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 printed pages. -Michael Berk

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

Sharpie Gel Highlighter
A dry crayon with no bleed-through.

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

Sticky notes

Highland Notes
Satisfying stickies at a bargain price.

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 $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

Correction tape

Tombow MONO Original Correction Tape
Instant correction, without any fuss.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $20.

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


Swingline Compact LightTouch Reduced Effort Stapler
A powerful stapler that’s light enough to take with you.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $12.

A stapler for college 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 $12 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 is 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 could do 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. -Jamie Wiebe


Lewis N. Clark Umbrella
A good, cheap umbrella, but don’t expect it to last forever.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $12.

After 35 hours of research and testing nine top-rated umbrellas for our guide to the best umbrellas, we determined that the Lewis N. Clark Umbrella ($12) is the best budget-friendly umbrella. We had low expectations given its low price, but it performed surprisingly well during our wind testing, either beating or matching the performance of some umbrellas costing twice as much or more, like the Tumi Medium Auto Close Umbrella or the ShedRain Windjammer.

Despite the Lewis N. Clark’s low price, it’s a full-featured umbrella that closes to 11 inches. It’s the only sub-$20 umbrella we’ve seen that can deploy and collapse at the push of a button—though you still have to retract the handle manually. The cost savings come from the thinner canopy and the less-durable, non-anodized aluminum ribs. Although it’s better than a corner-store umbrella at handling wind, we wouldn’t trust it in the stormiest conditions. That said, the Lewis N. Clark Umbrella easily outclasses its sub-$20 price tag and remains a great buy for students who will probably lose any umbrella they choose before it breaks. If you want a nicer umbrella for more money, see the recommendations in our full guide. -MZ



Jesse Dittmar

Mattress pad

Pinzon Basics
A cool, odor-free, and comfortable addition to your hard dorm mattress.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $40.

Most dorm beds are hard and unforgiving. The best way to fix this (without ordering your own twin XL mattress) is to put on a mattress pad. Looking at Sleep Like The Dead’s well-researched mattress topper comparison chart, you can see that fiber is the way to go for the best mix of comfort and affordability. With that in mind, we recommend the $45 Pinzon Basics twin XL mattress pad as the best inexpensive cover for your crappy dorm mattress.

Why fiber? A low-end memory foam topper, which will hold heat like an oven, can smell like chemicals, and you can clean it only by vacuuming it and wiping it down.

We recommend the Pinzon over the Croscill Egyptian Cotton, as does SLTD, which gave the Pinzon an 89 percent rating (the highest-rated fiber mattress topper—not available in twin XL—earned a score of 91 percent). Reviewers say the Pinzon is plush and thick, like “sleeping on a cloud.” The Croscill, according to reviewers, can fall apart in the wash and tends to tear, even when someone is putting it on a bed for the first time.  One caveat: Pinzon recommends that you have this pad professionally cleaned or dry cleaned, and Amazon buyers confirm that attempts to throw it in the machine don’t work: “I have to set the water level in the washer to low or it floods because it’s so large and doesn’t absorb a lot.” -JW


L.L. Bean Pima Cotton Percale Sheets
Our pick since 2013 is super-durable, crisp, breathable, and comfortable.

After more than 100 hours of research and testing, we’ve confirmed that L.L.Bean’s 280-Thread-Count Pima Cotton Percale Sheets are still the best sheets (as they have been since we first published our guide to the best sheets in 2013). They combine the cool, crisp feel we look for in sheets with superior sweat wicking, heat retention, and durability. Also, they’re now available in twin XL, the most common dorm mattress size. They’re a bit pricy at $35 for the fitted sheet alone ($110 for the full set with pillowcases and a flat sheet), but if there’s one thing worth splurging on—even on a student’s budget—it’s nice bedding. You’ll spend a third of your life sleeping, so you might as well be comfortable. -JW

Target Threshold Ultra Soft
Not as soft or breathable as our main pick, but a solid twin XL choice that holds up well in the wash.

