Getting into college requires a lot of prep work, but the planning doesn’t stop when you receive your acceptance letter. Once you decide on a college, it’s a good idea to think about your housing situation as early as possible. Preparation is key. It’s the difference between a stressful move-in day and a breezy one.


Before Move-In Day

The first step to a successful move-in day is easy and obvious: Ensure that you have a place to live once you arrive at school. Depending on your school, you may have the choice to live on campus, off campus, or at home. Some schools will require freshmen or certain groups of students to live on campus, while others don’t offer any residential support. If you do have options, consider them carefully before you send in your roommate questionnaire or sign a lease. No matter where you decide to live, you should alert your school. It needs to know your address.

Once you receive your housing assignment or find an apartment, you can assess the floor plan, room size, and easiest building entrances for move-in day. You can begin to put together your strategy.

When should I plan to move in?

Your school should maintain an online calendar that marks important move-in dates. Keep in mind that freshmen generally move in before upperclassmen so that they can attend a welcome orientation before the semester starts. International students and transfer students may have additional orientations. Check with your school to find out which day your activities or orientations will begin. This is the absolute latest day that you can arrive on campus (and at small schools, the only day you are permitted to arrive). It is recommended that you don’t wait to move in until the last minute (think less than one hour before your first orientation activity). You might need extra time to shop for items you forgot, organize your new living space, and meet roommates, housemates, and neighbors.

You also need to avoid moving in too early. If you are moving off campus, check with your landlord to see when your lease begins. If you are moving on campus, call your school’s office of residential life to find out the earliest date that the dorms will open. At some large universities, move-in dates (or times) depend on the dorm to which you are assigned. Memorize these important dates. You cannot move in any earlier.

If you do a have a significant window of time between the beginning of your lease and your first day of orientation, consider your options. Most students move in on weekends. If you need an extra hand, they may be around and willing to help you with your boxes. Otherwise, if you want to avoid clogged hallways and parking lots, plan a weekday or an early-morning move.

What do I need to pack?

Your college packing list depends on your circumstances, but there is no need for it to be excessively long. If you are moving into affordable college housing, you won’t have much space. You simply can’t bring everything you own, so plan accordingly.

To prepare, print out Student Caffé’s Ultimate College Dorm Packing List. Be sure to reach out to your roommates or housemates before you arrive at school so that you don’t all end up bringing the same things. Coordinate your contributions to the room so that one of you brings the mini fridge and the other brings the microwave, for example.

Is there anything I should bring that isn’t included on the packing list?

You won’t have much space on campus, so plan to pack what you need first. Then, bring something special: A soccer ball or a hula hoop will serve you well when you need to unload some semester stress. Some students bring journals, photographs, or other reminders of home.

Do I need to bring furniture?

All on-campus housing options come furnished with one bed frame, mattress, dresser, desk, and chair per tenant. If your college dorm offers any extras, such as a wastebasket or hangers, the residential life office will specify. Keep in mind that a dozen students have used the furniture before you, so it won’t be in the best shape, but you can make do with it for a year. There is no need to bring your own or replace it. In fact, if you get rid of the pre-supplied furniture, you will be heavily fined at the end of the semester or year.

If you are moving off campus, you will usually need to furnish your apartment. You will need to bring your own bedroom and living room furniture. You may also need to bring kitchen utensils, but apartments usually come equipped with major kitchen appliances (e.g., refrigerators, ovens, dishwashers).

Is packing up a car the easiest way to move to college?

In most cases, the easiest way to move to college is the old-fashioned way: Pack up the family car and drive from your parents’ house to your new place. That said, consider the size of the car. If you are moving any furniture, you might decide to rent a pickup truck or a moving truck. Budget, Penske, U-Haul, and other companies offer support for one-way moves so you can return your truck to a location near your college.

If you are moving into the dorms and don’t have any furniture to move, you might still need to take two cars or rent a sizeable van or SUV. Consider the number of people who are driving you to college to see you off. How will your parents, siblings, and the family dog cram into the car with you and your moving boxes?

How do I load up the car efficiently?

