This academic year is shaping up to be like no other thanks to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Many recent high school graduates have opted to take a gap year. Others are learning from home with online classes, and still others are attending in-person classes — but none of it without its kinks.
I teach English at a four-year residential college. And though I’m teaching some of my students remotely — especially those who are Zooming in from other countries — the majority of them live in the dorms on campus. Yet they must follow strict guidelines, like wearing masks at all times except when they’re eating or behind closed doors in their rooms. When they do eat, they must do so sitting 6 feet apart from each other. And student clubs, sports, and events are largely canceled. Adding insult to injury, even spring break — an annual tradition during the college years — is canceled next semester. And the break days are spread out individually over time to prevent students from traveling.
It’s been an unquestionably rough year for everyone, but the college students on your list could use a little extra TLC this year. And a thoughtful, well-chosen Christmas gift will make them feel special — pandemic or not.
Christmas Gift Ideas for College Students
The best gifts for college students take their interests into account. But they’re also about giving them a much-needed break from their studies with something fun and making student life more comfortable.
Christmas Gifts Under $20
If you’ve got a tight budget this year, you can still get the college student on your list something special. A budget under $20 lets you treat them to helpful self-care and practical gifts. Many presents in this budget range also make fantastic stocking stuffers.
1. A Mini Waffle Maker
Having their own breakfast-making machine in their room means a student can wake up at noon and still enjoy a steaming-hot breakfast. But it doesn’t have to stop with breakfast. The popular Dash mini waffle maker can also make other foods, like brownies and panini. And it comes with a recipe book, so college students won’t get bored. It’s so small, it easily tucks away in a drawer when not in use, and it comes in a range of trendy color options.
2. Reusable Cups, Straws, or Utensils
College students can go through lots of disposable plates, containers, and utensils if they eat out a lot. And an eco-conscious undergrad is likely to feel some distress over how much they have to toss daily. But you can help them — and the planet — by providing them with an eco-friendly gift of reusable metal drinking straws and portable metal utensils. The Flyby reusable straw is collapsible, so it easily fits into pockets or backpacks. And it comes with a carrying case that clips onto a keychain and a handy brush for cleaning. And you can buy it in a wide range of fun colors.
Pair it with a portable flatware set that comes with a fork, spoon, knife, chopsticks, a couple of backup straws, a cleaning brush, and a convenient carrying case perfect for tucking into a backpack.
3. A Laundry Bag Backpack
Students living in a dorm have to cart their dirty laundry to the communal washers and dryers (or Mom and Dad’s house). But lugging all those clothes can literally be a pain. Help them manage it with a durable laundry bag backpack. The Dalykate bag is roomy enough for a week’s worth of laundry, but it lets them carry it all on their back, making it easier to port over a distance. Additionally, it comes with a front pocket to hold their laundry detergent and other supplies, and it can double as a hamper.
4. Skin Care Products
To soothe tired eyes after late-night study sessions, set your college student up with a jade roller. It’s a must-have product for the beauty-obsessed thanks to the influencers who frequent YouTube and Instagram. They tout jade rollers for depuffing and reducing under-eye circles. The Lionvision rose quartz jade roller also comes with a gua sha, a handheld scraper they can use to massage their neck, shoulders, back, or legs.
Or go with a box set of skin care masks like the FaceTory Korean sheet masks. You can get them one box, which comes with four to seven sheet masks, depending on the type you choose. Or if a monthly gift allows you to stretch your budget further, opt for a subscription. It will give them something fun to look forward to in the mail every month.
5. Blue-Light-Blocking Glasses
According to Harvard Health, the blue light generated by computer screens, tablets, and phones can mess with anyone’s circadian rhythms, interfering with sleep. So for college students who routinely pull all-nighters the day before a test or paper is due, blue-light-blocking glasses can help them get the sleep they (eventually) need.
Plus, whether or not they’re working late into the night or taking online classes, students spend a lot of time staring at screens. And according to the American Optometric Association (AOA), prolonged use of computers, tablets, e-readers, and cellphones can cause eyestrain, headaches, blurred vision, and dry eyes. Although there’s currently no evidence blue light is behind this, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, the AOA recommends wearing blue-light-blocking glasses as one preventative measure. Plus, at this price, what can it hurt?
