As the holiday season approaches, finding the perfect gift for high school seniors gearing up for college can be both exciting and challenging. At this time of year, most students haven’t made their college decision let alone know their dorm room setup and rules.
Navigating the plethora of options can be overwhelming, so our team has compiled a curated list of gift ideas for high school seniors that balance utility and sentiment and should be useful no matter the future living situation. From practical essentials that cater to the demands of campus life to unique items that add a personal touch, this list will help you ensure they’re well-equipped for the college journey ahead.
The Research Behind Our List
With 3 years of dorm essentials research, hands-on product testing, trend watching, price watching, and asking manufacturers endless questions, we consider ourselves experts in all things dorm and preparing to move to college.
We also run the very active Dorm Shopping Facebook Group where our over 56,000 members have been an incredible source of product feedback, design inspiration, and valuable insight into the VAST rules and regulations at colleges nationwide.
We have tracked the prices and availability of hundreds of dorm essentials every day for years now. We’ve read all of the reviews, seen what our group members have experienced – good and bad, and know the dorm must-haves and the items you can skip.
To create the list below, we sifted through all of our product recommendations and considered which would be relevant no matter the college decision and dorm assignment.
You can see our full list of dorm recommendations in our Complete Dorm Room Essentials Guide.
CRITERIA for OUR GIFT recommendations
We’re also really picky. Here’s a peek into how we assess every dorm recommendation we make.
✓ High Quality – Items linked and recommended must have at least 4.5* ratings.
✓ Consumer Reports Approved – I use my Consumer Reports membership to check all categories that have been reviewed by Consumer Reports and only recommend the top items.
✓ Made In The USA – I’m always looking for this, but it is often hard to find.
✓ Earth Friendly – Again, looking for the most eco-friendly options where available.
✓ Small Businesses – Where possible, I will provide a small business option provided the quality and pricing meet our standards.
The Dorm items you should wait to buy until you know your COLLEGE AND dorm assignment
Before we get into our list of gift suggestions, let’s do a quick look at what you should absolutely wait to buy until you have your dorm assignment.
▶︎ BEDDING – While many dorms have Twin XL beds, there are definitely exceptions. We are definitely seeing more Full and Full XL, especially in suite-style dorms, and we also see regular Twin beds as well. Once you know your bed size, you can refer to our How To Layer A Perfectly Comfortable Dorm Bed and shop for that as soon as possible. Twin XL and Full XL sell out quickly. Be sure to bookmark that article so you have it handy when you’re ready. You’ll need it – dorm mattresses are thin and terrible, and the layers to make it comfortable can be confusing.
▶︎ COOKING APPLIANCES – Most dorms won’t allow anything with an exposed heating element, but some even say no to coffee makers or bringing your own microwave or mini-fridge. Once you know the allowed and restricted items, take a look through our Dorm Room Appliances And Cooking Gadgets For New College Students to be prepared for dining hall fatigue. It is a real thing.
▶︎ NON-UL LISTED ELECTRICAL ITEMS – Most dorms prohibit extension cords, and many only allow surge protectors or things such as lamps or clocks if they are UL Listed. You’ll find that several items on Amazon, Target, Walmart, etc are UL Recognized or ETL Listed, not UL Listed, and those typically won’t pass move-in inspection.
▶︎ HEAVIER HANGING DECOR – Nails or tacks are almost always a no in a dorm room. Some allow Command Hook or Strips, some do not. Hold off on heavy hanging decor until you know what you’re allowed to use.
▶︎ COLLEGE LAPTOPS – Colleges and many majors have specific requirements for laptops. More technical majors like engineering and nursing are very specific about the specifications and often require a PC and not a Mac. More creative majors may require a Mac. Both of my college sons are business majors and use Macs – they love them, but don’t make assumptions about what is allowed or required until you get information from your school.
College Gift Ideas FOR HIGH SCHOOL SENIORS (Before You Know The College Or Dorm)
So what can you buy now? And what should you buy now? Here is our list of recommendations based on our extensive research and feedback from moms and college students.
