Disclosure: This page contains affiliate links. That just means that I may receive a small commission if you buy a product linked on this page. It sure helps towards paying off those student loans! For more information, please see my disclosures page.
#1 Check your professors’ equipment/supply requirements.
Fortunately, college isn’t like high school. Most professors don’t care how you go about doing something or what supplies you buy, as long as you turn in quality work. But some classes – especially in the science and tech or arts fields – will require special equipment. Try to get a copy of the syllabus early, or even email your professor and ask, so that you can account for these needs in your budget.
#2 Shop your house before you hit the store.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve purchased a particular piece of office awesomeness (read: composition books) only to find out that I had plenty at home. Don’t assume that because you need something you need to buy it! Find it at home or get creative. Sometimes you can even find a free desk on Craigslist!
There are a lot of great college school supplies on this list. I didn’t buy them all at once. Some were gifts, and many I collected – or upgraded – over the many years I have been in school. Make yourself a wish list of the items that you want but might need to plan for. In fact, make yourself an Amazon wish list so when your family asks what to get you for Christmas, you have something easy to share! Prioritize your list, decide which items you need now, which you will save for, and in what order. Be picky, and spread the expense out over time.
#4 Find your own system.
I have listed the tools I use for my personal system. You don’t have to do things the same way I do. I recommend trying out different styles and adopting whichever pieces make the most sense to you, until you have a system that works great for YOU.
My hope is that at least a few items on here will help you find new ways to study smarter.
And without further ado, here it is…The Ultimate Back-to-College School Supply List!
The Ultimate Back-to-College School Supplies List
On the Go School Supplies
As a cafe scholar, I do most of my best work away from home and my own desk. That means my backpack pretty much has to be my mobile office. There is nothing like getting all set up at Starbucks and realizing you don’t have headphones to listen to that lecture! (And yes, I have walked across to buy a pair from Target when I forgot mine!) You want to have everything you need for a great study session in your backpack already, so that you don’t waste time repacking the bag every time or going back for things you left at home. This is true whether your favorite place to study is Starbucks or the library. The only items I move back and forth between my backpack and home are required textbooks (and I try to get the Kindle versions to make this easier) and devices such as my laptop or Kindle. So I emptied out my bag so you can check out what items I keep with me, wherever I take my backpack!
Backpack or Messenger Bag
Since you’re hauling all of this gear around, you need a bag that can stand the pressure! It is worth investing in a bag that will last longer and survive all of the back and forth. I like to get a bag that is a dark color so it doesn’t show dirt as easily, and I like bags that have a protected laptop pocket and some other good pockets to organize your gadgets and gizmos. It’s really up to you whether you prefer a backpack or messenger bag. If you are walking quite a bit with your bag, a backpack might be more comfortable to carry. On the other hand, a messenger bag could look more professional.
The bag pictured is no longer available, but here is a similar one from Timbuk2. I have carried mine on planes, trains, and automobiles for the last few years and I love it!
Pro Tip: If you’re shopping for bags at a physical store, bring your laptop with you and make sure it fits – with room for the other things you will need to bring.
I like pencil bags, rather than boxes, on the go because they won’t break when squished in your backpack, and they fit better in the flexible space. I also like the ones that are more of a “flat” shape because it is easier to stack them in your bag than something more bulky. Mine are both actually makeup bags like those ones you get for free from the department store, but here is a similar one. Like with the backpack/messenger bag, try to find something durable. Pretty or cute is great tools long as it won’t get ruined moving back and forth!
Reusable Shopping Bag
You never know when you are going to need to carry more stuff, so it is always a good idea to stash a reusable shopping bag in your backpack. If I am planning to carry a lot of books back and forth, I bring one of the heavier duty bags, but I try to keep one of these little grocery bags with me. When closed up, they are tiny (about the size of your fist – or a piece of fruit – so they don’t take up too much space or weight to carry around with you.