For under $20, you can get a pack of four nonprescription blue-light-blocking glasses, so the college student on your list will never be without a pair.
6. String Lights or Smart Bulbs
Decorating a dorm room can be difficult — there’s just not much space to work with, and universities have rules about what you can do to decorate. But string lights or smart bulbs help brighten any room and give it a fun and funky vibe. A set of photo clip string lights also lets them hang photographs to decorate their walls.
Or give them a ton of lighting options with the Abtong fairy string lights. The LED lights connect to an app on their phone, which controls the colors and lighting modes. They can even sync the lights to their music. In total, there are 16 million color combinations and 29 modes — perfect for late-night study sessions or disco parties in their dorm room.
Alternatively, go with smart bulbs, like the ILC color-changing LED smart lightbulbs. They can dim the lighting in their room or change the color using an app on their phone. Plus, they can even sync the ILC bulbs to their music.
7. A Sentimental Keychain
College students, especially if they’re newly away from their family, often feel homesick. An inexpensive keychain is a constant reminder they’re still close to your heart, even when you’re apart. Get one from BonusConnectionVBBF on Etsy. It comes with a fun “Call your mom” reminder. Plus, you can personalize it with the student’s name and school. Or have Etsy shop The Gray Label personalize one with your own handwriting to say anything you want.
8. A Journal
Journals make great gifts for writers or students who just need to jot down class notes. But a journal can be more than just a spot for notes or reflections. A well-chosen one can also provide a source for inspiration.
The “I Totally Got This” inner truth journal is filled with inspirational quotes to encourage positive thinking. Or choose one of the Eccolo desk-size journals, which made Oprah’s Favorite Things list in 2018. They’re roomy enough to take a semester’s worth of notes and have sturdy, leatherlike covers and a classy vibe to appeal to a wide variety of tastes.
And if you have room left in your budget, pair the gift with a set of quality pens. College students can never have too many pens.
9. A Personal Protection Device
Though it’s scary to think about, sometimes college campuses can be dangerous. Many classes and social events take place at night. And though campuses are often well-lit and studded with emergency phones, you can never be too careful — especially if they intend to wander off campus at any point. A personal alarm keychain helps keep them safe. All they have to do is press a button, and it emits a loud, sharp ringing sound that deters attackers and calls the attention of anyone nearby.
Alternatively, go with a Vipertek stun gun, which doubles as an LED flashlight. They can use it to light their way back home or to their dorm room, and the stun gun provides extra peace of mind for them — and you — should anything happen.
10. A College or Financial Guide
You can help the undergrad in your life make the most of their college years with a guidebook like “Getting the Best Out of College” by Peter Feaver. Instead of focusing exclusively on getting good grades, the book explains how to take advantage of everything college has to offer to help students get a head start on their career and life.
Or if you’re concerned school isn’t teaching them to be financially prepared for the real world, set a student up with a financial guidebook designed just for them, like “The Graduate Survival Guide: 5 Mistakes You Can’t Afford to Make in College” by Anthony O’Neal and Rachel Cruze. It identifies the top college money mistakes to avoid so students don’t encounter painful life lessons later on.
Alternatively, go with “Broke Millennial” by Erin Lowry. Though today’s students are more Gen Z than Gen Y, this book breaks down foundational concepts that are just as applicable to the younger set, like setting up a bank account, finding your credit score, creating a budget, and paying back student loans. Plus, the writing is clear and easy to follow, perfect for anyone who’s never picked up a personal finance book before.
Christmas Gift Ideas From $21 – $50
A budget in this range opens your options for outfitting their dorm room, bedroom, or off-campus apartment with gifts to make their lives more comfortable — from fun cooking gadgets to bed gear to makeshift furniture.
11. A Multifunctional Bluetooth Speaker
College students are often short on space, so a multifunctional device like the Aisuo night light is especially useful. It combines three devices in one: an alarm clock that helps them wake up in time for class, a night light that features three brightness levels and 48 color options that sync to music, and a Bluetooth speaker that plays music from any of their Bluetooth-enabled devices.