If the L.L.Bean sheets are too expensive for you, we also like the Target Threshold Ultra Soft collection (fitted, flat, pillowcases) for the student on a tighter budget. A complete twin XL set costs about $45—not much more than the cost of just the L.L.Bean fitted sheet. The 300-thread-count, cotton percale Threshold sheets are not as soft and breathable as some of the other sets we tested, but they performed solidly and held up fine in the wash. -JW


Beyond Down Gel Fiber Comforter
A down alternative makes this the warmest (and least sweaty) of the budget-friendly comforters we tested.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $95.

Buying a comforter for college is a tricky proposition: If you’re in a dorm with a twin bed, you might need that twin comforter for just a year or two, which makes investing in a down-filled comforter (or another high-quality material like wool) an often unnecessary expense.

You have a couple of solutions to this conundrum, but we like the Beyond Down Gel Fiber Comforter the best for dorm use, in either the $100 twin size (if you’ll be living in the dorms for two or more years) or the $160 queen size (if you’re planning to move out after your freshman year and can tolerate living with a too-big comforter for a year—which, from personal experience, is a pretty comfortable sacrifice).

Chances are, you’ll eventually want to transition to a down- or wool-filled comforter, but the Beyond Down is the cheapest down-alternative comforter we feel comfortable recommending. In our extensive, cross-country testing, we found that it beat out all direct competitors in terms of keeping us warm but not sweaty. No, it wasn’t as warm as our pick, the $230 L.L.Bean Baffle-Box Stitch Down Comforter, but it’s still comfy, snuggly, and warm.

You can find cheaper comforters out there, but in our tests they all managed to pull off the rare and obnoxious feat of being both too cool and too sweaty—they didn’t breathe, and they didn’t keep us warm. They sucked. But if we had to pick one, we’d go with the Natural Comfort Soft and Luxurious Down Alternative comforter. It’s only about $45 for the twin size and about $55 for the full. It didn’t keep us especially warm, but it was definitely breathable and very soft. -JW

Eye mask

Bedtime Bliss
The lightest, most comfy mask we tested.

If your roommate frequently pulls all-nighters, we recommend the $13 Bedtime Bliss eye mask to keep the light out of your eyes. Not only is it the favorite out of the six we’ve tested in the past two years, but it is also the top-rated sleep mask on Sleep Like The Dead’s crowdsourced sleep mask leaderboard. It’s the best-selling mask on Amazon.

What sets the Bedtime Bliss apart from most sleep masks is a sculpted, structured design that’s contoured to sit on your face like a pair of soft goggles with fabric lenses that rest around your eyes (instead of pressing on your eyelids). As a bonus, it comes with a small stuff sack for storage and a sample set of earplugs (which aren’t as good as our earplug pick). -MZ


Hearos Xtreme Protection
33-decibel noise reduction at 44 cents per pair.

Disposable earplugs can help block the sounds of noisy neighbors or your roommate’s personal business while you study. After testing the comfort and effectiveness of five top-rated pairs, we recommend Hearos Xtreme Protection earplugs for most people. These earplugs have one of the highest noise-reduction ratings at 33 decibels—the difference between a lawnmower and a conversation, according to Cooper Safety. The sleep gurus at Sleep Like The Dead found that the Xtreme Protection line came in at 92 percent user satisfaction in user reviews, and that they’re the only earplugs with “good” reusability. Concert photographer and editor Todd Owyoung calls the Xtreme Protection his “go-to earplugs of choice,” saying they’re “comfortable, cheap, and have [kept] my ears from ringing for years.” -MZ

Bike lock

Kryptonite Evolution Mini-7 w/4' Flex
Small but tough and hard to pry.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $56.

We had professional bike thieves attempt to crack 12 bike locks ranging in price from $20 to $200, using all the tricks of their trade, in order to find the best bike locks. The most important lesson we learned: A “good-enough” U-lock, combined with proper locking technique and a cable for securing both wheels, should deter just about any thief.

However, college campuses are hotbeds of bike theft, which is why we recommend stepping up to the tougher Kryptonite Evolution Mini-7 w/ 4ʹ Flex for about $50. Its bright orange vinyl wrap sends a clear signal that there’s probably an easier target around the corner. The lock measures 7 inches long instead of the typical 9 inches, which makes it more resistant to leverage-based attacks (in which a thief sticks a pole or scissor jack between the prongs to pry a lock open laterally). However, the shorter length also means this lock is a bit more difficult to use with a streetlight or other large objects.

