Off to uni? Here’s what to buy, according to last year’s freshers

It’s that time of year when stores send out marketing emails full of smart ‘back to uni’ merchandise, and parents splash out to get their teens set up for life away from home. But before you fill your trolley with things that may never be used, check out these do’s and don’ts from students themselves.

Clever marketers know how to pull parental heart- and purse-strings as good-enough A-level, BTEC and other results come to fruition. Tempting though it is for mums and dads to harbour thoughts of tidier bedrooms and a fully stocked fridge, and for students to relish the release from the ‘what time will you be back?’ question, there’s a big hurdle to jump first – the transition from home to halls. And with university freshers’ week looming large, it’s easy, in the excitement and apprehension of this next phase of life, to be sucked into buying ‘stuff’. So which items that parents feel are essential do students never use? And what did students find useful once they’d settled in? Ahead of a pre-university shopping spree, I asked a few of last year’s freshers and freshly graduated adults what every parent preparing to buy up the store should know.

Don’t get too much crockery and cutlery

Within weeks of purchase that 24-piece set of blue-handled cutlery you thought was a distinctive (and identifiable) must-have could well have been absorbed into a mass of shared kitchenalia. Worse, its destination could be under another student’s bed, festering with their own unwashed plates and other ‘borrowings’. There always seems to be one housemate whose room is a black hole that pulls other people’s belongings into its orbit. This is a given, but it can be helpful to know where to head when mounting a retrieval raid. It’s easier, in the first few days and weeks, to keep track of a set of one or two knives, forks, dessertspoons and teaspoons, and bowls, tea-plates and dinner-plates. Your teen could keep extras in their room to cover losses and breakages until they’re sure they won’t go missing. That said, less crockery may not be better.

“I wish I’d had more plates, bowls and cutlery so I didn’t have to wash up ALL the time,” says Victoria, adding that these would have been ideal when new friends came around.

Other kitchen essentials mentioned by more than one student include a lidded pan for pasta and a cheap frying pan.

“A frying pan and fairy lights were the best things I was bought for uni,” says Lydia, who graduated this year. She also made use of a far-from-essential food mixer and baking equipment simply because she loves cooking, but turned down a fellow fresher’s offer of cash in exchange for a share of her regular meals on the grounds it was too much responsibility (and he was lazy). Meanwhile Amy found a toastie maker an invaluable addition to her kitchen. “We used that loads!” she says.

A frying pan and fairy lights were the best things

A multi-purpose oven- and microwave-proof dish with lid may prove an important addition as it can be used for baking, roasting, reheating and serving. One small and sharp knife, an easy peeler, plus a chopping knife and board are enough for all preparation. No student needs an array of Sabatier or sushi standard blades. Besides, if anything does go astray or your teen discovers their culinary genius ahead of impressing a new partner, most big supermarkets sell cheap and cheerful ranges and the charity shops close to halls will have items donated by last year’s graduates who couldn’t find room for them in the car they left in.

Tone down the bed linen

Your fresher may not be ready to relinquish their Harry Potter bedset, while you want to upgrade them to matching bedding complete with toning cushions, to show you care and ensure they’re not teased. There’s nothing wrong with buying new for uni and ditching the young teen look, but check whether your ‘baby’ will be sleeping in a single or double bed (many student rooms cater for cuddling up at night) so you buy the right sizes. Unless your teen can style out a loud pattern, opt for plain-dyed bedlinen (at least two sets of everything) and don’t forget to add in a couple of mattress covers. The chances are, student bedsheets won’t see a washing machine above once a term and will come back at Christmas, or even at the end of the academic year, looking like a shroud (especially if fake tan has been involved).

Printers and stationery

Your student son or daughter probably owns a laptop, but may have been using the family printer. If you buy new, make sure the ink refills are cheap as some cost more than the printer to replace. Getting wifi access set up (the uni welcome pack issued when they collect their keys covers this) and creating a study scene on their desk area will encourage a continued work ethic and cut procrastination time once the hard work starts.

Few students will turn down a supply of paper, a couple of notebooks and pens, so put these in the trolley along with a small pot of coloured drawing pins to make it easy to decorate. Many student rooms have a ban on sticky tape and tack for posters, favouring corkboards instead.

“It’s a small thing, but I didn’t bring any pins and I wished I had,” says Polly. “I wanted to put up timetables and photos but didn’t want to go searching for them in Aberystwyth in my first week or so!”

