A student posed behind books.

To avoid receiving this look from a college kid you're shopping for, heed our hard-earned advice. Or, if all else fails, just ask her what she wants.


Despite an occasional bout of homesickness, most college kids don't want their dorm rooms to be just like home. And with their rapidly changing needs and interests, they probably don't want the same kinds of gifts you gave them when they were younger -- even by a single year.

Before you surprise your college kid with new footie pajamas or buy every item on a retailer-created checklist of "college student" gifts, it pays to make a list of your own. What type of item should occupy the top spot? A Q&A session. The first step is to ask your child what he's actually interested in unwrapping and what he wants to put in his dorm room. Be prepared for a sudden aversion to color coordination when it comes to dorm furnishings and accessories, as well as a clear departure from previous go-to gift requests. For the collegiate set, these new likes and dislikes are more about gaining independence than giving up a potential spot on "Design Star" or trying to distance themselves from family tradition.

Whatever makes the list, shop strategically to avoid back-to-school product pitches, such as dorm-room themed packages that include everything from bed sheets to ironing boards, all in matching colors. The back-to-school season is, for retailers, second only to holiday sales: According to a National Retail Federation survey, retailers expected to pull in an average of $809 in sales of dorm-ready electronics, apparel, furnishings and food per student in 2011. Some retailers, like Target, even start the school year by shuttling college students to private, in-store shopping parties.

So, if you want to save money -- and save your child the trouble of dealing with unwanted extras -- there are some gifts you should cross off the list entirely, and some that you really should wait to give until he's settled in for the year. We'll help you figure out how to tell the difference on the next page.