Best School Supplies for College Students (Fall 2020)
If you’ve explored my site much, you know that I’m passionate about the topic of money and college. Part of that comes from my own experience with student loan debt. A bigger part comes from seeing my students’ financial struggles and their confusion over college finances.
One reason I started The Prudent Professor is because I was tired of seeing students and families feel overwhelmed and helpless around issues of money and college. I made it my mission to provide clear advice on topics like financial aid and on planning and budgeting for college. I want students to get a great education while spending as little as possible.
So, it really irritates me when I see websites recommend you buy thousands of dollars in merchandise to prepare for college. The marketing around college prep shopping surely rivals that of most holidays by now. Everywhere you go, you’ll see lists of “must have” items that will cost you hundreds, maybe thousands, of your hard-earned cash.
I’ve been teaching college for over 20 years. Let me tell you straight up: you do not need a $2,000 MacBook or a $180 NorthFace backpack to be successful in college. Especially not if those things are paid for with student loans. In fact, the needs of students haven’t changed much since I first started teaching, with the exception of computers (almost no one owned their own computer back then).
I decided to create my own list of the best school supplies for college students. My list is focused on value. Expensive doesn’t always mean better, but cheap doesn’t always last. My goal is to find and recommend mid-priced quality products that are reliable and durable. If taken care of, many of the products on this list could last your entire college career.
Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase through my links, I earn a commission, at no additional cost to you. To learn more, you can read my full disclaimer here.
School Supplies You Need for College
Before we get started, just a reminder: if you want to save money on school supplies for college, you should use what you already have. You don’t need to buy all new stuff for college, despite what marketers want you to believe.
My list here is focused things you can use starting your first day of college. There are some items you can wait to buy, which I mention toward the end of the post. So here I’ve only listed what I consider the essential school supplies for college, those you’ll need on day one.
Best Laptop for College
So many classes are taught partly or totally online these days, I recommend students have their own computer, if they're able to afford one. An inexpensive laptop is fine for most students. You don't need a pricey MacBook Air or kitted out gaming computer for school work.
My recommendation for an affordable laptop for college students is the HP 2019 14" laptop. I can write a fairly extensive review of this laptop because I own one. In fact, it’s the laptop I use for both my online teaching and my work here at The Prudent Professor.
HP 2019 14” laptop pros
A major advantage of this laptop is portability. It doesn’t have a CD/DVD drive, so is very lightweight. That’s a big plus if you’ll be carrying the laptop in a bag or backpack all day. The specs say it weighs around four pounds, but honestly it feels lighter than that.
The 14" screen is obviously smaller than what you’d find on bigger laptops and desktops. However, I find this screen size sufficient for my academic work, as well as for web browsing and streaming. Plus, if you’re used to streaming and web surfing on a smartphone, a 14” screen looks enormous.
My 14” HP laptop downloads fairly fast, though download speed depends some on your internet connection too. It also has good battery life for a laptop in this price range. I can usually stream live TV for 4-5 hours on battery power.
The graphics quality for this laptop is generally good, but remember it usually sells for around $400, so don’t expect top of the line graphics or sound. Processing speed is fine for my needs. Again, this isn’t a powerhouse computer, so don’t plan to run several resource intense programs at once. But it’s just fine if you need to watch videos for an online class while running something like Microsoft Word in the background.
HP 2019 14” laptop cons
One of the reasons I bought the HP 14" laptop is that it doesn’t have a CD/DVD drive. I didn’t want to carry around the extra weight. But, lack of an optical drive could be a negative for some buyers. If you think you'll use CDs/DVDs often, you should buy a computer that includes a drive. Just know that will significantly increase the weight of the laptop, and thus the burden you must carry in your bag or backpack.
Another drawback is that the Microsoft operating system included operates in S mode. This means the laptop will only allow you to use Microsoft web browsers and to purchase software and apps via the Microsoft store. I admit, this is very frustrating. Fortunately, you can easily disable S mode, allowing you to purchase and install software from other companies and vendors.
The HP 2019 14” laptop doesn’t come with Microsoft Office preinstalled. If you want to use Word, Excel, PowerPoint or other Microsoft software you’ll need to purchase them. Microsoft Office Student Edition usually sells for around $100. However, Microsoft has partnered with many universities to give students discounts on the software. If possible, wait until you’re on campus to see if you can get it for a cheaper price.