It’s a small thing, but I didn’t bring any pins and I wished I had…

A personal supply of sticky tape (now you’re no longer going to be on hand as official tape finder and dispenser) and a glue stick may also prove useful. Tuck a family and pre-prom photo among the ‘congratulations’ and ‘good luck’ cards they received from friends and family ready for them to put up or look through once you’ve left the building. These will also serve as a reminder that they’ve been working towards, and looking forward to, this day and that many of their schoolmates are also heading for pastures new.

Other essentials

Shower gel, shampoo, toothpaste, sanitary products and that all-important must-buy special antiperspirant add significant expense to a grocery bill. Maybe you want your teen to realise these harsh realities, but initially, do buy them a small supply of their preferred toiletries to remind them of home and help keep their finances in order. If they don’t already know that supermarket-own will do the job just as well when their little stash runs out, expect to be enlightened about this tip when they come home at Christmas. A pot plant (succulents are the in-thing) can also add a home-from-home feeling to an otherwise impersonal room.

Another recent graduate, Clare, recommends buying a coin purse just big enough to cram in ID, campus card and £10 for a night out. Speaking of non-essentials though, Clare reveals one much-loved treasure that never left her room. “I had a really nice Emma Bridgewater teapot that I wouldn’t let near any of our kitchens over the three years,” she says.

On the money front, encourage your student to download a budgeting app, or sign up for their bank account’s spending monitor to help them stay on track in this first term. That way they won’t be coming back for handouts before the Christmas holidays.

Best buys according to students

  • Airing rack
  • Fairylights
  • Frying pan
  • Mattress topper
  • Mini fridge, if you can wangle one
  • Pins for the pinboard
  • Quadruple plug extension
  • Wok (for cooking large quantities in one go, then storing).

Less useful

  • First aid kit
  • Beanbag
  • Fancy teapot.

Five stores selling back to uni items that won’t break the bank

Argos

Debenhams

Ikea

John Lewis

Tesco

• With thanks to Frank B, James C, Clare E, Hector F, Amy J, Lydia K, Polly K and Victoria P for their input.

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Less Tiger Mum, more Lioness: less Helicopter Parent, more Safety Net Provider

“They’ve f***ed it up, your mum and dad, they didn’t mean to, but they did.”*

My colleague, Chris P, more of whom later, crosses his arms when he speaks to me. I think he sees me as something of a Tiger Mum, that apparently dreadful kind of parent who pushes her kids into doing things they don’t want to do, but which she believes they ought to have accomplished. As if any pushing of my children (opinionated beings who can stick up for themselves, all three of them) ever had any real effect. I gave up efforts to put my daughter into dresses when she was three, after a monster tantrum (hers) left us both exhausted and tearful, eyeing each other up from opposite corners of the room, the hated floral thing discarded on the floor. She does girlie now, but she ain’t about flounces, or flouncing.

My youngest son has had serious attitude since the terrible twos blended into the awful tweens. Funnily enough, as an older teenager, he’s happier in his skin. He’s no less uncompromising in his outlook (his headmaster once told me H was the most arrogant boy he had ever come across, though that was before H was found to be dyslexic and using his brains to mask his difficulties), but frankly, I’d hate him to be a doormat and you should never mistake the silence of a stiff upper lip and self control for mute-faced, mulish self-importance. Even my eldest son, a model of apparent calm and conformity, is no pushover. I’ve never forgotten seeing him in the First XV’s crunch match of the season, standing nose-to-nose with another prop on the rugby field, (of course, I wanted to handbag his opponent, what mum wouldn’t?) or watching him setting himself squarely to face me to tell me he wasn’t going to go to university, it just wasn’t for him.

Was I disappointed? Yes, a bit. Did I accept his decision? Well, of course, just as I accepted said daughter’s decision to enter medicine rather than music (she’s a cracking little singer and trumpeter and I really thought she could make a career of it). Did I facilitate T’s move in with his girlfriend at the tender age of 19 in a city 170 miles away? Erm – yes. Though I didn’t want him to go, and I miss him daily, that’s where A is at uni and I recognise all birds fly the nest some day, in their own way.