Starting with the Top 5 sought-after items that sell out and cause summer panic along with commentary on why these are so popular…
The 5 COLLEGE DORM MUST HAVES EVERYONE will be looking for in the spring and summer:
1. WOOZOO FAN – If I had to pick one item that gets the most chatter in dorm room planning, this is easily it. There will be hundreds of ‘what is the big deal with the WOOZOO?’ posts across Facebook groups like ours. You’ll wonder yourself. There is a reason that it is so lauded, but you have to get the right model. You want the 5-speed multi-dimensional oscillating WOOZOO that looks like a globe on a pedestal – mine is pictured above. You do not want the one with arms on the sides holding the globe stationary – that doesn’t move the air nearly as well. You also don’t want the 3-speed with the flat face, it just doesn’t compare to small, mighty, round 5-speed.
If you’re reading this in the fall or winter, you will not be able to find this WOOZOO fan. It arrives at Costco around the beginning of April, usually at a great price, and then it comes and goes during the summer until it is out of stock everywhere again. While this would make a great Christmas gift, you’ll have to save it for graduation. The WOOZOO’s you may find at Sam’s Club, Best Buy, The Container Store, etc are the wrong models. You can find this on Amazon, but those are resellers, and there is a concern that those were returns that don’t function properly. Just wait for Costco. You can buy it online at Costco even if you are not a member. They charge a 5% non-member fee which is negligible for a $30-$40 fan.
You will personally fall in love with this fan on move-in day. It will be HOT. A/C will be at a minimum, if available at all, and not keeping up with the throngs of kids and parents lugging their hauls into the dorms. And you’ll be in a small space with tons of stuff, assembly instructions, a nervous kid and emotions running high. This fan is a savior. Bookmark our uber-detailed How To Prepare And Pack For College Move In Day article. You’ll want to start on this article about 6 weeks prior to move-in.
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2. BLUE MOVING BAGS – Maybe these aren’t a really fun ‘gift’, but THESE are an absolute must for moving to college. Moving bags are what EVERYONE will use to move into college dorms and apartments. They are so much easier than boxes – they hold a ton (up to 55lbs), have straps to carry over the shoulder or as a backpack, smush nicely into cars and fold down to almost nothing for easy storage when not in use.
You may have heard of “Ikea bags”. They were the original, and they’re fine, but they’ve been replaced by me and many others for the VENO bags. VENO bags are thicker, stronger and slightly larger. They are also less expensive per bag and much easier to order (on Amazon). IKEA does not sell on Amazon, so any IKEA bags that you see there are either sold by resellers or are not authentic. Stick with VENO, you will not be disappointed.
One note about VENO, they also make storage bags that look similar. You don’t want these for college moves, you want the VENO MOVING BAGS. These have backpack straps and those make a huge difference!
And they will gradually increase in price by spring, even going out of stock here and there in the summer.
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3. MATTRESS TOPPER – An absolute college dorm must have. Dorm mattresses are thin and notoriously uncomfortable. But until you know your specific dorm room assignment, this is something that will need to wait. Many schools have Twin XL mattresses in their dorm rooms, but a growing number have Full or Full XL mattresses, especially in suite-style dorm rooms. Then there are those who have regular Twin beds.
When you know your dorm bed size, you can read through our How To Layer A Perfectly Comfortable Dorm Bed article for our recommendations. We also have video testing in our Dorm Shopping Facebook group.
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4. AIR PURIFIER – Dorm rooms are musty, at best. And unfortunately, mold is sometimes an issue. Last year, my neighbor’s daughter was in the same dorm at a major state university that I was in something like 20 (ok, maybe 30) years ago. She had some early struggles with congestion and breathing that it turns out was likely mold or at least mildew related. Same issue for many others in her dorm. An upgraded air purifier made a big difference, and it turned out that most students already had them since they are also so good at filtering germs as well. The CDC says to avoid the models with UV-Light technology.
I spent days reviewing all of the models across many retailers and considering the Consumer Reports reviews as well. You can spend hundreds of dollars and up, but for a bedroom-sized space, this dorm-sized air purifier is definitely the most bang for the bunk and checks all of the boxes – True HEPA, no UV light, a 6-month filter with a smart indicator when it needs to be changed (a necessity for college students), and it even has an optional nightlight which can be very helpful in a dorm room or college apartment.
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5. BRITA WATER PITCHER – Having fresh drinking water available in your dorm room is important, and Brita pitchers are on every dorm room essential list. The filter cartridge needs to be replaced about every 4 months. It is easy, but I kind of like the idea of giving the pitcher as a Christmas gift and letting the student get used to owning the water filling and cartridge replacement now so that it is second nature by the time they head off to school. These do need to be stored in a refrigerator, but this version linked here is only 10″ tall and will fit in most mini-fridges. It also has a digital indicator when it is time to replace the cartridge.
