The annual shopping frenzy that seizes families of college-bound high school graduates peaks in early August. Parents buy dorm furnishings, organizational gadgets, and even high-tech entertainment systems before determining their necessity. So, what do parents really need to get for their kids?
Whether their advice is plastic shower crates or Palm Pilots, students already accustomed to dorm living are best suited to tell parents of freshmen-to-be exactly what their campus-bound kids will (and won't) need to survive the first year away from home.
Many students recommend examining a new room for space availability, mattress sizes, and furnishings already provided by the college before buying general necessities like bed sheets, laundry hampers, or lamps.
Anjali Bose-Kolanu, a junior majoring in biology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., suggests waiting to purchase furnishings, especially when traveling great distances.
"Buy in the college area," she advises. "That way, you get to see the room and also take advantage of the stores that cater especially to college needs. [That's better than] trying to transport heavy appliances 3,000 miles."
Curtis Moeckel, a junior mechanical engineering major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, suggests contacting future roommates ahead of time. "Call your roommate and coordinate who will bring what," he says. This saves the cost, and wasted floor space, of having duplicate common supplies.
Also, he says, considering someone else's idea of what items are necessary will help pare down the wish list - and avoid conflicts over space for items, such as microwaves or refrigerators, that one person desires but the other can forego.
Besides adjusting to sharing common space, freshmen must brave common showers - clean or otherwise. Rachel Russo, a senior biochemistry/biology major at the University of Dallas, recalls what she learned: "Bring a shower caddy. Until I got one, transporting everything to the community showers in the morning [was an ordeal]. Also, bring some kind of shoes to wear, because [showers] tend to be gross. Especially when people haven't yet learned shower etiquette."
Of course, beyond everyday living, college involves classes and homework. With continued upgrading of university computer networks and access to Ethernet connections, a personal computer remains an invaluable resource.
David Krych, a Harvard junior computer-science major, insists, "Computers are necessary. There is no way to get through college without paper-writing, and for that, having your own computer is an absolute requirement. I know how hard it is for us [computer-science majors] to get on lab computers, and we have first dibs.... Without a computer, some assignments either wouldn't get done or would be done at 5 a.m."
Mr. Moeckel uses his computer not only for classwork but also to stay in touch with others.
"I spend probably five or more hours a day on my computer at school, doing Web-based homework, writing e-mails, and chatting with friends," he says. Considering that tuition often includes Internet services, e-mail is a cheap alternative to a phone call home.
Moeckel says he is a firm believer in the desktop. "Pricing computers when I was in the market showed laptops to be about twice as expensive. About 90 percent of the schoolwork I do on a computer requires an Internet connection, so I just can't [justify purchasing] a laptop." Instead, Moeckel recommends buying a higher-quality monitor to prevent eye strain.
Ms. Russo, however, enjoys the greater freedom that her laptop provides. "If you don't like [sitting] in your room, you can take [a laptop] to get coffee and still work on a paper. I like it better because it is more mobile and takes up a lot less space."
Then, of course, there's music. High-speed Internet connections render the combination CD player/tape deck/stereo - a popular graduation gift - obsolete. Now, music-swapping happens through MP3s, computer music files that allow people to record CD tracks onto a personal hard drive, and through file-transferring Internet sites like Napster (whose recent suspension has not prevented students from seeking other websites). Students download songs from other MP3 junkies to play via their computer sound systems.
Leaving the stereo at home, then, is another space saver. Just equip the computer with decent speakers - and headphones, especially if the roommate has different sleeping hours.
Convenience is always something to consider with new technology. The Palm Pilot and other high-tech organizers allow users to store appointment calendars, addresses, and other information in a hand-held pocket display. Some beep to alert users to scheduled events.
But are they necessary? "It will be, if you have one," Mr. Krych says. "Having it forces you to be organized. You can't own one and not be organized. It's certainly nice to have and addicting to use, but you can still do most of the stuff with a planner."