Ask the Experts

Q: What Are the Real College Dorm Room Essentials for a Teen with ADHD?

College dorm rooms are small and dark. What essentials does my teen with ADHD really need? And how can we organize them so that she doesn’t feel overwhelmed?

Q: “My daughter, who has ADHD, will be a college freshman in the fall. To avoid overwhelm, we are starting the process now of getting her ready. Most of my friends’ kids don’t have ADHD, so they are buying everything on those huge ‘lists of stuff.’ Do they really need all that? Too much stuff overwhelms my daughter, so I want to know what she really needs and what she doesn’t. Any tips?” —WilmingtonNCMom


Hi WilmingtonNCMom:

I remember all too well getting my son ready to go away to college. It was a balancing act. On one hand, we had to make sure not to bring too much “stuff” so that my son wouldn’t get overwhelmed. But on the other hand, we needed to make sure he had the essentials to feel settled, organized, and productive.

You do not need everything on those lists. Think of them as a baseline or a guide when it comes to purchasing and packing. But before you purchase anything, I do recommend that you call the college’s residential life office and request a floor plan of the room. Some colleges even put them online for easy access. With a floor plan you know the exact layout and measurements of the room and its furniture. Knowing this information will keep your purchases tight, specific, and less overwhelming.

[Read: The College Survival Guide for Students with ADHD]

If the school doesn’t offer a floor plan, ask the following questions.

  • Is the bed adjustable? And if so, how high does it go? This allows you to plan how to best use the under-the-bed space and what organizing items you need to purchase for that.
  • Does the desk come with a hutch? If not, you will want to purchase one to create a study/homework zone where textbooks, supplies, notebooks, and more live. A desktop hutch maximizes the room’s vertical space and, even more importantly, it puts essential items in your daughter’s eye line. Having books and supplies front and center also provides students with a visual cue to prompt them to get work done or to bring the right materials to class.
  • How many drawers are in the dresser? I know that question seems detailed, but here’s why it’s important. When we were setting up my son’s freshman room, we found that he felt more organized and less overwhelmed when we were able to mimic his room setup at home. For example, if his dresser had a specific layout at home, we replicated that at school.
  • How is the closet laid out? Does it have a door? Doors have major organizing potential! You can hang hooks, over-the-door organizers, even clear shoe bags to store belongings. So it’s important to know if your daughter’s closet comes with one.
  • Is the bathroom attached to her dorm room or is it located down the hall? If she needs to “travel” to use the bathroom, then a caddy is necessary to store her bathroom essentials. A tip within a tip? Make sure to only purchase containers that stand upright. Toothpaste tubes or bars of soap take up more room than do upright containers.

Here are also a few items that might not be on the typical college supply list that I highly recommend you add.

Bedside and desk lamps with light bulbs: Dorm rooms are small and dark, so extra lighting and back-up light bulbs are a must. A bedside lamp is perfect for those nights your daughter wants to read in bed without disturbing her roommate, while a desk lamp will be necessary for studying.

Beach Towel: Trips to the nearby lake, the swim test during orientation, sitting on the quad on a beautiful day — a beach towel comes in handy more than you might imagine!

[Read: 5 Steps to College Accommodations: A Guide for Students with Learning Differences]

Step Stool: College dorm rooms are tight on space and using vertical space for storage is the key to maximizing it. A step stool helps you easily reach those high and out-of-the way spaces.

Printer: You may not think she needs a printer but get one. Sure, they can print on campus, but when it’s 1 am and that paper is due first thing in the morning, she’ll be happy to have her own. Don’t forget printer paper and extra ink cartridges, too.

Alarm clock: Your student’s iPhone is NOT a reliable alarm clock. Trust me on this!

Humidifier: Dorms tend to be hot and dry, so the added moisture will keep the room more comfortable. My son swore by his.

Digital thermometer: College kids get sick. So when you get that call from your daughter saying she don’t feel well, having an accurate read on her health will give you that peace of mind you so desperately need.

Garbage bags: Make sure she has enough to line her wastebasket as well as large “lawn and leaf” size bags. Garbage piles up pretty quickly in college dorm rooms!

Good luck and here’s to new and exciting beginnings!

College Dorm Room: Next Steps


ADHD Family Coach Leslie Josel, of Order Out of Chaos, will answer questions from ADDitude readers about everything from paper clutter to disaster-zone bedrooms and from mastering to-do lists to arriving on time every time.

Submit your questions to the ADHD Family Coach here!


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Updated on July 7, 2021

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