These days, it’s infinitely easier to outfit your kids for dorm life than it was when you and I went to college. Before the dawn of online shopping, I remember how my parents searched for extra-large boxes and an old-fashioned steamer trunk large enough to hold bedding, lamps, wall decorations, posters, and other odd-sized gear. My mom said the trunk could double as a makeshift coffee table. But really, its use (metaphorically speaking) was to hold all the complicated feelings we had about me leaving home and starting this new chapter.

Such feelings are timeless but the world of e-commerce has simplified everything else. You can register online with stores like Bed, Bath & Beyond, Target, or Wal-Mart, which offer college checklists for dorm items like bedding and electronics. The checklists are similar to online bridal registries. (The Container Store and IKEA, which specialize in storage and furniture, have similar programs for college students).

Even better, several sites offer discounts (one as high as 25 percent) once you sign up. You can shop with your student at the store nearest you, and browse through items, sizes, and matching colors. Once you decide, you can purchase items there or do so online and the store nearest your child’s school will ship it right to his or her dormitory.

What could be easier, right? The trouble is that the long checklists and dizzying range of products make it easy for families to purchase way too much. Most college dorm rooms are tiny, and space is at a premium. So use the resources above—and follow these tips:

  • Most colleges provide roommate information before move-in day. Your child can reach out to her new roommate(s) and find out which items they are bringing. That way they can divvy up items so their room or suite isn’t crammed with multiple microwaves, mini fridges, and TV sets.
  • Some colleges have orientation sessions which include information on restricted items, or check the college website for information.
  • Leaving home for the first time is a big deal and the temptation is to over pack, so your child will likely need help deciding which items he is actually going to need. Remind him that over packing will make travel more difficult, his dorm room more cramped, and packing at the end of the year a nightmare­­—and that you can send or order items after he gets there, if necessary.

Advice From the Experts

My nephew started college last fall, and this year will be returning for his sophomore year, so he has some opinions on dorm essentials.

A mini fridge is probably at the top of his list. I actually argued against it at the time, because he was going to a private college with a great cafeteria and plenty of vending machines. Luckily he didn’t listen to me, because the cafeteria was often closed when he was hungry or studying late at night. The vending machine food wasn’t satisfying—and it certainly wasn’t healthy. He got a lot of use out of his mini fridge, where he could store leftovers and other perishable items that he would eat whenever he wanted.

An electric kettle was also at the top of my nephew’s essential list. He used it to make soup, ramen, or any of the other instant meals college students love, as well as tea, coffee, or cocoa. (Be sure to find out if your child’s school has restrictions on electrical appliances, like kettles and microwaves, before you buy.)

Noise-canceling headphones were another dorm survival tool, according to my nephew. They enabled him to study and sleep through the dormitory clamor that typically gets louder after 10 pm. (Not everyone respects the posted quiet hours!)

He also has thoughts on what not to bring. One of his floor mates brought three goldfish on the airplane to stock a fishbowl in her room. The fish didn’t live long, however, after someone accidently (we hope) spilled a beverage in the water.

There was also the beanbag chair so large it could easily seat three people. Nice, right? Wrong. Most college dorm rooms have room for a bed, a desk, a bureau, and that’s it. It wasn’t long before the other roommates mutinied and tossed the oversized bag out the window.

But every college is different—as is every college student—so the list of essential items will depend on your student and which college he or she attends.

Different Kids, Different Dorm Rooms

My neighbor Kathy has twins—a girl and a boy — who just completed their freshman year at different colleges. Kathy spent several  weekends shopping with her daughter before she began her freshman year. She had a detailed shopping list from the college, so she knew not to buy any in-suite cooking or kitchen items (which were already provided) or window shades. They focused on extras like a full-length mirror, a purple trashcan that matched her daughter’s bedding, and solar-powered phone charger that she could fit in her pocket. She brought a computer, of course, and extra ink cartridges for the printer and a few reams of paper. (Kathy managed to convince her not to bring every clothing and jewelry item she owns, which her daughter now concedes was excellent advice.)

Kathy’s son was accepted to a nearby state college but waitlisted for dorm housing. He found out that he had a room the weekend before classes began, which meant that he and Kathy had to power shop, gathering all the basics in a single day. Sheets, comforter, blanket, cleaning supplies, a shower caddy, and bath mat were all on their list. (Don’t skimp on cleaning supplies, Kathy advises. Even though a janitor cleaned the dorm’s communal areas, the showers were often in need of a scrub down, even by her son’s rather low standards!)

By far the best purchase, according to Kathy, was a foam mattress topper. College mattresses have typically seen so much use that they are as thin as cardboard. (Most college dorms have extra-long single mattresses. Check with your school to confirm size.) With a computer, plug in power strips, a desk lamp, and a portable music system, her son was ready to go.

This year my nephew is moving to an off-campus apartment, so I donated some chairs and end tables to help him furnish his new place. It’s another rite of passage, but it’s not nearly as wrenching as the beginning of freshman year when he left home for the first time, almost (but not quite) an adult. As I’ve learned by watching beloved nieces and nephews grow, the years pass quickly. Savor them well.