Or hook them up with an Echo Dot. The compact Alexa device helps students in all sorts of ways: They can use voice commands to control lights, play music, look up information, and make hands-free phone calls. And it can even help keep them on task by setting alarms and reminding them of important dates and meetings.
12. A Portable Charger
A portable charger is a must for any student who’s away from home for long hours. The experts at the Good Housekeeping Institute praised the Anker PowerCore portable charger as one of the best travel gadgets of 2020, calling it “the one thing you should never go on a trip without.” And the PowerCore features two USB ports to charge two devices at once.
Alternatively, set them up with an Anker PowerCore two-in-one USB wall charger. It’s both a backup battery and a USB wall outlet that lets them charge their USB devices, even if the battery is out of juice. Plus, it provides connections for charging up to three devices at once.
13. An Indoor Grill
If they’re starting to cook at home or in their dorm, an indoor grill lets them make just about anything. In this budget range, a George Foreman Grill cooks up everything from grilled chicken and roasted vegetables to panini or quesadillas. Plus, its nonstick coating makes it easy to clean, a must for time-strapped students.
14. An Insulated Water Bottle
Every student needs a good water bottle. College students are on the go all day — from running to classes across campus to meeting for clubs or study sessions to working a part-time job. There’s little time to run back home for a drink, which leaves them stuck purchasing from the dining hall or vending machines. So a water bottle helps a thirsty student hang onto their cash. A high-quality insulated bottle like a Hydro Flask — the gold standard of water bottles — keeps their cold drinks cold for up to 24 hours and their hot drinks hot for up to 12.
If you have any extra room in your budget, pair the bottle with a set of waterproof stickers so they can make their bottle their own.
15. A Backrest Reading Pillow
Typically, dorm rooms are only large enough for a small bed and maybe a dresser, closet, or a desk per inhabitant. That means many students do a lot of studying in bed. Help make it more comfortable with a backrest reading pillow. Better than just propping several pillows behind their back, a Nestl Bedding memory foam backrest pillow lets them customize their comfort by adding or removing shredded foam. Plus, it features pockets on the armrest for stowing stuff like a smartphone, TV remote, or e-reader.
16. A Lap Desk
Doing homework while sitting in bed is difficult if they don’t have anything to write on. Make it more comfortable with a convenient lap desk. The Loryergo lap desk features slots for holding a tablet or phone in addition to a work surface large enough for their laptop. Plus, it comes with a handy light and is small and compact enough to make it easy to stow when not in use.
17. An Amazon Prime Membership
An Amazon Prime membership is useful to anyone. It offers everything from free shipping to video streaming and music, photo storage, and free e-books, so there are many ways to take advantage of a Prime membership. But it’s especially useful to college students, who can use it to save money by renting textbooks through Amazon’s rental service, which offers both short-term and semester-long rental agreements. Textbooks often run $100 or more apiece and are a massive expense for college students. Many of my own students have used Amazon to rent textbooks, and it’s saved them a considerable amount of money.
Get the college student on your list the student version of Amazon Prime, as it’s less than half the cost of a regular Prime membership and comes with added perks like discounts on movie channels, Amazon Music, and Amazon Unlimited.
18. Heated Slippers
An ongoing complaint of college students living in dorms is the lack of control over the heating or cooling. When they venture back after winter break, it will be the cold that gets to them. So get them a pair of heated slippers to help keep their feet toasty warm. The Smoko tiger slippers are so fun and cute that even college students who can control the thermostat will love them. They feature USB-powered foot warmers, so students can hook them up to their computer or laptop while they’re working. For something more traditional, go with Snook-Ease heated booties, which come with a microwavable insole.
19. Inflatable Furniture
College students love inflatable furniture because it’s as transient as they are. They can inflate it whenever they need an extra lounging spot and deflate it when not in use. Plus, it’s fun. The Wekapo inflatable lounger works equally well as a sofa or an extra bed. It’s ideal camping gear for the outdoorsy student. And it even works as a pool float. Even better, it doesn’t need a pump. They only need to wave it through the air to inflate it. And it comes in a range of fun colors and patterns.