Despite a few drawbacks, I think the HP 2019 14” laptop is a great option for college students and one of the best laptops for teenagers heading to college. It has enough power and storage (a 1 terrabyte hard drive) to meet the needs of most students. Lots of college students use this laptop for their school work; check out their opinions when researching computers.
Best Backpack for College
For the longest time, I was a backpack girl. Then, I switched over to and loved messenger bags. Lately I've been using backpacks again. I love both messenger bags and backpacks, and am pretty much a bag fanatic. We won't go into how much luggage I've bought over the years.
Bags are a really personal thing, so I was hesitant to put this on the list. But I found a backpack that I love and think is a great backpack for college students: the Yamtion 15.6” backpack.
(Annoyingly, the product page describes this as a backpack for teen girls and college women. There’s nothing gender specific about this backpack. It comes in a variety of colors, including your standard black, gray, blue and brown, as well as camouflage. The features make this a great backpack choice for both college women and college men.)
Why I recommend the Yamtion 15.6” backpack
I chose this backpack for several reasons. First, it has a separate, padded compartment that fits the 14” laptop I recommended above. I figured if I was going to recommend a laptop, I should recommend a backpack you can carry it in, right?
Second, this backpack can hold a lot. It has many pockets, which is great for organization. It even has an anti-theft pocket in the back where you can store small items like your phone or a thin wallet. The backpack also has mesh side pockets, for carrying a water bottle or small umbrella.
The backpack has other features that you don’t normally find in a bag in this price range. It has a USB charger for charging your phone or laptop. if you’re a commuter student or on the go a lot, you might buy a power bank so you can charge your electronics right inside your backpack. Another neat feature is the luggage strap on the back of the bag. This is a nice added touch, one reason this will become my primary traveling backpack.
Finally, I think this backpack is an outstanding value. It’s well made with strong zippers and good stitching at the zippers and seams. The material is water repellent and easy to clean. I think this bag is an amazing value, given that much more expensive bags don’t have a lot of the features of the Yamtion 15.6” backpack.
Best Binders for College
I recommend that college students use binders to organize their class materials. I know there’s a big binder vs. notebook debate. Notebooks are easier to carry in your bag or backpack, but I think the structure of notebooks is too limiting for most college students. You can't easily rearrange or add to pages in a notebook, so you have less ability to organize your class materials.
I think standard one-inch 3-ring binders are sufficient for most students and most classes. I prefer white binders, but binders in a variety of colors are nice, too. If you take care of your binders, you should be able to use the same set for at least several semesters.
I wrote an entire post on how to organize your college binder. You can see my suggestions for binder accessories there as well.
While I strongly recommend binders, if you decide to use spiral notebooks instead, Mead makes some of the best notebooks for college. I would get at least one college ruled 2 subject notebook for each class, so you’ll have interior pockets for class handouts and assignments.
Best Notetaking Supplies for College
I know I suggested earlier that you buy a laptop, but you shouldn’t take notes on your laptop for two reasons. First, some professors don’t allow laptops in class. I know that sounds old school, but each professor gets to set their own course policies. Don’t be surprised if you have a few “no laptops allowed” classes.
Second, studies have shown that you learn more when you write, rather than type, your notes. Plus, you're much more likely to get distracted using your laptop than you are taking notes by hand. So, you’re better off buying some notetaking supplies and writing out your notes in class.
When it comes to notetaking by hand, there’s really not much you need: paper and pens or pencils. That’s about it. Like I said, the needs of students have actually changed that much in 20 years.
Best notebook paper
College-ruled notebooks or notebook paper are most commonly used by students. If you’re using binders for your classes, you might consider getting reinforced notebook paper so the pages won’t rip as easily. Non-reinforced paper will work fine, too, but you might need to buy some reinforcement labels to secure ripped pages.
Money saving tip: Notebook paper is one of the items that is usually massively discounted during back to school sales in July and August. You can often find it for as little as 25 cents a package. Stock up during these sales, as notebook paper can cost upwards of $2.00 a package the rest of year.
Best pens for notetaking
I had no idea, but the debate over pens for notetaking is as fierce and passionate as the binder vs. notebook debate. Gel pens, roller ball pens, medium tip, fine tip – everyone has an opinion. Well, here’s my opinion: they’re pens. They write. They run out of ink. They get recycled (hopefully).