If you know that bike theft isn’t a major issue at your school, you could save a few bucks and go with the Kryptonite KryptoLok Series 2, which we recommend for most cyclists, but the Evolution Mini-7’s slightly more cut-resistant “MAX-Performance” hardened steel (as opposed to the Series 2’s “Performance” hardened steel) gives it a slight edge in resisting cuts and leverage attacks. -MZ

Kryptonite New York Lock
This lock is 3 millimeters thicker, and heavy.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $90.

If you have a nicer bike and want even more protection, consider upgrading to the Kryptonite New York Lock. Its 16-mm shackle is thicker than the 13-mm shackle on the Series 2 and Evolution Mini-7, which makes it even more difficult to crack—though nothing is impossible. -MZ

Shower caddy

Saltwater Canvas Shower Bag
Heavy-duty, quick-drying mesh, with a secret inner pocket for keys.

After six hours of research and tests of four of the most-promising totes, we like the Saltwater Canvas Mesh Shower Bag for shuttling shampoos and body washes to the shower. It’s made of mildew-resistant mesh that’s thicker and stronger than the materials used in any of the other caddies we looked at, including the popular Honey-Can-Do Quick Dry Shower Tote, which in our tests was prone to sagging unless fully packed. The Saltwater Canvas bag’s thick material meant it was the only caddy that could stand upright on its own when set on the ground. We also appreciated the bag’s double-reinforced offset handle, which allows you to hang it in the shower stall for easy access to your stuff.


Jesse Dittmar

The Saltwater Canvas bag features one large main compartment, three pockets on the outside, one small pocket on the interior, and 9-inch-high walls that are taller than any other caddy’s. We comfortably fit a full-size bottle of shampoo and conditioner, body wash, a loofah, face soap, a razor, a toothbrush, and a tube of toothpaste inside. Thanks to those tall walls, it can hold heavy, full-size bottles of shampoo without falling over, unlike the shorter YaeloDesign caddy. -Eve O’Neill

Shower shoes

Old Navy Classic Flip-Flops
Affordable and comfortable, plus they come in tons of colors.

After testing the super-popular Crocs, Havaianas, Ipanemas, and Old Navy flip-flops, we’ve determined that Old Navy’s Classic Flip-Flops are the best shower shoes. They’re dirt cheap at $4 a pair, they come in a variety of colors, and they’re comfortable right out of the box. We weighed them dry, soaked them in the tub for an hour (they floated), and wiped them down before weighing them again to see how much water each soaked up—like our other contenders, they didn’t retain any water weight, which means they won’t dampen clothes in your locker or backpack. They do squeak a bit when wet, but so did the others. -MZ


After testing 11 towels at varying prices, we recommend the Lasting Color Cotton Bath Towels by WestPoint Home for budget-strapped students. Made out of 100 percent cotton, they cost only $6 for the 30-by-54-inch bath towel and $15 for a giant bath sheet. Our reviewer found they held nearly 450 percent of their weight in water. That’s right in line with the higher-end towels we tested that cost several times as much. The Lasting Color towels also dried the quickest out of all the terry cloth towels we tested; this means they’re less likely to mold if you store them in a less-than-ideal location (say, on the floor or bed). And we’re not the only fans: Good Housekeeping Research Institute gave them a four-star rating (out of five) for their fast-drying, absorbent construction, and for their ability to hold their color through 25 washes. -JW

Laundry hamper

Starplast Tall Flex Laundry Basket
Easy-to-carry basket holds a ton and has a small footprint perfect for tiny dorm closets.

We considered more than 50 laundry baskets, searched out reviews, and then conducted our own testing to find the best laundry basket. For college students we recommend the Starplast Tall Flex Laundry Basket because it’s affordable, durable, and easy to carry. It’s made of flexible plastic, so you can grab both handles with a single hand to carry it up and down stairs—and because the plastic is smooth, it won’t snag clothes. The tall, narrow shape takes little floor space in a crowded dorm closet, and the basket has plenty of ventilation holes, so even sweaty clothes at the bottom of the basket can dry out. -Chris Heinonen

Laundry detergent

Tide Pods
Adequate cleaning performance and a super-convenient design.

