College Wardrobe Essentials

College Wardrobe Essentials

The absolute hardest part of packing for college is figuring out what clothes to pack. If you’re moving to the other side of the country or even just a few hours away you have absolutely no idea what you’re gonna wanna wear everyday once you get to this new environment.

My freshman year I under-packed. I was so worried about bringing too much that I didn’t even have a pair of jeans the first week of school because packing me thought they were “off-season”. My approach freshman year was to only bring clothes that I would need until homecoming (when my family was coming up) to save space in my dorm. I brought actually nothing and my family ended up having to come see me a lot sooner with the rest of my closet.

Sophomore year I knew I had it in the bag. I brought ALL of my clothes sophomore year (not an exaggeration) but I packed all my truly winter clothes in buckets to keep under my bed, and the rest I put away.

What I realized as soon as I tried unpacking my winter clothes was that all of my other clothes, except for a few pairs of shorts, were really essentials or not seasonal and I may wear them at some point. I had no true summer clothes to pack up to make room for my bulky sweaters and sweatshirts. How I lived in my exploded closet of a dorm for 3.5 months blows my mind.

One of the biggest things I learned in my struggles with finding the perfect packing balance is that I never wore any of the trendy clothes I bought. All those cute tribal print rompers I got at Marshall's for $3 just took up closet space. But I never put them away because I could wear them and I liked them! I found myself wearing basically a uniform everyday: leggings, jeans or shorts with a plain t-shirt or a UMass tee; sneakers, flip flops or boots; and my backpack or large tote bag. My exception to my ‘uniform’ was a t-shirt dress on unusually warm days.

The first step to packing for college is nailing down the essentials. These are the things you’ll be wearing everyday! No matter what you wore in high school, or what you think you’ll wear every day, be prepared with a closet full of basics: (I've linked to over 20 of my favorites at the bottom of this post!)

The Essentials:

  • Plain T-Shirts (white, grey, black, navy - mostly white)

  • 2 or 3 good pairs of jeans. Don’t pack 36 pairs because they’re all slightly different shades with rips in slightly different places;

  • Black leggings- multiple pairs;

  • Athletic shorts;

  • 3 or 4 pairs of non athletic shorts. Try for a variety: 1 great pair of denim shorts, some 3” chino’s, maybe even a fun linen pair. They’re comfy and great to mix and match with solid color tees;

  • Cotton t-shirt dresses (2-3);

  • Sandals, sneakers, and neutral flats;

  • Neutral sweaters and cardigans; and

  • A large tote bag.

If you know that your major specifically requires a certain dress code (i.e. lab-based science requires closed toed shoes) make sure you plan that into your essentials packing to ensure there’s room in your closet!

Finally, what essentials should you splurge on, and what should you save on. I have gone through A LOT of trial and error trying to find the perfect balance between splurging and saving, and I think I’ve finally found the working combination!


  1. Jeans

  2. Leggings

  3. Tote Bag

  4. Shoes

I splurge on these four things because I use them literally everyday.

I used to get my jeans at Charlotte Russe for $11 a pair and thought they were fine until I felt like I was buying a new pair every other week because of how fast they were getting ruined and ripping. Finally I found my favorite pair of jeans at Gap. They cost around $60-80 a pair, but I get them at the outlet on sale, and I get them in every color and style imaginable.

The same thing happened with my leggings. I would swear by the $10 leggings rack at Nordstrom Rack and I loved my VS Pink leggings more than life, but they ripped all the time! Finally a family member showed me the light (AKA Lululemon) and bought me one pair of leggings. That was 5 years ago and I still have and use the leggings all the time. Spending a little extra on the things you wear everyday, and that get wore out from being washed so often, will eventually save you some money in the long run from not having to keep re-buying so often.

I suggest splurging on a tote bag because it holds so much, and gets dragged literally everywhere, so I wouldn’t risk it falling apart.

And for shoes, this is more of a comfort splurge rather than a financial. If you find a really comfy pair of black flats, but they’re not necessarily a brand you’d want them to be, get them anyway. Your feet will thank you. You walk so much in college that comfort is honestly more important than looking a certain way. Splurge on a few overly-comfy shoes for your very deserving feet.


You should save on everything else you’re going to buy (except maybe sweaters if you live in the frozen tundra like me) Basic tees, camisoles, socks, shorts, rompers, cotton dresses, and so many other things are disposable, usually trendy, and spending a lot of money on them just isn’t worth it.

If you see a basic tee for $35 it is not worth it, you can just as easily get the same plain white tee for $5 somewhere else. Save your money, you’ll need it for late night Chipotle runs and Chick-Fil-A.

Shop sites like Tobi and TJ Maxx for fun trendy pieces that may not be in style next season or next year; they’re definitely not worth the money if you can’t foresee long term use out of them.  

Your major may also play into what other basics you should bring. I’m a business major so I also have neutral button ups, suit pants and blazers; but my roommate freshman year was pre-vet and working on our schools cow farm was required for her class, so she had to bring work boots and overalls.

Shop My Favorite Essentials: 

Bonus tip: J.Crew [Factory and Regular] and Madewell both offer 30% student discounts on there already discounted items! Be sure to shop the sales! 

I can't wait to hear how all your packing goes, be on the lookout for a full packing list + PDF!

If you just graduated, where are you going in the fall?!



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