Extremely Practical Gifts for College Bound High School Grads

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by Nancy on April 26, 2011

Graduation season will soon be upon us. Between the two of us, we’ve  been through five high school graduations and definitely  have an opinion or two (what else is new?) about gifts for grads. Basically there are 3 options:


What kid doesn’t like to receive cash? It’s easy. Write a check, pop it in a card. But here’s something we’ve learned. When kids receive a large amount of cash at graduation, it makes them less motivated to find a good summer job. If you want to give cash consider waiting until August (or closer to when the student will leave for school.)

Gift Cards

Running a close second to cash for ease of giving are gift cards. You can find them at most grocery stores and we know kids love them. Here are the big three plus a membership:

  • Target
  • Wal-Mart
  • Visa/MasterCard/AmEx cards – although we hate the fees associated with activating them
  • Membership card to Sam’s or Costco (so they can buy less expensive gas if they are taking a car to school)

Gift Ideas for People Who Like to Give Real Presents

For many of us the cash/gift card route feels uncomfortable. We’d like our graduation gift to not be part of a cash slush fund. Here’s a list of useful, practical items all college students can use:

  • Towels (make sure they are good towels that absorb, there’s nothing worse than a towel that repels water.)
  • Laundry hampers (the kind that fold flat and pop up, here’s an example.) Find them at Target, Wal-Mart, Bed Bath & Beyond, The Container Store, K-Mart. They are inexpensive. If you have a sewing machine, reinforce the handles. These are useful for more than laundry, they tuck easily under beds, up on shelves and in closets. Load them up when moving in or out of the dorm. In our experiences gals are gentler on them than guys.
  • Inexpensive plastic flip flops (perfect for the showers in the dorm.)
  • First aid/over-the-counter medical kits (wait until you put together your first child’s medical supply kit, the costs add up!) A basic kit that makes a good gift would include band aids, antibiotic ointment, ibuprofen/acetaminophen, tweezers, and cough drops.
  • Skin protection kit: sunscreen, bug spray, hand sanitizer (we buy the Costco size hand sanitizer.)
  • Basic tool kit: Phillips and flat blade screw drivers, hammer, small measuring tape, 3M Command Strips
  • Tech kit: computer screen cleaner wipes, a couple flash drives
  • Mom-in-a-Bag: Getting sick is the #1 reason freshmen struggle in college. Mom-in-a-bag includes packets of chicken broth, tea, cough drops, salt for gargling,  Vitamin C.
  • T-shirts, sweatshirts, sweat pants with the logo/name of the student’s future school. Sadly (in our experience,) all that gear you paid hundreds of dollars for over the past four years, proudly bearing your child’s high school name and mascot, will quickly fall into the “don’t wear anymore” pile.

So that’s our practical list of gifts for grads. Looking for something a little more fun? Check out our ideas for fun, cool gifts (but they’re practical, too.)

Do you have a favorite, extremely practical, “go-to” high school graduation gift idea? Tell us about it in the comment section.

We’ve got a new blog!  Check it out at:

Practical College Moms

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Julie April 27, 2011 at 1:54 pm

My friends all liked grocery card gift cards (especially if there’s a favorite grocery store in the area), which the dorms provide food we always love snacks. And anything we don’t have to pay for, we love!

www.how2winscholarships.com May 23, 2011 at 3:07 pm

Thanks for this great gift list! I’m tweeting it and sharing it on my FB page and website! :)

Nancy Nancy May 23, 2011 at 8:14 pm

Thanks so much! We’re glad you like it.

Elizabeth May 26, 2011 at 8:47 am

If the dorms don’t have en-suite bathrooms, a shower caddy/tote bucket filled with their favorite brand of soap, shampoo/conditioner, a pouf or backbrush and a terrycloth wraparound bath thingy (I can’t remember the exact name of it) works well. Or a bathrobe. Also for girls I toss in one of those small super-absorbent towels just for hair. You could add the flip-flops to the caddy. You can also add shaving cream, razors, and other personal health/beauty items to the bucket.
Elizabeth´s last blog post ..Coming soon – NASA visit