If you’ve moved before, you might have some packing strategies. Otherwise, consider the following:

  • Lots of small boxes are better than a few huge ones. Pack your things in small containers or suitcases on wheels that can easily be maneuvered through gravely parking lots and up multiple flights of stairs. The elevators get cramped on move-in day.
  • Pack based on weight, not item. To avoid throwing your back out, make sure everything is within weight limits. You might be tempted to keep your books organized together in one box and your linens in another, but the first box will be dangerously heavy, and the second will be light as a feather.
  • Distribute weight evenly when packing your car. Put the heaviest items on the bottom and an overnight bag on top. If you need to stop at a rest stop or hotel along the way, you’ll want easy access to a toothbrush and a change of clothes.
  • Look up directions in advance. If you’ve never made it to campus before or if you didn’t have a car when you visited, you’ll want to look up directions in advance. Campuses are always walkable, but they aren’t necessarily drivable. Some roads may be closed, and some dorms may not have their own parking lots. Look at a campus map before you go to familiarize yourself with the best routes around the college.

I live too far away to move by car. What do I do?

If you are an international student or if you live considerably far from campus, you might need to arrive in your new town by plane or train. Students or their family members who are over 25 can rent a car at the airport or train station. Younger students traveling unaccompanied may need to rely on taxis or shuttles to get to campus. Either way, these travel arrangements can complicate packing for college, but you can still pack successfully.

  • Know your baggage limits. If you are flying or taking a train, you can check baggage, usually at a cost. Most airlines allow you to check one free bag only if you are flying internationally. On domestic flights, you may be allowed to check up to two items for a small fee. Look up your airline or train service to find out its policies. You may also want to pay attention to baggage size and weight limits.
  • Ship your items. If you can’t fit something in your suitcase, consider shipping it to your school. Shipping fees depend on size and weight, but you can get an estimate from the U.S. Postal Service here.
  • Shop online. There’s no way you can cram a comforter, pillow, desk lamp, and microwave into your suitcase. If you determine that you need a certain big item, you might consider buying it online and shipping it to your new college address. You might want to send some of these items extra early so that they are waiting for you when you arrive on campus. Talk to your school’s residential life office or your landlord to see if these items can be held for you.
  • Shop once you get to campus. If you have the essentials, you may be able to get by on campus for a few weeks before you decorate or need a mini fridge. Consider purchasing your extras once you get to campus. Not only will this allow you to get a feel for the room and the amount of space you have, but you might be able to take advantage of free campus-sponsored transportation. Some shuttles go directly to nearby malls or shopping districts, so there’s no need to hail a cab or take a rideshare.

During and After Move-In Day

So you’ve finished the car ride with your family, picked up any packages that you had mailed to campus, and are ready to move into your new home. This is it, the moment that college begins to feel very real. Typically, after your family helps you move in and unpack, you’ll be instructed to give a quick goodbye and then whisked off to participate in orientation activities. Here are the answers to a few questions you still may have.

It’s time to move in. How do I pick up my keys?

If you are living in off-campus housing, you need to arrange a pick-up time with your landlord. For students living on campus, check with your school. At some schools, representatives or RAs will sit in the lobby of your dorm during certain hours to help with check-in. At other schools, you may be required to pick up your keys from the office of residential life before you do anything else.

May I alter my dorm room or apartment?

No, you may not alter your dorm room or apartment unless you get specific permission. In dorms, remodeling of any kind is strictly prohibited, even if the changes would make the room look nicer than it was when you moved in. There really is no need to change the flooring or paint color anyway. A college housing situation typically lasts no longer than a year.

That being said, you don’t have to live in a drab dorm room or apartment. Most schools and landlords allow residents to hang posters with painter’s tape or wall mounts. Some situations may allow you to hang tapestries and framed pictures or lay down an area rug. Check the terms of your lease or your residential life office’s website for specific information.

What do I do with my stuff when the semester is over?

Most of the time, you can leave your stuff in your dorm room during holidays and school breaks. Some colleges will lock dorm buildings, meaning that there is no entry during Thanksgiving, winter, or spring break. If this is the case for you, be sure you have all your essentials with you before you drive home for the holidays.

At the end of your lease or housing assignment, you will need to move out. If you plan to return next year, this can seem stressful: You already went through the hassle of moving your things across the country once. There’s no need to stress, however. Many students decide to lock their college items in storage units or pods over the summer. Storage pod companies in particular will come to you when you return to campus at the start of the next semester. You can unload the pod right at the door of your new dorm or apartment. If the semester is about to end and you can’t take your things to your parents’ house for the summer, it’s time to research storage companies near campus.

Page last updated: 12/2016