20. A Shower Squid
Being forced to shower in communal bathrooms is one of the less fun realities of living in a dorm. And while many students port their soaps and shampoos to and from using a plastic shower caddy, a shower squid is even better. Not only does it hold onto all their bottles and other necessities, but they can also hang it up when they get to the shower — whether on a hook or the showerhead itself. That means it never has to touch a scummy floor, and water won’t pool in the bottom like it can in a shower caddy, leading to mold.
Christmas Gift Ideas From $51 – $100
This budget range opens the field to higher-end cooking gadgets to keep them well-fed, fun ways to decorate their space, and tech that keeps them entertained.
21. A Stylish Backpack
Long gone are the days of backpacks adorned with superheroes or Disney princesses. Yet college students still need a way to tote around all their stuff. That’s especially true since they don’t have the benefit of a locker like they did in high school — or time to run back to their room or home between classes to switch books.
So make it easier with a trendy minimalist backpack. The Fjallraven Kanken classic backpack’s classic Scandinavian design has been around since the 1970s. It comes in various colors and patterns, so you can find exactly the right one to suit the college student on your list. Plus, the water-resistant Vinylon-fabric backpack is roomy enough to hold all their books. And even if your student is taking all their classes online with nowhere to carry their books, any young adult will appreciate the on-trend design.
Alternatively, go with the equally minimalist Herschel Heritage backpack. It also comes in a range of colors and features padded shoulder straps for comfort and internal organizing pockets.
22. A Single-Serve Coffee Maker
Whether they’re getting up for an 8am lecture or trying to stay awake through a four-hour class or all-night study session, college students need their coffee. And while most college campuses these days have their own Starbucks or Dunkin’, buying coffee on the regular can add up quickly. Besides, it’s tough to find one open during that all-nighter.
Nothing can beat the convenience of having your own coffee maker. But despite the ongoing need for regular doses of caffeine, most college students don’t need a 12-cup coffee maker. Instead, go with a small-size pod coffee maker. The Keurig K-Slim is as compact as its name implies, yet its 46-ounce water reservoir lets them brew several cups before refilling. And while it doesn’t come with all the bells and whistles of the larger Keurig models, it does allow brewing in three different cup sizes: 8-ounce, 10-ounce, and 12-ounce.
23. A Personal Blender
A student waking up five minutes before class still has time to grab a healthy breakfast if they make themselves a smoothie to go. A personal blender like the Nutri Ninja Pro is more compact than a traditional blender, perfect for students short on space. Plus, the blending container doubles as a cup that comes with a lid, so it’s super-easy to blend and go. And the Ninja is powerful. It can crush through ice, seeds, and skins for a smooth consistency. And they can use it for more than smoothies. The Ninja also whips up dips, soups, parfaits, and even “nice cream” (ice cream made of frozen bananas) if they have a freezer.
24. An Instant Pot
Students interested in doing their own cooking can cook almost anything with an Instant Pot multicooker. Nothing else compares when it comes to versatility and convenience. With an Instant Pot, they can cook anything from beef brisket to chicken wings to hard-boiled eggs. They can even use it to bake a cake. Known for its ability to pressure cook dinner in a flash, the Instant Pot Duo seven-in-one multicooker also slow cooks, warms, steams, sautes, makes rice, and even makes yogurt. Plus, it comes in fun colors like teal and red and even “Star Wars” designs like R2-D2.
But opt for the mini Instant Pot Duo if your student is short on space. The 3-quart size is perfect for small spaces and making meals for only one or two instead of the whole residence hall.
25. A Fun Game
In many areas, the winter months bring cold and snow that keeps us stuck indoors. If a college student on your list is already feeling cabin fever, get them an indoor game like Spikeball. The two-on-two indoor or outdoor game is easy to set up and involves spiking balls into a trampoline-like net following rules akin to volleyball. It will get them moving around, laughing, and thinking of summer in no time.