Elizabeth May 26, 2011 at 8:54 am

If the dorms don’t have en-suite bathrooms, a shower caddy/tote basket is a great gift. You can include the flip-flops plus the grad’s favorite brands of soap, shampoo/conditioner, a pouf or back scrubbrush plus a terrycloth body wraparound. For girls I have added one of those super absorbent small hair towels. You can add other personal items like shaving cream, razors, deo, etc. if you want.
Elizabeth´s last blog post ..Coming soon – NASA visit

Nancy Nancy May 26, 2011 at 10:03 am

You are right! Our girls both liked the caddies with fixed handles and holes in the bottom so moisture could drain out. All those personal hygiene items really add up so they are a great addition, too.

Nancy gave her kids each a roll of quarters for laundry and then it turned out the machines in the dorm only worked with their school ID as a swipe card. We’ve heard a mix of reports from different colleges/universities so it depends on the school if they’ve gone the tech route for laundry.

We’ve found that students preference for laundry baskets varies. Joan’s daughter liked the traditional type and had room for it in her closet. Nancy’s kids all had the mesh pop up types. They can be taller and skinnier so take up less space in the closet and hold a bit more. Quality varies on the mesh types. A cheapie Target one we got had the handle rip off in a couple weeks.

jessica May 26, 2011 at 11:45 am

While I am often accused of being too practical the advice above makes me cringe a little. It’s their high school graduation and the suggestion is to give them laundry baskets, flip flops and vouchers to the super market? If they don’t know by now how to spend their cash wisely, then they will soon learn. Have some faith.
Plus, I bet when you used yours to go to concerts all summer, you probably had a blast. Isn’t that what being out of high school, 18 and enjoying the summer before college is supposed to be about?
In case I sound like a flake I would like to state for the record that I used my grad money on rent/deposit. I had a job lined up and took the bus to work.
A lot of kids are very aware of what they need to do vs what they want and can balance that pretty well or learn fast.

Nancy Nancy May 26, 2011 at 12:57 pm

Thanks so much for commenting. I appreciate the fact that practical things are not what most 18-year-old students want to receive as graduation gifts. As the parent of 3 high school graduates I had one that immediately put all their graduation money into a savings account and two that thought having money in the bank meant “oh good, now I don’t need a summer job.” And you are right, they figured it out when they didn’t have any spending money second semester freshman year.

I think that when it comes to gift-giving it boils down to the values of the gift giver. My feeling about the purpose of graduation gifts is that they are to help launch the graduate into their next phase of life but I understand many people see that in a different light.

I also wanted to clarify that the BlogHer editor added the statement about summer concerts when she featured the article, that’s not part of the original post.

conservativesunshine May 28, 2011 at 11:28 am

I absolutely LOVE the practical gift ideas! I am a practical gift giver, and every time that I give someone a gift that they never would have thought of it has been greatly appreciated! THANK YOU!!!!

sandiloveshersun June 1, 2011 at 12:28 pm

As a biased mother of an entrepreneurial son, I always recommend to my empty-nester friends that they buy RewardTag labels. RewardTag labels get lost devices (i.e. phones/cameras/etc) back to the owner through the promise of a cash reward and displaying contact info. College kids lose stuff allllll the time, so it seems like the perfect fit for incoming freshman. Check it out at http://www.rewardtag.com and let us know what you think!

Nancy Nancy June 2, 2011 at 5:53 pm

We love biased mothers of entrepreneurial sons! Joan has one of her own. And thank you for the heads up on this tip. Joan and I both checked out the website and we think it’s a fabulous idea. We’ll be adding it to our Extremely Practical list.

Amy June 12, 2011 at 5:29 pm

I went to the http://www.dormco.com/?Click=18851 website. It has all of the dorm essentials which my son needs for college in the fall. It defininitely will be something pratical for him to use. The best buy was a “bedding in a trunk” set where there was a comforter, sheets, mattress pad, mattress protector, and a throw which came in a great trunk which he can use for storage. To top it all off the flat rate shipping was $2.95!

Nancy Nancy June 13, 2011 at 7:54 am

Those packaged bedding sets are a good deal for freshman year. Most kids we know only use those twin XL sheets for one year, no need to break the bank.

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