That said, I really do have a favorite type of pen that I recommend for notetaking. Specifically, I love the Papermate Inkjoy ballpoint pens in a variety of colors. They meet my two most important pen criteria: they write well and they’re cheap.
Because these are regular ink pens and not gel pens, the colors usually don’t bleed through the paper. Therefore, I am able to use these pens in my planner as well as for general writing.
Additional School Supplies for College Students
We’ve covered the major supplies you’ll need for college: an affordable laptop, a quality bag/backpack, binders to organize your class materials and notetaking supplies. Here are some suggestions for other study supplies you should consider.
You probably already have some of these. If so, you should take those to college with you. Again, you don’t need to buy all new stuff for college. You should also wait to buy some of these items until you’re sure you need them.
One thing you won't see on this list is a planner. Don't get me wrong, it's essential that you use a planner in college. But, it's important that you buy the right planner for your time management style. I think many of my students' time management struggles come from using the wrong kind of planner. I didn't include this on the list, then, because you need to put a lot of thought into choosing a planner. It may take time for you to find the planner that works best for you.
Stapler. Please bring or buy a stapler. If I had a dollar for every student who asked me for a stapler while they were turning in their paper, I wouldn’t have needed to start this website.
Hole punch. If you’re using binders for your classes, you’ll need an inexpensive hole punch for class handouts and other materials.Dividers. You should also consider getting dividers to label different sections in your binder.
Highlighters. Honestly, I’m torn about suggesting highlighters. Lots of students use them, but highlighting is one of the most ineffective ways to study. Highlighters can be helpful, though, if used properly.
Colored pencils. Yep, like the ones you used in grade school. Color is a great way to learn, and I think these pencils are better than highlighters for diagramming and coloring maps and illustrations. A small package of 12 colored pencils should be enough.
Pencil case. I suggest you get pencil case to carry your pens, pencils and highlighters. If you use binders instead of notebooks, an alternative is to get zippered binder pouches and store a stash of pens in each one.
Calculator. If you’re in a math intensive major, your college may require a specific type of calculator. For most other students, a simple pocket-sized calculator will do just fine. Don't think you can just use the calculator app on your phone. Most profs won't be cool with that, especially during an exam.
Sticky notes. I love sticky notes. Imagine my surprise at learning there are people who don’t love them. They think sticky notes are annoying and clutter up things. I’ll let you decide, then, whether to put sticky notes on your college shopping list.
Index cards. If you use flash cards to study, you should invest in some index cards. They have other uses, of course, but I most often see students use index cards to make flash cards.
Paper clips and binder clips. You should be able to get these in a set, so you don’t have to buy a box of 1,000 paper clips.
Desk organizer. You’re going to need somewhere to store all this stuff. Wait until you get to college to buy a desk organizer. Once you now how big your desk is and if it has drawers, you can decide what kind of desk organizer to get.
Desk lamp. My dorm room has great overhead lighting…said no one ever. You’ll probably need extra lighting at your desk, but again, this is something I’d wait to buy until I knew how much space I had.
Desk chair cushion. My dorm room desk chair is so comfortable…said no one ever. If you plan to study at your desk a lot, you might want to get some kind of chair cushion.
Laptop sleeve. Even if your bag or backpack has a special compartment for your laptop, you may want to buy a laptop sleeve. You can easily find an inexpensive, good quality padded laptop sleeve, so this is good way to protect your investment.
USB flash drive. This is optional, since many people have different types of cloud backup now. But, if you’d prefer a physical option to save or backup your files, a USB flash drive is an inexpensive choice.
Printer. This is also optional. You can find inexpensive printers, but then you’ll have to buy the paper and ink. Plus, printers can take up a lot of space in a small dorm room. So, there are some downsides to bringing your own printer to college.
Your college should have computer labs where you can print, though you might have to pay per page, which can add up quickly. Just be sure to plan ahead. Don’t be the student who shows up to class 10 minutes late the day papers are due because you were waiting to print at the computer lab – along with 40 other people.
This is a fairly long list. Remember to buy only the school supplies you actually need and will use in college. There are lots of neat products out there, but you’ll do just fine if you stick to the basics.
College is expensive enough already, so don’t go overboard on the school supplies. If you shop wisely, focus on value, and take care of your things, many of the school supplies you buy for freshman year could last until senior year.
Until next time, best wishes and keep learning,
P.S. Wondering what to bring on the first day of college? Read this post on what to expect your first day of college classes.