The college gift can be tricky. Parents often think they have great college gift ideas, only to find that their undergrad rarely uses them. If you don't want to buy your college student gifts that will end up in back of her dorm closet, try out a few of these suggestions.

Here are nine fail-proof gift ideas for college students:


There’s always something new on the market that will please kids. Tablet computers are great for taking notes and catching up on TV shows. Noise-cancelling headphones drown out a roommate's loud music when trying to study. Portable music players add an energizing soundtrack to sessions at the gym. And of course, cell phones are indispensible. If you’re giving an electronic, write down the product registration number in case you don’t receive or lose it en route.

Gift Cards

If all else fails, “buy a gift card,” says Marjorie Savage, author of the college advice book You're on Your Own (But I'm Here If You Need Me). “They're even easy to purchase online.”


Clothes are usually the unwanted gift, but that changes once kids start college. “Many students at the University of Minnesota email their parents photos of the jeans or shirts they want,” says Savage. “A lot of them ask for warmer coats during the winter.”

School Swag

Students love clothes and gear from the college bookstores and student stores. “Be sure to buy from the bookstore's website so your child can return your gift if it doesn’t fit,” says Sarah Schupp, founder of

Laundry Gear

Most students have to schlep their clothes to the laundry room every week, so a laundry bag that fits like a backpack is an inexpensive godsend.

Event Tickets

Tickets to a campus sporting event, movie theater, convention or concert are a sure hit, as long as you know a kid’s taste.

Two-wheel Transportation

Most college campuses are too big to walk everywhere, so bikes are a primary way to get around. Give your child ten extra minutes of sleep every morning and he’ll love you forever.


If Spring break is around the corner, offer your child a plane ticket to somewhere fun, for a gift that he’ll definitely remember.

Everyday Needs

A gift card to a brick-and-mortar superstore will save your student money on toiletries and supplies, and she'll appreciate it even more if everything is delivered. "Most students don't have a car, and even laundry detergent can be hard to take home on your bike," says Schupp.

Any gift is appreciated, but you might want to check with your child before buying these:

Large Items

Your child may have coveted an inflatable chair or futon before he started school, but don't splurge on those items yet because chances are, he won't have the space in his dorm room. "Rooms are already filled up by the holidays, and they've found other ways to adapt," says Savage. Students move a lot, so they need things that are portable. Heavy furniture and giant pieces of wall art don't travel well.

Weighty Issues

Plenty of students gain some weight when they start college, but gifting your child with a gym membership or weight-loss program is unlikely to go over well.

Non-essential Valuables

Diamond tennis bracelets are beautiful, but objects that go to college tend to get lost. They sure make fine graduation gifts, though!

Job Prep

Books and other resources for finding the perfect career will probably only remind a college student of the hard years that await her. "There's so much pressure already," says Schupp. Let your undergrad experience the college life. Over time, you can get a feel for her post-college goals, so you can surprise her with the perfect book when she's close to graduation.

Last bits of advice:

Schupp says that "flexibility and convenience are really important." Students are home for a short time, so buy your gifts from stores that also have locations close to their college home to make them they’re easier to return or exchange.

Still stuck? "It never hurts to ask," says Schupp. "Maybe there's something they've been coveting all semester or something really practical that they want." As long as you remember your student's needs and personality, your gifts are sure to be loved.