26. A Scratch-Off World Map
If the undergrad on your list travels between semesters and always goes in on educational opportunities abroad, get them a scratch-off world map. A personalized scratch your travels watercolor world map from Etsy shop Kuulys doubles as wall decor and a way to take stock of where they’ve been as they plan their next adventures. As they scratch off the countries they’ve visited, a beautiful watercolor design reveals itself. Plus, you can have it personalized with their name or any phrase you want. And in this budget range, you can also afford a frame.
27. An Ergonomic Desk Chair
Long hours spent working at a desk causes strain on the body. And if they’re living in a dorm, they likely weren’t provided with comfortable furniture. An ergonomic desk chair can make their work more comfortable. This chair features an ergonomic design shaped to fit the spine’s natural curve and an S-shaped backrest to correct posture and relieve back pain. Additionally, the breathable mesh backrest keeps them from overheating, and the thickly padded seat and armrests ensure comfort.
28. A Phone Sanitizer
We’re all concerned about germs these days, and college students are no different. Even if they’ve hunkered down at home, they’re likely touching their phones all day. Making matters worse, most of us don’t think about cleaning our phones regularly, which is likely why they end up being dirtier than a toilet, according to Time. That’s where a device like a PhoneSoap UV smartphone sanitizer comes in. It uses UV light to kill up to 99.99% of bacteria. Plus, it features a USB and a USB-C port, so they can charge their phone while they’re cleaning it.
29. A Smartphone Printer
Bluetooth mini-printers turn smartphone photos into tangible memories perfect for decorating a college student’s room — whether they hang them from a string of photo clip lights or pin them to a memo board. And with one like the HP Sprocket instant photo printer, they can print 2-inch-by-3-inch photos on sticky-backed paper to decorate just about anything — even the inside of a journal or notebook. Plus, they can use the companion app to decorate their photos with graphic elements and connect multiple devices at once, which means they can share their new gadget with friends, who can print their photos too.
30. Streaming Media Player
Whether they’re living at home or in the dorm, many students don’t have much control over what cable TV channels they get. But a streaming device lets them bypass the need for cable and access a multitude of streaming channels and apps via the Internet. The Roku Ultra streaming media player gives them access to streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+.
If you have a little more room in your budget, opt for the Roku Ultra bundle, which comes with a set of JBL wireless headphones, so it’s like two gifts in one. Not only can they watch TV without bothering their roommate, but they can also use the headphones to listen to just about anything else — from music on their smartphone to podcasts on their tablet or computer.
Christmas Gift Ideas Over $100
While it’s possible to get a college student a great gift under $100, a budget over $100 lets you splurge. Presents in this range are all about electronics — from the fun to the practical.
31. Noise-Canceling Headphones
Whether the undergrad on your list is living at home, on campus, or in an off-campus apartment, they’re likely surrounded by roommates — from family to friends to acquaintances. For students, a pair of noise-canceling headphones is more than a luxury — it’s a necessity. It helps them block out distractions and hone in on their studies.
Most college students prefer wireless headphones since they’re easily portable and there are no wires to impede freedom of movement. Apple AirPods are highest on college students’ wish lists. To get the noise canceling feature, you need to go with AirPods Pro.
For those who prefer an on-ear option, the Bose QuietComfort 35 II wireless Bluetooth, noise-canceling headphones also feature top-notch noise-cancellation technology that comes highly recommended for its ability to drown everything out.
32. A Computer
Probably the most practical item on any college student gift list, a computer is an unquestionably useful gift.
The MacBook Pro is the gold standard of laptops. The retina display is clear and vibrant, the battery lasts 20 hours, they’re intuitive to use, and — unlike most other laptops — it will last for years. The new Apple models can be pricey, but educational discounts can save you money. You can also save money by purchasing a MacBook Pro on Amazon. Typically, the Amazon models are renewed (similar to refurbished) or older versions.
For a PC option, go with the bestselling Acer Aspire 5. It has a dual-core processor, a 15.6-inch screen, a backlit keyboard, and an average battery life of over seven hours. Plus, it’s relatively light for easy portability, a top requirement for a student laptop.
