MONEY graduation

27 Great Graduation Gift Ideas for College-Bound High Schoolers

From totally practical to simply fun.

There was a time when your graduation gift choices consisted largely of money and watches. No more. While both of these standbys are still much appreciated, if you’re looking to branch out, here is a list of gifts to help high school graduates as they enter the next stage of their lives. We offer you the practical and the indulgent, the necessities and the literary, but we promise each will carry the day.

  • College backpack

    Hugh Threlfall—Alamy Send your student packing with a new backpack.

    It’s time to get rid of that disgusting, dirty, crumb-infested backpack that your teen has been carrying for four years. There are unlimited options to replace it, including standard bearers like North Face or Jansport or trendier brands like Herschel or FjallRaven (knowing that it, too, will be disgusting, dirty, and crumb-infested four years from now).

  • Duffle bags

    Filson Medium Duffle in Navy
    courtesy Filson A duffel bag is easier to stow than a suitcase. This one is by Filson.

    Luggage may seem like a great graduation gift, but for the kid going off to college it has real drawbacks. Any parent who has moved a teen into a tiny dorm room knows there is usually no place for suitcases. The better gift is a set of duffle bags that can be stuffed under a bed when not in use. Think about buying one super large one for packing clothes or linens/towels and a smaller one to be used for trips back home. They are available at every price point and some of our favorites include Filson, L.L. Bean, and Patagonia.

  • Discounted laptop

    Astrid Stawiarz—Getty Images Ask about student discounts at the Apple Store and other retailers.

    After money, a laptop is one of the top gifts for graduating teens. Some college bookstores have deals that come with tech support but, before you make a final decision, see what student discounts you can get from Apple, Microsoft, and Best Buy. When shopping for laptops, or other items from national retailers, parents should be aware that they can generally use college student discounts even if their student does not yet have a college ID card. Retailers often ask for a college email address that many schools issue over the summer, and some will give discounts with a college acceptance letter.

  • Towels that won’t walk away

    Bill O'Leary—The Washington Post/Getty Images Monogrammed towels are easy to track down.

    Every student goes off to college with towels, and those towels all look the same. Consider giving your high school grad a set of towels with his or her monogram. It is a far more personal gift and more likely to survive the college years (and beyond). Watch for store promotions offering monograms for free or at a very low cost.

  • Tiny toolbox

    Getty Images—iStockphoto A tool kit will make your student the envy of the dorm.

    For students moving into a dorm or an apartment, a small tool kit for minor repairs or assembling flat-boxed furniture is a sought-after resource on the hall or in the apartment complex.

  • Bedside shelf

    courtesy Dormco An attachable shelf keeps bedside essentials within easy reach.

    If your kid is on the top bunk or even the elevated beds used in dorms, it is a long way down. Gone are bedside tables for a drink, phone, and glasses. These shelves, like this one from Dormco, attach to the bed and work regardless of the height.

  • Personal safety device

    courtesy ROBOCOPP A tiny alarm, like the Robocopp seen here, can make a big racket when needed.

    The No. 1 cause of concern for parents sending their kids to college is personal safety. There are a number of new safety devices that students can carry, as well as apps for download to their phones. Robocopp, for example, is described by the company as a sound grenade. It is a small handheld device that is set off by pulling a plug, releasing a 120-decibel alarm comparable to an ambulance siren. Revolar is one of a new breed of devices that emit a Yellow (I am concerned, call me) alert to the cell phones of family and friends or a Red (get professional help immediately) in case of an emergency. Other safety aids, like the phone app Companion, which allows students to ask friends to track their movements, can be downloaded at low or no cost.

  • Coffee machine

    John King—Alamy Perk your student up with a personal coffeemaker (but make sure the dorm allows it).

    Consider one of the environmentally unfriendly single serving coffee makers because the glass carafes on the other kind are easily broken. This gift will save on expensive take-out coffee every morning, but check your student’s college website first to see if the appliance is allowed in the dorm.

  • Gift certificate to a big-box retailer

    Diane Macdonald—Getty Images Bed Bath & Beyond and other national retailers have aisles of dorm room essentials.

    The K-12 back-to-school shop may have seemed expensive, but the dorm room shop is the one that breaks the bank. The National Retail Federation estimates that families spend almost $900 a year outfitting their students for college. For high school graduates moving into a dorm or an apartment, a gift certificate to Bed Bath & Beyond, Target, or other national retailers will help them to outfit their room. Remind them to look for special in-store college evenings and deep discount coupons before they buy.