So why did I prickle at Chris P’s latest WordPress posting about helicopter parents and his mention of The Ride of the Valkyries? Whilst I don’t see myself as either, if I were, I probably wouldn’t recognise the description and certainly wouldn’t apologise. But I will admit to being a parent who watches her kids’ trapeze acts and high-wire walking feats while holding a safety net out underneath. Do I expect them to fall? Nope. But if they do, I hope they’ll bounce. Do I have a life of my own? You’d better believe it.

Chris writes about a survey conducted with students in which they were asked if their mothers ever gave them careers advice. A whopping 70 per cent said yes, they had. But I’d have been more surprised if that 70 per cent said they slavishly followed the advice given. Allowing students to profit from 25-plus years’ more wisdom is just the first part of letting them go. The only way I could really get my kids to listen to me was to wait until we were driving to or from one of the many out-of- or after-school events they had signed themselves (and as a consequence, me) up to and then give them the benefit of my opinion. And hearing advice is not adhering to it.

Then there’s the apparent wrong-headedness of parents taking their kids to university open days and the theory that this is about control – or helicopter hovering. Hello? Part of me wants to point out that having spent years taking my kids to Tumble Tots and swimming lessons; standing outside music rooms while they scratched and parped noisily and tunelessly at instruments; sitting in concert halls listening to the excruciating awfulness of other people’s darlings’ performances; driving across countryside to spend H-O-U-R-S at cricket matches and standing on rugby touchlines freezing on Sunday mornings, when I could have been in bed with a good book; picking their nursery, primary and junior schools with care and agonising over their senior school education, I was never going to stop being interested in a choice of university. The other part wants to add, I didn’t go to all my daughter’s options, I divvied up the duties with other parents. We lift shared or loaded the car with five other girls and another mum so we had company while the teens did their own thing. My husband has done the same with his children (we have six between us) as they’ve made the transition from schoolchild to semi-supporting student.

Which brings me to another aspect about the apparent interference of parents in children’s lives. When my great-uncle was 17 he was running messages for the Secret Army, when my parents were 17 they were both in the RAF. At 17 and in sixth form I could drive my parents’ cars (insurance and petrol were cheap back then) and by the time I was 19 I had my own car (paid for out of my savings). At 23 I had my own flat, and a mortgage, which I paid alone, on a junior reporter’s salary. I’d been to college (on a full grant, so I was debt-free) and if I had to live on Coco-Pops for a few days at the end of the month to get me to the next payday it was worth it for the independence.

If, as a society, we have infantalised our offspring and made them more and more dependent on us for financial support, for living allowances, for uni fees and for help on to the housing ladder, if we’ve priced them off the roads, if we’ve cut down on the number of vacancies available because we’re working longer and expecting more and we’ve F-ed up the economy, isn’t it a bit rich to turn round and complain they’re not independent or not self-reliant enough and that we as parents interfere and take too close an interest in their job searches?

I love that my own children are making lives of their own, that T works and studies (he’s embarked on an OU course) and that F is doing well in her second year of med school, that my stepson’s only phone calls home are to ask his designer dad for advice about a design project difficulty (surprise – Dad knows what he’s talking about!) and if as a consequence I don’t see them above once a term between holidays that’s the price I feel I have to pay for their confidence. I’m too lazy to have been a Tiger Mum and my children too secure to have allowed me to be, but I will confess to being a lioness mother – fiercely protective when needed, ready to fight to the death on their behalf, but happy to let them roam the plains if they want to.

My colleague and boss, Chris P, is a careers expert of many years’ standing. He has heard complaints from graduate recruiters that they’re being telephoned by parents seeking more detailed information about the rejection of their offspring and he offers a tip to the parents about how that makes their (adult) child look. Well here’s a retort to recruiters – if you’ve rejected someone and given them no feedback you have no right to an opinion on their parents and frankly, their parents, if they’re ringing you on their offspring’s behalf, don’t care what you think of their interference, anyway. The interview candidates might be in bits about their perceived failure, but parents’ only concern is that their offspring, having been rejected, gain something from the experience and make a better fist of an interview or assessment centre next time around. Only that way can they take a step further along the road to real independence and their parents can let them go with a sigh of relief.

And as for helicopter parents – successful child-rearing isn’t about propellers and creating a down-draught, it’s about giving your child wings and watching them fly – however risky that looks from your lofty – or lowly – level.

You can read Chris’s blog here and learn more about the company we work for, which is dedicated to finding graduates good jobs.

*With apologies to Philip Larkin