After performing 150 hours of research, examining 252 stain swatches, doing 136 pounds of laundry, testing 20 different detergents, consulting with a surfactant specialist, and analyzing laundered fabric with a UV/Vis spectrometer, we concluded that our favorite detergent pods are Tide Pods. They’re not as efficient at cleaning as our favorite liquid laundry detergent—none of the pods we tested cracked the top 10 in stain-removal performance—but they are very convenient. Just toss one on top of your laundry basket on your way out the door. It’s way better than lugging around a giant jug. At about $20 for 72 pods, a container of Tide Pods isn’t any more expensive than regular Tide, and it’s available in five scent varieties—including the unscented Free & Gentle.

If you’re more concerned about saving money than you are about convenience, Target’s up & up Free and Clear was among our top five detergents in performance and runs only 12 cents a load. -Leigh Krietsch Boerner

Clothes hangers

Mainstays Plastic Hangers
These hangers get the job done for the right price.

We’re currently working on an update to our guide to the best hangers, but the truth is, college students probably won’t be concerned with the results of those tests. After talking to closet organizers and clothing designers, we’ve learned that for inexpensive clothes, any old hangers will do just fine—so long as they aren’t the wire ones you get for free from the dry cleaners, which can rust and form creases.

With that in mind, our advice is to head to your nearest big-box store and pick up a couple of packs of the store-brand plastic ones. But if you’d rather order online, Mainstays Plastic Hangers are $10 for 18 and will work well for most shirts and jackets. If you need something that offers heavy-duty support for coats, clips for skirts, or a sculpted shape for a blazer or suit, check out our full guide to the best hangers. -MZ

Book light

Mighty Bright XtraFlex2 Book Light
Two brightness settings, 28-hour battery life, and a secure clip.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $14.

When you’re in college, a reading light can come in handy, especially if your roommate goes to bed early. After testing three top-rated lights, we recommend the Mighty Bright XtraFlex2. Once you compare it with the competition, you can easily see why the XtraFlex2 has been the best-selling book light on Amazon for several years now. On its low brightness setting, it emits just enough light for personal reading but not so much that it will leak into your roommate’s space if they’re trying to sleep. And on the high brightness setting, the light is perfect for searching under the bed for a lost object. We can’t say the same for the ultra-bright Energizer LED Book Light or the too-dim Mighty Bright TravelFlex. What’s more, the XtraFlex2 supports 28 hours of reading time on three AAAs whereas the Energizer lasts only 10 hours.


Jesse Dittmar

We looked into rechargeable options as well, but came away unimpressed. The Red Kite Book Light is the most popular rechargeable, but it costs significantly more than our pick, lasts only 10 hours between charges, and uses a non-standard USB cable for charging that’s difficult to replace if you lose it. -JW

Wall hanging supplies

Command Medium Designer Hooks, White, 6-Hook
Easy-to-remove hooks hold your stuff securely.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $10.

Get your stuff off the floor and onto the walls to save space. 3M’s Command Hooks are the best adhesive hooks we’ve found, and their adhesive backing sticks firmly to most surfaces but also comes off easily, so you can avoid damaging the walls (which we’re assuming your RA will frown upon). They come in a range of sizes that will hold anywhere from 0.5 pound to 5 pounds. The Medium Designer Hooks will hold up to 3 pounds, enough for a small bag, a collection of belts, or other light objects. For hanging towels, we like the brushed-nickel Medium Traditional Hook, which will bear up to 5 pounds. The Small Wire Hooks will work well for anything weighing less than half a pound, like necklaces or keys.


Jesse Dittmar

3M Command Poster Strips
Better for posters, won’t damage walls.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $7.

For hanging posters, try the Command Poster Strips, which use the same easily removable adhesive. They come in a package of 48 strips, which should take care of your dorm room for around $7. It’s much better at keeping stuff on your walls than poster putty, especially for larger objects.