An alternative to a full pitcher is a Brita Water Bottle. Many students take 2 to school and keep one in the fridge while the other one goes off to class.
Practical Gifts FOr COllege Practically Everyone CAN USE
If there is a chance they will be using a community bathroom, you’re going to want shower shoes. I definitely recommend as open as possible on top (vs something like a water shoe) and weep holes on the soles. Don’t spend a lot, and prepare to replace them at the holidays in the middle of freshman year. Buy 2 pairs now if you find a good deal!
- Women’s Adidas Shower Shoes
- Women’s Crocs Shower Shoes
- Men’s Adidas Shower Shoes
- Men’s Crocs Shower Shoes
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FAST DRYING BATH TOWELS
Key learning! Avoid the super thick plush towels and go for the fast-drying kind. Dorms are damp and humid, and towels won’t have a great place to hang and dry.
A few of our recommendations are:
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For all of the non-shower shoe trips to the bathroom, you will want slippers. I never in a million years thought my son would wear them, but within a couple of weeks at school, it was the first thing he said he needed. “Everyone has them, mom”.
- Don’t spend a lot on a name brand, they won’t be coming home at the end of the year, in fact, they may need to be replaced halfway through.
- I recommend a rubber sole for wet bathrooms and hallways or consider the indoor/outdoor soles – don’t bet against these shoes occasionally going to class.
My college son likes these indoor/outdoor slippers with the fuzzy insides. These come in either full shoe profile or open back. Machine washable too. Suggested to size up one.
For the girls, it might be tempting to look at Ugg or Bombas or other great brands. If you really want to splurge, sure. But given the wear and tear and the likelihood you won’t want them back in your house after a year of using a community bathroom, this is a nice, more affordable slipper option for the ladies.
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SCHOOL LOGO PAJAMA SEPARATES
If the decision has been made, how about a pair of flannel PJ pants with the college logo? These may end up going to class accompanied by the indoor/outdoor slippers on a particularly hectic morning. Check the online bookstore, or check out all of the college merchandise available at Kohl’s.
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PERSONALIZED NOTE CARDS
All college students need to have note cards on hand to properly thank the many people who will contribute to their success in college. Family members sending care packages. Professors writing letters of recommendation. Managers from internship assignments. Speakers they arrange to speak at their club meetings. Interviewers for job opportunities, etc.
Here are a few options that can be personalized with first and last name. This is preferred to monogrammed personalization for more professional correspondence.
Georgia-based handcrafted stationery on Etsy – love her store. So many note card options as well as personalized note pads and printed return address envelope options.
Texas-based personalized stationery on Amazon – another great store with many note card options as well as note pads and invitations.
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SLIM NON-SLIP HANGERS
Sounds luxurious, but they’re an affordable must-have for a small college closet. The narrow profile helps get more items into a small space, and the texture keeps items from slipping off the hangers. This pack of 50 slim hangers has so many versatile functions too with the S loop top, the grippy pants hanger, the strap loops, etc.
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EASY TO CLEAN WATER BOTTLES
Help keep your college student hydrated with a good water bottle or two to tote in their backpack as they trek around campus. Word to the wise – choose water bottles without straws or complex lids that are difficult to clean. Also, go for the wide tops versus those with skinny necks – those are also hard to clean, especially in a dorm sink.
- Owala Water Bottles – Very on trend this year and would make a great gift.
- Stanley Bottles and Quenchers – Also a hot item, colors sell out quickly, so if you see one you like, don’t wait to purchase it. Stanley also offers customization options.
- Yeti Rambler – I use this exact water bottle when I exercise. Can just throw it in a workout bag or tennis bag, and it does not leak. It was a gift that I use all the time and comes in so many colors.
- Nalgene Wide Mouth Water Bottle – Made in the USA, BPA free, lid attached so that it doesn’t go missing! These aren’t going to keep drinks cold like their stainless counterparts above, but these are a great inexpensive option if that’s not a big concern.
