10 Smart Graduation Gifts for College-Bound Seniors

Summer is almost upon us, and with it a barrage of social events, from backyard barbecues to weddings to, of course, graduation parties.

And while you can bring a tray of baked beans to a neighborhood cookout, and something straight off the registry to a wedding, it’s often difficult to decide what to get a newly-minted high school graduate.

It’s not like graduating seniors register for what they want — in fact, they usually don’t know either. After all, they’re often leaving their parents’ nest and their cozy home life for the first time. How can they possibly know what’s ahead of them?

Great High-School Graduation Gifts

Fortunately, some gifts for college-bound seniors have truly stood the test of time. Here are some practical and useful gifts for new graduates preparing to leave the nest for the first time:

Dorm Room Essentials

Even kids who “have it all” at home could use some new items to take to their college dorm. Some dorm room essentials that can help college-bound seniors make the transition include things like a mini-hamper, a mini-fridge, twin-XL sheets and bedding, or fuzzy flippers.

An alarm clock is also a good gift for students with early classes. And depending on where the graduate is headed, a raincoat and umbrella or a durable pair of winter boots might come in handy for college freshmen who have to walk to class.

Think outside of the box, and when it doubt, ask the graduate’s parents or relatives what he or she really needs for the college dorm room. What are they missing?

Gift Cards

If you don’t want to commit to a specific item, you can always give the grad a few gift cards to their favorite places. If you want them to use your gift for something practical, give them a gift card for their college bookstore, a department store, or a place like Wal-Mart or Target.

Want to treat them? Hook them up with a gift card to a local take-out place or their favorite restaurant or coffee shop. New college students rarely have much spending money of their own, so a gift card is a nice luxury and never a bad idea. If they don’t want to spend it right away, they can always save it for a time when something comes up and they don’t have the cash.


Speaking of cash, there are dozens of reasons why new college freshman need cold, hard cash. They might need money to get home, money for groceries, cash for books or school supplies, gas for their car, or clothes for their backs. (They might also use it for a case of beer, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.)

Regardless, if you aren’t picky about how your new student spends their gift, consider giving them cash. Nobody balks at the idea of receiving cash as a gift, and you know it will never end up unused, stuffed in the back of a dorm room closet.

Shower Kit

When you’ve been living at home with mom and dad your whole life, the shower situation you encounter at college can seem rather “interesting.” Fortunately, certain items can make the process much easier, and those items are simple for outsiders and family friends to purchase, too.

First, a small shower caddy is essential, as are personal care basics such as shampoo, conditioner, lotion, and razors. Second, a pair of shower flip flops and a robe or shower cover-up will always come in handy. If you want to top things off or gift a comprehensive showering kit, you can also throw in a few nice towels and wash cloths. And don’t forget the soap!

Logo Gear

College freshmen are often excited about their school of choice — in fact, college acceptance season is a boom for university bookstores as the incoming class looks to stock up on branded sweatshirts and the like — which is why logo gear is a new-student must.

Unfortunately, shirts, shorts, and pants with school logos are often very expensive, which is another reason why they make good gifts. Your college student may not be able to afford them on their own, so buy some gear for them.

College logo sweatshirts and long-sleeved T-shirts are almost always popular with college students, along with embossed tote bags, hats, jackets, and coffee mugs. No matter what you buy, make sure to include the receipt. That way, your student can exchange it for the right item and/or size or color.

Coffee Maker

Between cramming for exams and staying up with friends, there are sure to be a few all-nighters in your graduate’s future. Students hooked on coffee like the rest of us will need a cheap and easy way to brew their own — after all, developing a Starbucks habit could wipe out their already limited funds.

Resist the urge to buy a K-Cup brewer, which will force your future college student to shell out extra money for those proprietary pods. A simple 4- to 6-cup coffee maker or even a french press is perfect for the dorm room. Or check out this single-serve Kitchen Aid coffee maker that brews directly into an 18-oz. travel mug. Include some of your grad’s favorite coffee, a box of filters (or a reusable mesh one), a coffee mug, and a some sweeteners to round out the gift.


College kids will likely eat most of their meals in various dining halls and cafeterias across campus. However, they’ll still need basic dishes, cups, and silverware for weekends and late-night snacks. Fortunately, dishes just so happen to make easy, simple gifts.

When shopping for your grad’s new dish set, make sure to buy cups, plates, and bowls that are microwave-friendly. Items that aren’t breakable are also a good idea. And remember, students don’t need a full four- or eight-person set — just a couple of each type (bowl, plate, cup, etc.) will do. Throw in some simple silverware and you’re done.

A Personal Finance Book

Kids who haven’t left home may be woefully unprepared for the financial realities of adulthood. Unfortunately, college is a time when students are most susceptible to making some huge financial mistakes – things like buying a car they can’t afford, running up credit card debt, or using student loan overages to live an extravagant lifestyle.

If you want to warn them of the consequences and introduce them to a few basic financial principles, consider giving a simple and easy-to-read personal finance or career-focused book to your college-bound senior. There are plenty of good options out there, but here are some of the best:

School Supplies

Want to gift something extremely practical that you know your new student will use? Consider school supplies and other school-related essentials that all college freshmen need.

Good options include items like pens, notepads, folders, and pencils. A nice wall or desk calendar is also a good option, as is a desk organizer or drawer insert.

Another option: A book lamp that will make it easier to read in bed and a pair of sturdy ear plugs. If you want to give more than one of these items, consider creating a “school supply basket” with several useful and practical items that can definitely be used for school.

Dorm Décor and Picture Collages

Students heading off to life in a dorm might be in for a rude awakening if they’ve never experienced on-campus living conditions. Not only are college dorm rooms extremely “cozy” — a.k.a. small — they often need to be shared with at least one other person. In most cases, that means leaving their bigger stuff at home and paring down to items that fit comfortably in half of an 8′ x 10′ room.

Fortunately, pictures from home don’t take up much room, and they are a great way to remind your college-bound senior of home. So create a picture collage from scratch, or buy a collage frame and fill it up with pictures of some of your friend’s most memorable moments. Sites like PicMonkey and Collage.com also help you make picture collages out of your digital photos.

Finding a gift for a college-bound high-school grad isn’t always easy, but there are a ton of practical and smart options out there if you’re looking for something they can really use. Just remember, a gift given from the heart can never be wrong. And no matter what, the college-bound senior you know and love probably needs all the help they can get.

Holly Johnson

Contributing Writer

Holly Johnson is a frugality expert and award-winning writer who is obsessed with personal finance and getting the most out of life. A lifelong resident of Indiana, she enjoys gardening, reading, and traveling the world with her husband and two children. In addition to The Simple Dollar, Holly writes for well-known publications such as U.S. News & World Report Travel, PolicyGenius, Travel Pulse, and Frugal Travel Guy. Holly also owns Club Thrifty.