In our tests, all of the Command products worked well, though only after we followed every step of the installation instructions: Clean the surface with alcohol, attach one side of the two-sided tape to the hook, attach the other side to the wall, press firmly for 30 seconds, and then wait an hour before hanging anything. Otherwise, the hooks fell off. Users are enthusiastic about Command Hooks, and Apartment Therapy, Real Simple, and Erin Doland of Unclutterer recommend them.

For heavy coats or a full backpack, you’ll have to mount something permanent (if you can), or look into an over-the-door hook. -Christine Cyr Clisset/Michael Berk

Desk lamp

Well-designed, highly adjustable lighting at a low price.

Dorm desks aren’t renowned for their expansive surfaces, so the best desk lamp for a first-year student should be compact, adjustable in height, and sufficiently bright for late-night cram sessions. After doing 10 hours of research, considering 13 options, and checking out four lamps in person, we determined that the IKEA FORSÅ (available in-store only) is your best bet because it meets all of those criteria for just $20. The FORSÅ is a no-frills, classic architect-style desk lamp that covers all the basics, with a much higher degree of polish compared with similarly priced designs from other big-box retailers.

Its three-point adjustable twin-pivoting arm and swiveling shade head provide a wide distribution of lighting when positioned at full height or a narrow spotlight when folded down. The weighted 5.9-inch-diameter base takes up little space on a desk yet keeps the lamp firmly planted, and it rotates so you can shine the light over your bed for late-night reading. The nearly 6-foot-long cord should stretch across a typical dorm room easily.

Most big-box retailers source lighting from the same overseas manufacturers’ catalogs, which offer preexisting designs to meet the demand for low prices. IKEA designs everything in-house to its own specifications, but because the company operates on such a large scale, it keeps costs low. As a result, you’re basically getting a $30 to $60 lamp for half the price.

We also looked at other affordable IKEA desk lamps like the ARÖD, TRÅL, and ANTIFONI, alongside similarly priced big-box store lamps. These models offer upgraded features such as hidden power cords, taller fully extended heights, aluminum construction, and more styles compared with the FORSÅ. But the added features come at the expense of valuable desk real estate, not to mention higher price tags. Cheaper models, meanwhile, present concerns about durability—too much reliance on plastic parts—and questionable aesthetics. -Gregory Han



Coffee and tea makers

Chef's Choice 681 Cordless Electric Kettle
This solid, durable stainless-steel kettle boils water quickly.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $50.

Whether you’re a coffee person or a tea drinker, you’ll probably end up consuming more caffeine in college than you’d ever thought possible. Having an electric kettle in your room means that you can make a cup at any hour. We tested nine top-rated models and found that the $50 Chef’s Choice 681 is the best budget-oriented kettle. It took just 4 minutes, 35 seconds to boil a liter of water—the fastest time among all the kettles we tested—thanks to a durable, attractive stainless-steel design and an easy-to-clean interior with no exposed heating element. If you want to spend more money to get something with adjustable temperatures or a special pouring spout for making fancy coffee, check out our full guide to the best electric kettles. -MZ

Aeropress Coffee and Espresso Maker
High pressure and lower temperatures mean less bitterness.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $26.

To prepare your coffee, we recommend the $30 AeroPress, which comes with a full set of accessories and about a year’s supply of filters. It works kind of like a giant syringe, using a combination of pressure and lower brewing temperatures to mitigate the excess bitterness and acidity associated with cheaper coffee (and to get great results with better beans). The traditional brewing method produces a strongly flavored, espresso-strength brew, and the paper filters make your coffee sediment-free. One drawback: The AeroPress has a lot of parts that you can easily misplace at the sink. -MZ

Clever Coffee Dripper
Easiest to use, makes two large cups.

If you want something less complicated, the $25 Clever Coffee Dripper is a good option that can make up to 18 fluid ounces (532 milliliters) of coffee at a time—enough for two large cups. It’s our pick for the easiest-to-use manual coffee maker: Just put coffee and water in the #4 cone filter (sold separately), let it sit a couple of minutes, and decant directly into mugs for serving. Taste testers told us the coffee it produced tasted decent but simple—which is good if you’re using cheaper coffee. -MZ

Hario Coffee Mill Slim Grinder
Comfortable grip, good for two cups.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $25.