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ROKU STREAMING STICK
How do college kids watch TV or their shows without a cable connection? Streaming, of course, but they will quickly grow tired of watching on the small screens on their phones. Many kids bring a TV and a streaming stick. My son uses a Roku Streaming Stick and logs into the various streaming apps using our home cable login. Works great for him, and he’s particularly thankful to be able to watch sports on a full-screen TV. Amazon’s Fire Stick is another option.
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For sporting events, concerts and other large gatherings, a clear bag is frequently the only type of bag allowed. This one comes with faux leather trim in several cute colors. I have the black one myself and use it frequently – I mean those darn readers need to go everywhere with me these days. Has held together nicely and is a great price.
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Let’s face it, these high schoolers are pretty content in a hoodie even on a cold or rainy day. And they won’t believe it now, but they WILL be calling you next fall desperate for something waterproof on rainy days. Because (gasp), you actually have to walk outside between classes. Head off that exasperated phone call and pickup a rain jacket while the holiday sales are rolling.
- Women’s lightweight packable (into its own pocket) rain jacket
- Men’s lightweight packable rain jacket
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This small toolbox set is 12″x7″x3″ and includes 39 pieces and the case.
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A HUMOROUS BUT EYE-OPENING BOOK FOR RISING COLLEGE FRESHMEN
The Naked Roommate outlines all the things they don’t realize they need to know before college in one funny affordable book.
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EASY ROLLING SUITCASE
Whether they’re an airplane or a car ride away while at school, everyone needs a decent suitcase. If you want true easy rolling, not having to really push or pull a heavier bag, or drag it over airport carpet, look for a bag with 8 360 degree wheels (4 sets of double wheels). Also look for TSA-approved locks for bags larger than carry-ons. If you end up choosing a black suitcase, get a colorful ribbon to tie on the handles to help you find it easily as well as keep others from mistakenly walking off with your bag.
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A nice pair of khaki pants and a button down shirt, or a pencil skirt with a nice top. A blazer. Maybe a tie. Almost all college students will need business clothes at some point, if not somewhat frequently. They’ll need accompanying shoes too. As they get into their upperclassmen years, they may need a business suit as well, depending on their career goals.
Macy’s has a lot of business clothes options for both men and women and has frequent sales and coupons. Macy’s holiday return window is extended to January 31, 2024. If you’re struggling to find what they would wear/like, a holiday design Macy’s gift card is always a good option.
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Despite having a perfectly good overnight duffle bag, my son likes to bring his clothes home in his laundry hamper. But the toiletries need a way to travel without getting tossed in with the laundry. The water-resistant toiletry bag linked here has several compartments, and I appreciate the places for toothbrush, razor and small bottles.
A few other options:
- This larger hanging toiletry bag to hold full-size bottles and lots of smaller items in multiple compartments. This one would be a good option for those who are drive away from home, its too big for air travel.
- This made in the USA leather dopp kit that can be personalized.
Gift IDEAs For CAMPUS SAFETY
❖ She’s Birdie Personal Alarm – I encourage parents of all high schoolers, college students and beyond to gift one of these to each of their kids. The original model is a simple keychain alarm that emits a loud alarm when triggered. For college students, it might make sense to put one on the keychain and another on the backpack in case the keys are left in the dorm room.
And recently, the company has introduced the Birdie+ Personal Alarm. This one has a very reasonable subscription plan which provides the ability to send your location to your designated people, to trigger an ‘excuse call’ to get out of a potentially uncomfortable situation and the ability to connect to a live representative who will stay on the phone with you until you are safely home and will dispatch authorities immediately if necessary. For about the price of a footlong Subway per month, what an amazing peace of mind as a parent.
For either Birdie device, use our code PSA15 to save 15%.
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❖ Portable Charging Block – Let’s just admit it, when our kids say “I need to go, my phone is about to die”, it is absolutely maddening. And scary. So, be sure they have a charging block to keep in their backpack or in a purse if their phone battery is running low.
This portable charging block can charge 2 devices at once which can be handy if your note taking tablet is also short on battery during class, OR if your roommate has an almost dead phone as well.
Don’t forget to include some short charging cables with the blocks. This is a pack of 3 one-foot long iPhone cables.
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❖ Dual Dash Cam – If your student will take a car to college, this is a must-have. But honestly, this should be in every new driver’s car for their protection against scammers, vandals and angry adults who are quick to blame teens even when not at fault. For more information about how to avoid accident scams, you can jump right to that section in this article.
