Unbelievable college dorm room essentials that might surprise and shock you

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Monogrammed headboards? Stainless steel espresso machines? Meal kits delivered? Sounds like the supplies for a housewarming party, right? You might be surprised to learn that these items and many more like them are some of the unbelievable, so-called college dorm room essentials that Gen Z expects to take back to campus.

A bedroom with two twin beds featuring teal and white bedding, striped teal and white curtains, a large window in the center, and various decor items including pillows, frames, and a chandelier.
You won’t believe what this year’s college students are calling dorm room essentials. Read on for their high-end choices. Photo credit: Nicole Ketchum.

Dorm room essentials that will blow your mind

When your child is entering their freshman year in college, chances are the school’s residence life office sent a list of dos and don’ts for dorm living. This includes items that the school might ban, like microwave ovens, which could be a fire hazard or, conversely, products they recommend all students bring.

For instance, at some colleges, a power strip with a flat head is a must on a dorm packing checklist. Why? Because it lies flush against the wall and doesn’t stick out as a tripping hazard.

Outside of boring and practical dorm supplies, when it comes to Gen Z, their list of essentials for campus living goes way beyond where to plug in their computer or desk light. They might need an outlet for their white noise machine, espresso maker or reverse osmosis water filter — because a Brita pitcher isn’t good enough.

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The rise of over-the-top dorm rooms

Not surprisingly, you can thank social media for elevating a dorm room from a cinder block cell to some of the nicest college dorm rooms that might rival what you would see in the pages of Architectural Digest magazine. If you go down the right TikTok rabbit hole, you’ll see students doing dorm room reveals, thanks to the interior designers they — or more likely their parents — hired to make their college bedroom feel more like the one they have at home.

Speaking of parents, Facebook is rife with groups where parents who all have children at the same school can hang out and ask helicopter parenting questions like, “Should I install a Ring doorbell camera outside of my son’s room?” Other groups are devoted to parents determined to turn their child’s dorm room into an HGTV moment, such as Dorm Rooms of Mississippi and Beyond on Facebook, with more than 65,000 members.

Designer-decorated dorm rooms tend to be more popular at southern colleges and universities. For instance, one of the most popular products Nicole Ketchum of Hey Girl Decor designs and sells are faux chandeliers. Half of her customers are college students in either Florida or Georgia. 

The Kennebunk, Maine-based interior designer believes today’s dorm dweller wants a room with a cohesive look. So in addition to things like a faux chandelier, roommates are purchasing high-end matching bedding, throw pillows, lighting, rugs and wall art. Here are other ways that shopping for a college dorm room is nothing like it was in the past.

Organic mattress toppers

No one will ever mistake a dorm room mattress for something high end. They’re usually covered in a waterproof, fireproof material that is anything but comfortable. That’s why mattress toppers are dorm must haves. But not just any old topper. 

“The toxins in the overseas manufactured mattress toppers and bedding are shocking,” explained Lara Becker of Atlanta, Georgia. After discovering this stomach-turning info when shopping for our own daughters going off to college, she started sharing dorm decor recommendations on social media. A few years later, she ended up as a dorm room influencer, with more than 100,000 followers in her Facebook group Dorm Shopping Recommendations & Deal Alerts. On her website, she offers a Dorm IQ series. By the way, she recommends investing in an organic mattress topper.

Furniture from home or custom made

When working with college students to decorate their living spaces, Liz Toombs of PDR Interiors, based in Martin, Tennessee, recommends bringing an accent chair and an ottoman. “Ottomans that include storage are wonderful additions to a dorm room,” she explained. “They can act as extra seating as well as storage and can be tucked away easily when needed.”

Toombs also knows of students bringing monogrammed or custom-made headboards to their dorm rooms. Becker hears of custom-created stairs, with storage underneath, to reach lofted dorm beds.

Espresso machines

It’s not unusual to see Keurig coffee machines in college dorms. However, when Robin Davis Sekula of New Albany, Indiana, was ticking off things her daughter, Amelia, needed for her freshman dorm room at Indiana University in Bloomington, a Nespresso machine was on the list. 

“She made a pitch for it as her graduation present,” Sekula said. “She swears it will save her money when she doesn’t have to buy coffee on the daily.” The cost of the machine at Best Buy? $275. Cost of Nespresso pods? About a buck each. Amelia can also sign up for Subscribe and Save on Amazon so she never runs out.

Toombs, the interior designer, has an idea about how to create a coffee bar — yes, a coffee bar in a dorm room. “Transform the hutch that often sits on top of built-in furniture and make it into a coffee station,” she said. “Use a tree for holding mugs and store supplies in the drawers.”

Peel-and-stick wallpaper

Hanging decorations on a dorm wall is nothing new. But many students are taking wall hangings to another level with peel-and-stick wallpaper. “They’ll cover the entire room,” Becker said. “These will most certainly bring large damage fines after they move out.”

Wallpaper isn’t just for the walls either. “They’re covering the entire desk and drawers — often with a marble look — then adding a custom acrylic top over the desk top,” Becker added. If they’re not using wallpaper, then they’re covering their desk in a luxurious fabric, plus that custom acrylic top.

Forget dorm grub. They’re ordering meal kits

It’s possible that today’s college students have grown accustomed to their parents using meal kits to get dinner on the table. So it’s no surprise that they’re getting meal kits at college, too. 

Recently, Sodexo — a corporation that provides on-campus meals — inked a deal to offer delivery of HelloFresh and EveryPlate meal kits to students at more than 300 U.S. colleges and universities. Another meal kit company, Daily Harvest, saw an uptick in interest from freshman families. In response, they created a college student discount.

Final thoughts

If your college freshman insists on bringing expensive items to college, at least buy renters insurance on their behalf to protect them. That way if something happens, you may be able to recoup some of your costs.

Leah Ingram writes about back-to-school and back-to-college shopping on her blog Real Sophisticated Consumer.

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