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Your Ultimate Back to School Guide: College

Be productive this semester with these top-rated and recommended supplies.
Your Ultimate Back to School Guide: College

Updated on August 10, 2017.

We put together this guide to help you be as productive as possible at college. We interviewed professors, consulted program websites, and tested out products.

Many of the recommendations here are also office favorites. Our digital team not only builds our websites, iPad app, and other products, but we also do a lot of testing of how our websites and apps look, feel, and work on different products. Our countless hours of writing, coding, editing, shooting video, taking photos, etc. have also helped shape our recommendations.

Our fashion team is also providing recommendations from how to make your dorm room as comfortable as possible. This guide and our tips for getting the most out of school will help make your transition to college smoother.

Best Notebook

1. Moleskine Classic Large, Ruled, Hard Cover Notebook

You’ll look super hip rolling up to English Writing 101 with your artsy Moleskine notebook in hand. The grid version is a Web team favorite for sketching up new websites and features.

$17.28 at Amazon

Best Headphones

2. SENSO ActivBuds Bluetooth Headphones

These waterproof and sweat-proof (Yes! Sweat-proof!) headphones are durable and the Bluetooth-Noise-Suppression-Technology combo makes them perfect for after-class gym sessions and intense studying. They come in gray, red, and blue.

$79.99 at Amazon

Best Spiral bound Notebook

3. Create Your Own Magic Spiral Notebook

Stay on task during class and look good doing it with this inspirational notebook.

$7.95 at Paper Source

Best Alarm Clock

4. RCA Digital Alarm Clock with Large 1.4″ Display

Though your iPhone will hopefully wake you up, your sleep schedule might require an extra security measure.

$11.15 at Amazon

Best Tablet

5. Apple iPad Pro

For those with a lot of reading on their calendar or taking an on-the-go major, the iPad Pro is easier to carry all over campus than your laptop (plus, it’s just as powerful as most PCs). With an iPad Pro, you can have all of your reading material with you wherever you go without breaking your back. The iPad Pro’s new 10.5-inch Retina/hiDPI screen is very easy on the eyes. We do not recommend low-resolution laptops for sustained periods of reading.

$749 at Amazon

Best Laptop

6. Apple MacBook 12-Inch Laptop with Retina Display

This laptop has two killer features that make it perfect for students: It’s really lightweight, and it has a very high-resolution screen that is easy on the eyes. College students do a lot of reading, writing, and web surfing. Staring at computer monitors all day (and phones and other devices) can lead to eyestrain. Using a Retina/hiDPI screen can help lesson and prevent eye strain. The Macbook is lightweight and has a beautiful Retina screen. The one thing it doesn’t have is tons of power. If you need a more powerful Mac with a Retina screen, the 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pros are also fantastic.

$1,289 at Amazon

Best PC Laptop

7. ASUS Zenbook 13.3-Inch Ultra-Slim All-Aluminum Laptop

For the college student who needs a laptop but would rather use Windows, this is a really strong option. It’s lightweight, has a long battery life and has a pretty high-resolution screen (not technically hiDPI, which will cost you more).

$699 and $777.99 (with Microsoft Office) at Amazon

Best Desktop Computer

8. Apple iMac with Retina 5k Display

For art students, photo journalists, video editors, and others who need a big display and lots of power, this is the computer. The display is gorgeous. This display not only does 4K video; it can also do 5K video. It’s absolutely amazing for editing photos in Adobe Lightroom.

$2,199.99 at Amazon

Best Outdoor Reading Device

9. Kindle Paperwhite

If you like reading outside in the quad or at a coffee shop, the Kindle Paperwhite is your best choice. Its e-ink display looks great outdoors. It’s also a very high-resolution screen with text that looks fantastic. Another bonus of the Kindle Paperwhite over an iPad is that it’s cheaper and can fit in a jacket pocket (and even in some of your back pockets). Pro tip: rent your textbooks on Kindle and save a bundle on each semester’s books.

$119.99 at Amazon

Best Pens

10. Pilot G2 Retractable Premium Gel Ink Roller Ball Pens, Fine Point, Black Ink, Dozen Box

Prep for copious note-taking with these easy rolling gel pens. These are a staff and professor favorite.

$10.75 for a dozen at Amazon

Best Tea Kettle

11. Royal Electric Cordless, Glass Tea Kettle (BPA Free)

Perfect for a late night cup of tea or cocoa, this hot water pot will make a college dorm just a bit cozier.

$54.95 at Amazon

Best French Press

12. Secura Stainless Steel French Press Coffee Maker

Making a late-night cup of coffee will be so much easier with a French press, and this stainless steel one is one of the best.

$24.99 at Amazon

Best Wall Decor

13. Gold Confetti Organizational Set

Add some wall decor and create an organizational system with this quad of dry erase calendars and corkboard.

$29.95 at Paper Source

Best Tote Bag

14. The Transport Tote

Grab this sturdy tote for transporting all your books and notes to and from class.

