This list is especially timely for me. As I write it, my oldest son has just graduated from high school and is just starting to prepare for his first year as a college student. I hope this list helps you as much as it has helped him.
Everyone knows that the most useful item for any college student is money. Yet it isn't on my list. Why? Because "everyone knows" it already! There are several other items that most people would assume every new college student should get; a laptop, a cell phone, etc. So, I decided that my list would contain items that most people wouldn't think about. If your oldest is just heading off to college, you have enough to think about with tuition and financial aid. If you have more than one college-bound student, you'll be much better prepared next time, trust me. For now, here are several items you don't have to think about.
At most colleges, students walk everywhere, especially underclassmen! A pair of good quality, durable, comfortable, waterproof hiking shoes will be worth their weight in gold before the first semester is over. If your freshman is going to a school in the snow belt, you might want to add a second pair of insulated hiking boots for getting to class through snow and slush. Scrimping on these is false economy. A good pair should last their entire college career.
This is another item where your freshman will pay the price if you don't. Forget the cheap department store backpacks. Not only will your freshman feel the effects, so will your wallet as you replace it practically every year. A poorly designed backpack will cause back pain and a cheap backpack will probably suffer premature failure. Not a good way to treat those expensive textbooks, cell phones and laptops! Speaking of laptops, get a backpack that's specifically designed with laptop protection. And for extra comfort and safety, consider a pack with a hip belt.
Sitting through a long lecture in wet clothes is no fun, and since they don't cancel college classes for rain, every freshman needs a good raincoat or at least a large umbrella. Gore-Tex® is still the king of raingear fabrics, but several competitors have introduced economical alternatives for a really comfortable jacket that breathes and keeps you dry. The key is to look for "waterproof breathable jackets" instead of looking for "rain gear".
My college student uses his cell phone as his watch. That's great if you never forget your cell phone, but what happens if you do, or if your professor doesn't allow cell phones in the classroom? You know the kind of professor I'm talking about - the stickler who lock the door at the start of class and marks you down if you miss. The point is that sometimes you just need a wristwatch. Your student may already have a watch, but how accurate is it? Several companies have introduced wristwatches that set themselves daily using a radio signal from the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Atomic Clock near Boulder, Colorado. That should get them to class on time! There are plenty available now at great prices.
I had a roommate in college who had real difficulty getting up in the morning. He finally solved his problem by setting three alarm clocks at five-minute intervals and at increasing distances from his bed. Hey, whatever gets you out of bed in the morning... Make sure your freshman gets out of bed by providing a decent alarm clock. Be prepared for a discussion with your freshman about the importance of additional features like a radio, ceiling projection, iPod docking, separating speakers, etc.