33. A Portable Game System
If they’re living on campus, taking a full game system with them to college is troublesome. But a Nintendo Switch Lite lets them play all their favorite Nintendo games and tucks easily into a backpack. So whenever they’re able to catch a few minutes of downtime or need a study break, they’ll have an easy tool for stress relief.
34. A Microwave or Smart Oven
A microwave is a versatile cooking device, whether or not your college student has a dining plan. It lets them do everything from make popcorn to cook meals to reheat leftovers. The Toshiba microwave oven with smart sensor is the perfect fit for a dorm room or small apartment. It’s not too big or short on power. Plus, it features a smart sensor, which adjusts cooking times based on how much steam the food releases.
Alternatively, go with a Breville Smart Oven. So much more than a toaster oven, it toasts, bakes, broils, reheats, and slow cooks. It’s like having your own countertop mini-oven with added features. For example, the Element IQ technology controls the heating elements to suit whatever you’re cooking, which is more than most full-size ovens do.
35. A Care Package Subscription
Students living away from home always appreciate thoughtful care packages. And while you could pack and ship your own, CampusCube allows you to set up a recurring subscription that delivers care packages on a monthly schedule. Plus, they time deliveries around the semester schedule, so you never have to worry they’ll miss a package. You can choose from various themed boxes — including snacks, gadgets, wellness, and beauty products.
36. A Weighted Blanket
Weighted blankets are comfy and relaxing, and according to Penn Medicine, they can help reduce anxiety and sleep disorders like insomnia. That makes them ideal for college students, who often struggle with high levels of stress. Treat them to a weighted blanket that adjusts for cool or warm weather with interchangeable covers, like the Degrees of Comfort cooling weighted blanket. Good Housekeeping praises it as one of the 10 best.
37. A Bean Bag Chair
If your student’s room is big enough, treat them to a comfy place to lounge. Bean bag chairs are perennial favorites. The Ultimate Sack 5000 features a shredded foam filling that reviewers claim makes it feel like sitting on a cloud. Plus, it comes with a removable, machine-washable cover.
Or if you really want to treat them, go with a top-of-the-line bean bag — the GamerSac from LoveSac. Like the Ultimate Sack, it features a foam filling that produces a cloudlike experience. But its ultra-premium foam is removable, and it has a plush washable cover.
Most students don’t get much time to travel, but luggage is still a useful gift. A high-quality luggage set can last for decades, and if a student is going to college away from home, the right type of luggage is useful for packing their things for the trips to and from. Away luggage is among the most durable there is, but its hard shell is still lightweight. And the 360-degree spinner wheels make for easy portability. Plus, it comes in a range of colors and features a USB port and battery, so they never have to worry about their phone dying en route.
39. An Action Camera
Students who enjoy traveling or outdoor adventures will get a lot of use from a GoPro camera. GoPros are durable and easy to operate. Plus, they’re built for use in endless environments, including underwater. So your college student can capture every minute of their favorite adventures while hiking, biking, and swimming.
40. A Dream Trip
Even if your student can’t travel for a while, you can still treat them to an exciting trip. A gift card for Airbnb keeps for later since it has no expiration date. Plus, they can use it at thousands of locations all over the world. So the undergrad on your list can take that blowout trip whenever they’re able — whether that’s next year or when they graduate. It’s something to look forward to while they’re slogging through their studies.
Sometimes choosing a gift for a college student can be as tricky as finding the perfect gift for a teen. After all, in their first two years, most of them are still teenagers. And teens generally care most about whatever’s trendy.
But if you have no idea what that is, don’t stress. You can’t go wrong with a gift card. Gift cards let college students pick out whatever they want. Try one for Amazon, where they can get literally anything — even groceries. Or opt for a Sephora gift card or Ulta Beauty gift card for the beauty-obsessed student. A Google Play gift card or Apple gift card is perfect for students who always have their phones in hand. And a GameStop gift card is an ideal choice for gamers.
Or just go with straight-up cash. After all, what college student couldn’t use more of that?