$168 at Madewell

Best Tumbler

15. Ember® Temperature Control Mug (12oz)

There are two things that get a college student through the day: coffee and more coffee. This BPA-free plastic and stainless steel travel mug will make sure it not only stays hot, but stays at the perfect temperature, for hours. Admittedly, $150 for a travel mug sounds pricey, but this baby will get you (and your coffee addiction) through 4 years of college, grad school, internships, and your first job.

$149.95 at Starbucks

Best Comforter

16. VCNY Home Preston Comforter Set in Navy

Fresh bedding is important, and this set goes with anything and gets you a twin-size comforter, a standard pillow sham, and a throw pillow.

$49.99 at Bed Bath & Beyond

Best Sheet Set

17. Nautica® Solid 200-Thread-Count Sheet Set

Pair your bedding with a simple set of solid twin-size sheets.

$34.99 at Bed Bath & Beyond

Best Seating

18. Your Zone Flip Chair, Multiple Colors

Sit in it to study or lay it out flat for a quick pre-lecture class snooze.

$79 at Walmart

Best Lighting

19. Ikea 301.841.73 Holmo 46″ Floor Lamp

Add a bit of ambiance to the fluorescent lights of your dorm room with this standing lamp.

$21.90 at Amazon

Best Shower Caddy

20. Room Essentials™ Bath Caddy

This easy mesh shower caddy is perfect for carrying shampoo to-and-from the shared bathroom, and the material will help keep mold at bay.

$7.99 at Target

Best Space Saver

21. 10 Pocket Canvas Shoe Organizer

Save some coveted closet space with this shoe hanger.

$24.99 at Target

Best Graphing Calculator

22. Texas Instruments TI-89 Titanium Graphing Calculator

Any advanced math or science students will want to invest in this college-weight calculator.

$130.99  at Amazon

Best Water Bottle

23. S’well Vacuum Insulated Stainless Steel Water Bottle, Double Wall (17 oz)

Stay hydrated between classes with this ultra-sturdy (and trendy) water bottle.

$35 at Amazon

Best Sound Speaker

24. Anker SoundCore Bluetooth Speaker

Perfect for playing music in a dorm room or an impromptu movie-viewing party, this speaker has a 24-hour play time and 66-foot Bluetooth range.

$32.99 at Amazon

Best Futon

25. Dillan Microsuede Futon

Not only does this add extra seating in a dorm room, a futon also makes for a better bed than the floor when friends and siblings come to visit.

$229.99 at Target

Best Printer

26. HP DeskJet 3755 Compact All-in-One Wireless Printer with Mobile Printing

Sure, there’s likely a printing lab on campus, but when you’re due in class in ten minutes with an essay you just finished, it’s best to have a personal printer handy, and this one offers great value for the price.

$69.99 at Amazon

Best Laundry Basket

27. Rubbermaid Configurations Folding Laundry Hamper, 23-inch

This laundry hamper is so lightweight, discreet, breathable, and useful that on Amazon user wrote a four-ode stanza to it. In the words of “odinkarr”: “So don’t waste a moment, you know in your heart, go on and just click it: ‘add to your cart.’”

$14.28 at Amazon

Best Brief Case

28. Original Briefcase

Though the price tag is a bit higher than a canvas or faux leather satchel, Filson’s lifetime guarantee ensures that this bag will far outlive your college career.

$325 at Filson

Best Calendar

29. 2018 Inspirational Quote Rifle Paper Co. Wall Calendar

Keep your schedule at the forefront of your mind and add some wall art to your dorm room with this Rifle Paper Co. calendar.

$26 at Rifle Paper Co.

Best Shelving Unit

30. KALLAX Shelving Unit

Add some shelving to your sparse dorm room, and just add baskets to make it look neat and organized.

$64.99 at IKEA

Best Floor Decor

31. IKEA HULSIG Rug, Low Pile (3×5)

Give your room a homier feel with this simple striped rug.

$12.99 at IKEA

Best Camera for Beginners

32. Nikon D3400 w/ AF-P DX NIKKOR 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR & AF-P DX NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3G ED

If you have a photography class lined up this year or are involved with your college newspaper, this is the camera to get. It’s easy to hold, simple to use, and can even shoot HD video. We recommend adding on the 70-300mm lens, and the starter bundle comes with a camera case, tripod and bag, and 16GB SanDisk Memory Card. Add on this 35mm prime lens to create the perfect combo for learning how photography and videography. That 35mm lens is the best deal in a camera lens anywhere. It works fantastically well in low light situations and can do very shallow depth of field.

$596.95 at Amazon

Best Camera Bag for Students

33. Lowepro Transit Backpack 350 AW

This bag can carry everything. There’s room for your iPad, laptop, DSLR, photography gear, and there’s even space to stash a notebook and some snacks.

Looking for something smaller? The Lowepro Fastpack 250 is a great bag to carry around every day and can fit a laptop and a dslr without any bulkiness. It’s also a comfortable daily laptop bag.

$96.90 at Amazon

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Associate Editor

Caroline Cunningham joined Washingtonian in 2014 after moving to the DC area from Cincinnati, where she interned and freelanced for Cincinnati Magazine and worked in content marketing. She currently resides in College Park.