I’m going to spend a little more time here, because this is obviously a Cafe Scholar essential! When buying a computer for college, make sure to check any requirements for your major (sometimes technical majors have certain equipment requirements). Come up with a list of the features that are important to you, such as speed, size, battery life. etc. When I had to replace my old netbook a few years ago, I picked the MacBook Air 11 inch because, studying on the go, I wanted something fast, powerful enough to handle the heavy duty Bible software (which doesn’t seem heavy duty until you run it on an old netbook for a few years!), lightweight, and with long battery life. Of course, my MacBook has a lot more to offer than just that, but first I had to narrow down the most important features for me, and then find the best deal with those features. I love my MacBook Air!
More laptop notes:
- Buy a cover! You are making a financial investment that will hopefully last a long time after school. It is worth spending a little money to make sure you don’t have to replace your computer too soon!
- Get the protection/service plan, and learn what is and isn’t covered, and where you will have to go to get repairs/service done. I never had to use my AppleCare plan for the MacBook, but I used my service plan for my first laptop at least twice in undergrad. Way cheaper than a new computer, and they gave me a loaner while mine was “in the shop.”
- Already have a desktop computer at home, but still want to study on the go? Get a (good) tablet and a cover with a bluetooth keyboard. If you go this route, make sure to invest in a good tablet with enough memory to save your work and the apps you will need!
iPad or Tablet
Speaking of tablets, if the tooth fairy leaves an Apple gift certificate under your pillow, an iPad makes a great study tool as well! I keep my iPad in my purse so I have it even when I don’t bring my backpack. There are many, many things an iPad or other quality tablet can do, but I use mine to scan notes (and everything else!) into Evernote, take handwritten notes or mark up documents with my stylus, read longer PDF documents (more comfortable than reading from your computer!), and I even use it as a second monitor to extend my laptop display! Like with the laptop, make sure you get a good cover.
My Kindle is one of my hands-down favorite study tools. It reads like regular paper, so none of that blue-light business and way easier on the eyes than reading from a computer. Books are heavy, and they take up a lot of physical space, so if having a book in your grimy little hands (!) isn’t a deal breaker for you, a Kindle can be a great way to carry all those resources with you! Unfortunately, my favorite Kindle feature (text-to-speech) isn’t available on the current models, but there is atool designed for the vision impaired that you can add to your newer model Kindle so that it can read your textbooks to you. (Or, find a used Kindle Touch, the older model which does text-to-speech. That's the one I've been carrying around since 2011!) Also, Kindle books are available immediately after purchasing, don’t have any shipping costs, and are often priced cheaper than the physical books. I like the models with a touchscreen (all but the most basic version) because it is easier to highlight and take notes. And…you guessed it…get a cover! Mine is just a plain black one, but these ones look so cool! My Kindle has lasted 5 years so far. Take care of your gear and your gear will take care of you.
Pro Tip: If you have a data plan for your iPhone, don’t buy a data plan for your tablet or Kindle. Instead, use your phone as a hotspot if you are somewhere that doesn’t have wifi.
Get an extra one of each and leave it in your backpack so you don’t have to worry about leaving it behind by mistake.
Get a USB wall charger for when you are out of USB ports on your computer, and still need to charge one more thing – or when you need to charge your phone and don't want to get out your laptop just for that!
Headphones are essential for those online lectures, course videos, or just your tunes. As you saw above, this is something that I have had to leave my study spot to go pick up. Keep a pair in your backpack! If you are using them for Skype, you might want to get the ones with a microphone instead.
If you study on the bus or train, a book light is essential; you don’t have to stop reading when the lights go down!
I couldn't find the one I have, but this one looks way better than what I've been carrying around! Get one that is rechargeable so that you don't have to deal with replacing batteries, and look for one with long battery life.
If your laptop doesn’t have an HDMI connection, an HDMI adapter is great to carry for group projects (you can connect your laptop to your friend’s TV) and class presentations (you can connect to the projector). I keep mine in my backpack because I never know when I’ll need it!
Because, yes, there are still places without wifi. Keep a flash drive with you for when you need to present on your professor’s computer or print in the school library. If you didn’t get a free one during welcome week, look for ones with a little more space on them like this one, just in case.
