As college starts up each fall, students often feel a flurry of nervousness and excitement. College is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but also one full of unfamiliar avenues and obstacles. Add in the challenges related to COVID-19, and college may seem even more daunting than usual.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released suggestions for institutions of higher education, such as closing communal areas and installing physical barriers between bathroom sinks, to lower the risk of infection as much as possible. However, regulations on social gatherings and dorm life — which are highly anticipated aspects of college life — are hard to enforce. With COVID-19 still an unpredictable and concerning pandemic, we must remember to practice social distancing and healthy, sanitary practices. 

With that in mind as I returned as a sophomore to the University of Texas at Austin, I knew that my list of college essentials this year needed to work for pandemic-friendly situations as well. There are many back-to-school lists out there, but here’s my personal list of items and tools that have been useful and comforting for me everyday — at home or on campus!

Products for Home + On Campus

PediPocket Blanket
The PediPocket is my favorite investment because I can use it when I’m being lazy or when I’m studying. This super plush and convenient blanket is extra long, with a 20-inch pocket at the bottom for your feet. Dorms can get really cold during the winter, so this is a definite must-have.

Digital Organizers/Planners
College is fast-paced, so having a digital organizer or planner accessible on your computer and on your phone is convenient. It also saves you extra weight in your backpack! My two favorites are Google Calendar and Notion, both of which have kept me on track.

Google Calendar: I live by Google Calendar because I’m able to color coordinate, set reminders, schedule appointments, and add extensive notes, details and links. The app is also very easy to use, free, shareable, and visually pleasing, so I prefer it over other apps like Apple Calendar.

Notion: While Notion is a calendar, it also serves as a workspace that’s helpful for planning, storage and note-taking. It has a lot of room for creativity, is visually stunning, has an app version for your phone, and is totally free! Notion offers templates for schedules, to-do lists, budget trackers, syllabi, and more, with options to create your own templates too. This YouTube video was a particularly helpful introduction to Notion. Bonus: You can upload pictures and use emojis on your pages! 

Wireless Earphones
Wireless earphones are the way to go in college, whether you’re tuning out the noise around you or listening to a podcast on the go. They enable you to move constantly and freely. At home, they allow you to multitask, whether you’re catching up on lectures while doing chores or running errands. On campus, it’s easier to walk to class without fumbling with a cord. I personally love my Apple AirPods because they automatically pause videos when taken out of your ear, and resume the videos when reinserted. Furthermore, they have great mics that work well for Zoom classes.

Laptop Stand
Studying and staring down at the computer for long periods of time can be a literal pain in the neck. I was given this laptop stand as a gift, and it has made my workspace more comfortable and boosted my endurance to work longer. This is truly one of the best things I own, and it’s amazing for working from home! Bonus: The area beneath the laptop holder stores notebooks, planners and other essentials for easy access.

Husband Pillow
These husband pillows are essential for working in a comfortable, laid-back environment, such as the bed or couch. It’s hard to find the perfect position and amount of pillows for when you want to lounge while working, but this solves the problem immediately and gives you the back support you need. These are usually $30-40 and are definitely worth the price. They will truly revolutionize your work and study from home!

Reusable Water Bottle
Studying constantly or running all over campus can be physically tiring and leave you hungry or thirsty. With your own water bottle, you won’t need to look for a water fountain around every corner or buy a plastic water bottle when you’re feeling dehydrated. A reusable water bottle does the job, particularly one with insulation to keep your water cold and a built-in straw in the cap for easy access. (For added protection against COVID-19, find a bottle with a covered straw or spout, and make sure your bottle doesn’t touch communal spigots when being refilled.) Go for Hydro Flask or Simple Modern, which is significantly cheaper. You could also use these for coffee and tea — a must for early classes or late-night study sessions!

Products for Campus Life

Mattress Pad
If I could bring only one thing for my college dorm, it would be a mattress pad! College dorms have the most uncomfortable mattresses, so investing in a mattress topper is a must. The Serta topper retails for $300, but you may be able to score one on sale at Kohl’s for around $120-140. While cheaper alternatives are available on Amazon, I highly recommend this brand. This mattress topper is always cool and the perfect medium between firm and soft, making it feel like heaven. With a comfortable bed, you will be able to relax after a long day, sleep better, and be more rested for classes.  

Water Filter
Drinking fountains in dorms and throughout campus are typically suitable sources of water. But during this time of COVID-19, when the cleanliness of drinking fountains is questionable, play it safe by having your own source of drinking water. I recommend getting a Brita water filter pitcher that you can refill at the sink and have access to water 24/7. Bonus: You can refrigerate the Brita for cold water at your fingertips!

Shower Items: Caddy, shower shoes, robe or towel wrap!
These essentials will make using communal bathrooms in your college dorm a little easier and more sanitary. A shower caddy is essential for bringing your toiletries back and forth since your items can’t be left out like they would be at home. I highly recommend buying a flexible, mesh caddy over a plastic one, which is more likely to harbor mold.  

Shower shoes are a must for sanitary reasons, since the moist, dark shower stalls are prime growing environments for bacteria. You can use anything — sandals from the dollar store, old slippers, or real shower shoes. My go-to were old sandals from home.

Lastly, a towel wrap or robe! It’s a lot easier to change in your room versus tight shower spaces while wearing slippery shower shoes. Simply wrapping a towel around yourself is risky and not as secure as we would like it to be. I would recommend buying one or two towel wraps or robes that you can easily slip on in the shower stall and wear back to your room.

Cover image credit: Gabriel Beaudry//Unsplash 


  • Tiffany Ngo is a writer, student, and foodie from Texas. She has been writing professionally since the age of 12 and has since also developed a passion for literature, the humanities and learning. Tiffany is currently studying at the University of Texas at Austin and can be found learning how to code or exploring new restaurants in her free time.

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