If you want freshly ground coffee on a budget, we recommend pairing your coffee maker with the Hario Coffee Mill Slim Grinder for $25. A comfortable grip and a spring-loaded grind-adjustment mechanism prevent it from wiggling while you turn the handle, so it’s easier to use than larger models. A hand mill is also a lot less noisy than an electric grinder, a benefit in close quarters. You can read more about the AeroPress, the Clever Coffee Dripper, and other options in our guide to the best manual coffee-brewing methods. -MZ

Finum Brewing Basket
Simple design lets tea bloom.

For tea drinkers, we compared a dozen top-rated brewing methods head to head and found that the Finum Brewing Basket ($10) is the best option because of its extreme simplicity. It’s just a small basket of very fine stainless-steel mesh held together by food-safe and heat-safe plastic with a lid that doubles as a saucer. It gives tea leaves ample room to bloom, and it strains out even the tiniest particles when you remove it from your mug or pot. -MZ

Mini fridge

A mini fridge can make a spartan dorm room feel a bit more like home just by providing a space to chill drinks, to store a few fresh snacks, and to keep your leftovers from turning into a science experiment. After spending 10 hours scoping out the category and considering about 20 models, we found that almost any mini fridge will get the job done, so long as it meets some minimum criteria.


First, it needs to have a real compressor (as opposed to a less-effective thermoelectric cooling element that will struggle to keep food cold enough). Second, it should have only one door, as those models tend to maintain consistent temperatures more effectively than two-doored counterparts. That’s why our main advice for most people is to get whatever is cheap and available—which probably means buying used from whoever is moving out. It’s easier on your wallet and better for the planet. But if you must have a new fridge, we can suggest a couple of standouts.

Midea WHS-65LB1
This 1.6-cubic-foot cube holds plenty and runs quietly.

If you’re comfortable with an extra-compact, cube-style fridge, our favorite is the Midea WHS-65LB1, which is priced at $105 as of this writing. The temperature is adjustable. The door is reversible. The company offers a two-year warranty on the compressor. It holds at least 30 cans, which is plenty of space for dorm-room eating habits, and it even has a tiny freezer shelf for a small ice cube tray.  Best of all, it has an adjustable leg to keep it level, crucial for ensuring that it operates quietly. That’s a big deal, because you might end up sleeping with this thing next to your head. Amazon users currently rate it at 4.6 stars out of five, noting its consistent temps and quiet operation. And if you don’t want to buy it through Amazon, you’re in luck: Midea manufactures the model, but you can find it at various retailers sold under several other brand names, including Haier, Insignia, and we think Igloo, too. -LM

Danby DCR044A2BDD
A 4.4-cubic-foot fridge with space for all your drinks and leftovers.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $150.

Got a few roommates, and need a little more storage? The Danby DCR044A2BDD has nearly triple the capacity of the Midea cube fridge, but still takes up only about 3.5 square feet of precious floor space. We like this model for most of the same reasons as we do the tiny Midea, and we prefer it over other tall fridges because it has wide availability, a fair price, and a stronger user rating than similar models. One differentiating factor for the Danby over most mini fridges of this size is that the can holders in the door are individuated, so you don’t just have to grab whatever drink is at the bottom of the dispenser. The freezer shelf is nice and roomy, too, so you can keep a few frozen meals on hand to heat up in a compact microwave. -LM

Igloo FR326
The door doubles as a dry-erase board.

We’d also like to give a shoutout to the Igloo FR326 ($110), which has a door that doubles as a dry-erase board. This model is about 30 percent smaller than the Danby, and we like the Danby’s can holders better than the Igloo’s dispenser. But if you don’t mind the can dispenser and you plan on getting a dry-erase board anyway, it’s a good buy. -LM

Rice cooker

Hamilton Beach Digital Simplicity Deluxe Rice Cooker/Steamer
Cooks rice that impresses even sushi chefs, and lets you make an entire meal in one appliance.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $50.