Book Stand or Clip
You’re trying to write or type while holding a book open to the right page. If you let go, it keeps closing. So you hold it with one hand, and hunt-and-peck type with the other, and it takes forever. No more. Invest in one of these book clips or book stands to hold your books open while you work. I have both: The stands get your book up at a good angle to read more easily, but the clips are awesome to use at the gym! I studied many minutes away on the stationary bike :).
For most majors, you won’t need a lot of markers, but a few permanent markers will come in handy. I like Sharpies and Bic Permanent Markers. Try to get the normal size and fine size (or these double ended markers that have both sizes!), and maybe at least one bigger one like these king size markers (great for labeling boxes!).
Even in the digital age, I still use pens ALL the time. I like ones that write really smooth, don’t cost too much (in case I lose them), and don’t bleed through the paper. Make sure to have a few black and a few blue on hand. Here are a few of my favorites:
- Staples Optiflow Rollerball Pens: I love these because they flow so smoothly! But, they can bleed on thin pages, and you do need to make sure the ink is dry or they can smear.
- Pilot G2 05 Gel Ink Pens: These are also great for smooth writing, but the gel ink seems less likely to smear. I use these every day at work.
- Bic Atlantis 1.6: This may be my new favorite pen. I found some purple ones in the checkout aisle at Staples, and I was hooked! The writing experience is incredibly smooth and a bit bigger/bolder than other pens. I use mine every day.
- Bic Clic Stic Medium: These are usually cheap, reliable, pretty smooth writing, and no bleed. The super smooth pens I like typically have at least a little tendency to smear or bleed…not these!
Colored pens are an essential for me! There are some things that require a red pen, so you probably want to have one of those. But I don’t like to correct in red if I can avoid it – it always seems angry – so I like to use a purple or dark green. When taking notes, sometimes a dark purple pen can be easier on the eyes or give your eyes a break after the blue and black. Colored pens are also great for organizing your notes if you are a super visual person, and great for effectively taking notes in books as well – different colors for questions, key points, etc. I really like this 4 color Bic pen. I try to keep this one in my purse so that I can take book notes anywhere!
I’m kind of funny. I like to type my notes – cleaner and faster – but there are some things you just have to scribble out. I keep one of these legal pads in my backpack and another at my desk for those scribbles, or if I am taking lecture notes on a video lecture (hard to type notes when your monitor is filled with video!). If there is something I want to keep later, I just scan it with my iPad into Evernote and now it is searchable and paperless! Best of both the digital and paper world!
Sticky notes are great for many, many things, like reminders, jotting down ideas, or even storyboards. But my favorite way to use post-its for studying is to use them to take notes in library books and mark pages in books. I like to have them in a few different sizes for different notes/purposes. Some people color code their post-its too. (I prefer the ones with a paper texture rather than the shiny ones, because they are easier to write on).
I’m kind of funny about notebooks. I don’t like tiny ones, and I don’t like full size ones – they take up too much space. And I don’t like spiral notebooks because the spirals inevitably get squished and then it is hard to turn the pages, and if you need to tear out a page it has that messy fringe and then you pull off the fringe and have little paper everywhere. Clearly, I’ve developed an opinion here. I think the composition book is the ideal sized notebook! Also, don’t go pay a lot for pretty or “cool” composition books (or any notebooks). Instead, check out my guest post about how you can decorate them yourself!
White – Out
Get the tape kind so you don’t make a mess.
I really like the jumbo paper clips because I feel like they don’t snag as much. I also think it is funny that the translated name of these is “trombones.”
For many classes, I found that a binder wasn’t needed – and binders can be heavy and take up a lot of backpack space! Instead, get a simple 2 pocket folder. You can usually find some cool ones for 50 cents in the clearance aisle at Staples. (A place I should not go anymore, because I have a school supply impulse control problem). Get one for each class. My sister recommends getting the same color notebook and folder for a particular class. If you want to have your papers a little more organized, get the ones with the brads in the middle. Then you can just use it like a (flat, lightweight, easier to carry) binder.