Dual dash cams mean they have front and rear window cameras. They are pretty easy to install yourself, and they are so helpful in the event of any kind of issues with the car.
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❖ Portable Car Jump Start Block – Another suggestion for those taking a car to college is this portable jump start charging block. No standing around in a parking lot waiting for a tow truck or a friend to come jump your car – you can do it yourself. This super helpful device also doubles as an emergency strobe light, roadside hazard lights and will charge a typical cell phone several times. We all keep one in our glove compartments, and I used mine a few months ago when my car wouldn’t start in a dark Kohl’s parking lot. I had never used it or watched a video of how to use it, and I figured it out. It was easy, and it worked on my giant 8-cylinder SUV. Jumper cables are included.
For more college safety ideas, please check out our full list of 25 Important Tips For Dorm Room And College Campus Safety.
HIGH-TECH Wow Gift IDEAs For High School SENIORS
❖ Apple iPad With Apple Pencil for note taking – So many college students are bringing iPads to school for note-taking these days. And there are some pretty amazing apps made just for college students. These apps will digitize hand-written notes and drawings, incorporate photos/video/audio, provide for collaboration with other students and more. While I wish we had this back in our school days, I’m still glad there were no cameras in everyone’s pockets or social media platforms…
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❖ Rocketbook – Not wanting to make the investment in a tablet but wanting to digitize notes and planning, check out the very affordable Rocketbook. Use a special pen on the reusable notebook and planner pages, use the app to digitize and send to your favorite platform in the cloud, then wipe the pages clean and use them over and over. Rocketbook comes with one Pilot Frixion pen with black ink. You could also gift a set of Frixion pens with a variety of colors.
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❖ Air Pod Pros – The ultimate college accessory, I mean are you really a teenager without at least one of these firmly planted in an ear? If you do decide to invest in these, PLEASE get an inexpensive silicone Air Pod case to help keep those shiny cases from sliding out of their pocket. My husband can tell you all about how that happens.
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❖ SMART WATCH – Keep track of your schedule, quickly mute phone calls while studying and be alerted when you need more sleep or exercise, Smart Watches are a great accessory for any college student. For iPhone users, an Apple Watch is a fully compatible companion. For Android users, consider a Samsung Galaxy Watch. For either Apple or Android users who are more fitness oriented, a Garmin Vivoactive or a Fitbit Sense are great options.
Meaningful Christmas Gift Ideas For High School Seniors
❖ Personalized Senior Year Ornament – Love this idea for them to open and put on the tree on this very special last Christmas before heading to college.
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❖ Sentimental Necklace – Something she can wear every day on her new journey.
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❖ Personalized Journal – Help them capture the moments of this major milestone in their lives. The last semester of high school and the summer before college – what an amazing time to document.
LET THEM DO THE SHOPPING – Gift Card Ideas For Rising College Students
Amazon and Target are the two additional mega destinations for dorm room must-haves.
Target offers mail, e-mail and text gift cards.
Don’t Forget The Stocking Stuffers For Older Teens
If you’re looking for stocking stuffers, we have a great list of 65 Thoughtful Stocking Stuffers For College Students And Older Teens put together by high school & college students and some creative moms. These affordable options are also great ideas for your child’s boyfriend/girlfriend at the holidays and for future graduation gifts for their friends.
The Important Paperwork When They Turn 18
Not a gift, but since you are shopping for a high school senior, I want to be sure you’re aware of the changes in legal rights when a child becomes an adult. 18 in most states.
Please take a few minutes to review this article to understand the legal paperwork necessary to be sure you can help your new adult in the event of a critical medical situation.
Already Committed To A College?
I saw this basket on Etsy and can’t wait for my son to make his decision so that I can order this for him. After months of applications, essays, tests, recommendation letters and then the waiting for responses, this is a sweet way to congratulate your child for their hard work and their journey ahead.
Get The Info On All The College Dorm Room Essentials
- You can see our full list of dorm recommendations in our Complete Dorm Room Essentials Guide.
- Our Dorm Shopping Recommendations and Deal Alerts Facebook group will let you know when these dorm essentials go on sale and also provide a community of like-minded dorm shoppers with great questions and answers!
- Want to know when new content goes live here on Positively Squared Away? Just register to receive our emails – we promise not to send them more frequently than once per week.
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