After testing five top-rated rice cookers with a panel of Japanese chefs, we recommend the $50 Hamilton Beach Digital Simplicity Deluxe Rice Cooker/Steamer for the student on a budget who’s tired of the dining hall. Despite retailing for less than half of some of its competitors, the Digital Simplicity earned the top spot in our taste tests for white rice. Its speed was also impressive, as it produced a 3-cup batch of white rice in less than 38 minutes and brown rice in 1 hour, 20 minutes—about 12 and 25 minutes faster, respectively, than the results we got from the higher-end Zojirushi NS-TSC10. You can use a delayed start to let it soak for a while if you’d like your rice to be waiting for you after class. A dedicated steam mode and a boil-then-simmer function add to the Digital Simplicity’s versatility. You could easily cobble together a decent dinner using only your rice cooker, too. -JW

Travel mug

Zojirushi Stainless Mug
Superior insulation and a super-secure lock to prevent spills.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $32.

After testing 10 top-rated travel mugs over the past two years, we’ve determined that the Zojirushi Stainless Mug is the best mug for your backpack. In addition to offering stellar insulating performance—in our tests, coffee was still hot after sitting in it for 8 hours—it has a more intuitive and secure lid-locking mechanism than any other mug we’ve encountered. You never have to worry about it popping open and spilling in your bag, yet you can easily operate it with just one hand. At about $30 for the 16-ounce version, it’s a bit on the pricy side, but it’s the only mug we trust enough to put in the same pocket as a laptop or tablet. We like the 16-ounce version for most people’s needs, but you can go with the cheaper 12-ounce version or the pricier 20-ounce version instead. -MZ


Water bottle

Klean Kanteen
Durable design, great handling, and lots of options.

We conducted close to 50 hours of research, filling, inverting, and abusing 22 different bottles made from various materials to find the best water bottles. For students, we recommend the classic 27-ounce Klean Kanteen With Loop Cap for about $18. (The bottle is also available in a 40-ounce size.) Unlike the fatter 1L Nalgene bottles, the Klean Kanteen has a 2¾-inch-diameter base, so it will fit into most water-bottle pockets on your backpack. Even so, the Klean Kanteen’s 1¾-inch mouth is wide enough for all but the largest ice cubes to fit through, and its stainless-steel design means it can take more of a beating without shattering (like glass) or denting as readily as softer aluminum bottles.


Jesse Dittmar

We also like that Klean Kanteens come in several sizes, including 12-ounce and 18-ounce variants that work well for children. All sizes are compatible with a number of different caps, including a silicone sports spout (which is prone to a bit of leaking in our experience), as well as an all-steel option, one with bamboo highlights, and even a sippy-cup-style cap.

If you prefer a glass, plastic, foldable, or insulated bottle, check out our full guide to the best water bottles for our recommendations. -MZ


Danby Designer Stainless
Simple, with “add 30 seconds” button and durable door handle.

*At the time of publishing, the price was $63.

You can enjoy late-night leftovers, piping-hot popcorn, and even freshly prepared meals for one in the comfort of your dorm room if you get a small microwave. After 18 hours of research and consideration of eight popular models, we think the Danby Designer Stainless ($70) is the best microwave for your dorm room because it has a handle instead of the more common, less durable push-button door-opening mechanism. Handles tend to be more durable in the long run because they involve fewer moving parts. The Danby microwave also has a familiar and intuitive button layout, including a Start button that doubles as an “add 30 seconds” button—we learned that this was a must-have feature for many people when we were researching the best full-size microwaves.


At about 17 by 14 by 10 inches, this 0.7-cubic-foot, 700-watt microwave fits perfectly on top of a mini fridge and uses less power than the more common 1,000-watt models, which means it’s less likely to trip your breaker when it’s sharing a circuit with a kettle, the fridge, and your laptop. The 8½-inch turntable is big enough for frozen entrees and popcorn, but it won’t accommodate larger dishes. However, if the Danby model is sold out, you can get any of the other 0.7-cubic-foot, 700-watt units from Frigidaire, RCA, Sunbeam, or the like for $50 to $80 and expect similar performance. They’re literally the same machine with different branding and slightly different façades—though they typically have button door openers instead of handles.

Note that for a smaller microwave like this one, you’ll want to add a little extra cooking time when making foods with instructions, because these are written for higher-wattage microwaves at 100 percent power. You can consult this conversion chart for exact cooking times. -Brendan Nystedt

Special thanks to our model: Keilly McQuail

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Originally published: August 4, 2015

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