Portable 3 Hole Punch
If you do use binders or those folders with the brads, bring along a portable 3 hole punch. It will fit in your binder and double as a ruler.
You should have at least a few, even if (like me) you prefer pens, for those things that need to be erased. If you are taking math-type classes you will probably want more! I prefer mechanical pencils like these because I think they are cleaner to read than the regular ones, and I would rather deal with replacing lead than messy sharpener shavings. But if you like regular pencils, bring lots and a sharpener that holds the shavings :). And of course, at least one good eraser is a must! (I just hate when you try to erase something and it makes a mess, or worse, tears your paper!)
Disclosure: This page contains affiliate links. That just means that I may receive a small commission if you buy a product linked on this page. It sure helps towards paying off those student loans! For more information, please see my disclosures page.
There are a few subscriptions that are SO helpful for students, and there are a lot of things students can get at a free or discounted rate. Here are a few of my favorites:
Amazon Prime Student
Students get the first 6 months of Prime membership free, and after that the membership is half price. Prime members get all sorts of great benefits, but one of the biggest is free 2-day shipping on Prime eligible items.
Students luck out here too! The premium version of Evernote allows you to search PDFs and use more devices, and students get it for half the price!
I’m sorry to say that students do not get Office365 at half price. Actually, not sorry! Students get access to Office365 for free! That means Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and more!
Association in your Discipline
This is important for grad students or people applying to grad school. Join an academic association in your discipline (I am part of the American Historical Association and the American Academy of Religion). It is a good resume builder and a good way to start networking. You typically get the association’s journal and sometimes a magazine with your membership, which is a fraction of the cost of a regular membership. The Happy Arkansan has a great post about the benefits of joining an academic organization.
For the Desk
In addition to the supplies that you can take with you to the cafe or the library, there are some that you will want to have for those times that you are working at home.
This is just a place for you to collect papers that need to be processed. Receipts, mail, post-it notes, class notes that need a home, you name it. Just dump it in there on your way in the door, and then set aside one or two times per week to process it and take care of those items. Otherwise it won’t be an inbox, it will be a mountain. You can use whatever kind of container you want for your inbox. At work I have one of these hanging wall files, so it is off my desk. At home, I have a bin similar to this one.
Label Maker and Label Tape
Ok, I didn’t actually buy my label maker until a few months ago. But I wish I had it before. I am having fun labeling everything nice and neat! I also used it to put titles on the spines of my composition books. (If you do this, it helps to tape over with a piece of shipping tape, since that fabric on the spine of the notebook doesn’t really stick very well.)
A printer is a great investment if you are going to have to turn in a lot of hard copy assignments. Or, if you are like me, you like to print out a copy of something to edit, even if it will be turned in online; we see things differently and catch different errors on paper. There are a host of printers out there at different price points, depending on how “heavy duty” you plan to be with your printing. When buying your printer, make sure to buy a few backup cartridges, especially extra black ink! Also, check to see if Costco or Fry’s refills your ink cartridges. You can save up to 70% off depending on the cartridge, and keep your old cartridges out of the landfill too! (Disclosure: at my “day job” I work for the company that partners with Costco and Fry’s to provide this service. So I pretty much live and breathe inkjet refill for most of my day!)
Word to the Wise: Don’t turn off/unplug your printer unless you need to. Many printers go through some ink getting “primed” every time you turn them back on.
An extra monitor is a great tool to give you some more visual workspace, especially if you have a tiny laptop like me. If you are doing work in spreadsheet land, or watching a video and taking notes, it really helps to have double the screen space! (Good for watching movies, too!) The monitor I use at home is a hand-me-down, but here is the one I use for work. Don’t forget to check what ports your computer has and get an adapter if needed!
One of the downsides to a laptop computer is that when you are working at a desk, it is hard to have good posture. Not much you can do about this on the road, but for home, get a laptop stand to raise your screen up to a comfortable level. You may also need to raise up your external monitor if you have one. I really like this stand for my laptop, and this one for my monitor was great because my desk didn’t have drawers, so the stand gave me some extra storage space!
Keyboard & Mouse
Another challenge of using laptop computers is that the keyboards are smaller, so they often don’t have 10-key numbers. And, of course, if you put your laptop up on a stand (see above), it will be hard to type! Get a full size keyboard for when you are working at home. This is especially important if you are working with numbers a lot, as you will be able to type much faster if you can use the 10-key for numbers. (Another option, by the way, is this 10-key extension if you don’t want to buy a full keyboard). If you type quite a bit at home and are ready to invest in something that will let you type faster, try a mechanical keyboard like this one. These are louder, but I can type so fast with mine that my coworkers threaten speeding tickets. (Note: You'll still have to learn how to type fast :)).
Note for Mac Users:
Get a Mac keyboard. It matters. Mac has some different shortcuts like the Command key, and it will be confusing to try to use a PC keyboard with a Mac laptop. Don’t forget a mouse if it doesn’t come with the keyboard! (By the way, a PC mouse seems to work fine with my Mac. It’s just the keyboard that doesn’t work out so well).
External DVD Drive
Guess what? There are still some software programs that have installation CDs and DVDs, not to mention movies. If your laptop doesn’t have a CD/DVD drive, you may want to pick up an external DVD drive. Make sure to get one with read/write capabilities and even pick up a stack of blank DVDs.
Your computer probably doesn’t have all that many USB ports, and you end up using them to charge devices, get content from a flash drive, connect your keyboard and mouse, and even turn your iPad into a second monitor. Last year I found out my sister was typing on a laptop keyboard with a busted key because she didn’t have enough USB ports to plug in another keyboard! This is a problem with a solution: get a usb hub! (she got one for Christmas ? ).
Power Strip or Power Squid
Wouldn’t it be great if architects and electricians knew where you were going to put your desk – and where you might move it to later – and make sure to install enough outlets nearby? Of course, they can’t read your mind! A power strip or power squid is a must have for any home workspace. In addition to extra places to plug things in, you have an easy way to shut everything off when you are going out of town.
I like to buy plain, white copy paper with a high recycled content. Make sure you get paper labeled as “copy” paper, especially if you opt for a really cheap printer. In my experience, the multi-purpose paper tends to jam.
Whiteboard, Markers, Eraser
Whiteboards are great to take notes, make lists, or work on group projects! Get something small enough to easily transport but big enough to do group work. When you go to a friend’s place to work on that project, bring that whiteboard (and markers and eraser!) along! You can usually get a pack of markers, eraser, and this cleaner spray. I like to have some big markers for group work (easier to read from a distance) and some skinny markers for my own work (can fit more on the board).
Get a roll of the basic stuff, some double stick tape, and a roll of shipping/packing tape (especially if you are selling your old books on Amazon!)
Can't forget the glue stick: every third grader’s secret to a non-messy project!
Make sure to keep AA and AAA on hand, as well as any other sizes needed for your devices (such as D).
3 x 5 Cards
I usually buy the plain white ones, but if you like to color code, you can get them in all sorts of colors or a mix. Saver tip: If you don’t have long definitions on your language vocab flash cards, cut your cards in half or even in thirds. You will save money and they will take up less space in your backpack.
These notecard cases are a great way to keep from losing notecards or crushing them in your backpack.
This is one of my favorites! I showed you the book stand and clip I carry around with me. Those are great for on the go because they are small and light, but they aren’t as good for really big books. This beautiful book stand will keep your really big books up and open without tipping over.
At home I have a heavier-duty pencil sharpener than the one I keep in my backpack. This one is great for doing a whole bunch of pencils in a row (which I definitely recommend before the first day of school! Grab all your pencils, start a movie on Amazon Prime, and sharpen away! When you’re done with the pencils, test all your pens and markers to make sure they still work!)
Ready to start your back to college school supply shopping? Get the Ultimate Back-to-College School Supplies Checklist below!
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