  • First-aid/medicine kit

    Paul Taylor—Getty Images Create your own first-aid kit based on your kid's needs.

    What kind of gift is this? One students will appreciate the first time they are sick at 2 a.m. Put together a kit that includes first aid remedies and over-the-counter medications that your teen is likely to use. Steer away from prepackaged kits; no one knows what your kid needs better than you. Consider: cough drops, cold remedies, eye drops, thermometer, hydrocortisone, antacids, analgesics, antibacterial creams, and other things your college kid will need.

  • External battery

    courtesy Mophie An external battery, like the Mophie, can keep your student charged up.

    With days filled with classes, activities, socializing, and more, students may not have time to recharge their phones. A Mophie case or small external battery can extend the life of a cell phone battery by many hours and make sure the phone never goes dead.

  • Noise (or roommate) canceling headphones

    Squire Fox Noise-canceling headphones give your student one less excuse to avoid studying. These are by Bose.

    Life in the dorms is about to get real noisy. A pair of over-the-ear headphones will do double duty by allowing your college student to enjoy music and to study in peace no matter what is going on around them.

  • Fitness tracker

    courtesy Fitbt A fitness tracker, like the Fitbit Alta, encourages physical activity.

    Once the daily PE classes or high school sports teams wind down it becomes all too easy for college students to lower their level of physical activity. Sometimes it takes a bribe, in the form of a tech gadget they covet, to get them moving again.

  • College-logo pillow, belt, or key fob

    courtesy Smathers and Branson Items like this Bowdoin key fob from Smathers and Branson also make good gifts for friends' kids.

    Beautiful hand-needlepointed items are available with many college logos or can be personalized with a high school logo and class year of graduation. The key fob makes a more moderately priced gift for friends’ kids or your kid’s friends.

  • Gift card to an off-campus eatery

    Marianna Massey—Getty Images Give your student a break from the college cafeteria.

    Cafeteria meals wear thin very quickly and most kids will be thrilled with the chance to splurge at a local restaurant.

  • New bike

    David Aaron Troy—Getty Images Bikes are big on most campuses, but check on sharing programs before you buy.

    Many of us remember long lazy summer afternoons just riding around the neighborhood. Biking is still big—in fact, huge—on college campuses, and the gift of this cheap, healthy form of transportation should be much appreciated. But check first if the campus has a bike-sharing program.

  • You-name-it of the month club

    courtesy The Republic of Tea Give a gift that keeps giving, like this Republic of Tea monthly tea package.

    What is more fun than finding a gift in your real-life mailbox every month? For kids going off to college, consider sock-of-the-month clubs like Soul Sock or Foot Cardigan, Harry’s shave plan, Mixcups (for that new coffee maker), The Republic of Tea, BustedTees monthly, or any of hundreds of others.

  • Jewelry

    Frank Gaglione—Getty Images Jewelry gifts can be new or nostalgic.

    Whether it’s a family heirloom or a new gift, a piece of jewelry can be deeply personal, with meaning for both the recipient and the giver. Two ideas with a bit of home are jewelry personalized with the latitude and longitude of a special place, like Lat and Lo, and Dogeared for necklaces with a home state-shaped charm.

  • Gift card to college store

    Yale Campus Store
    Craig Warga—Bloomberg via Getty Images Expect your student to spend a lot of time (and money) at the college store.

    On many campuses the college bookstore is the go-to spot for far more than books. Whether buying gear to rep their new school or snacks for their dorm room, it is nice to start the year with a gift card to use on campus.

  • Watch

    A person wearing the new Apple Watch Sport, as Apple celebrates its 40th birthday on April 24, 2015.
    Lynne Cameron—PA Wire/Press Association Images Watches are a timeless classic for graduation gifts.

    This is the classic gift, but you can make it trendy with the purchase of a Shinola, Timex, or Apple.

  • Family photoshoot

    courtesy WeMontage A montage of family photos can help your student remember what you look like.

    Sure we have tons of snapshots, but someone with a good camera who knows what they are doing can capture our family and our kid’s final moments of childhood. Dress up a drab dorm room with WeMontage photos of family, dog, and high school friends.

  • T-shirt blanket

    Repat T-shirt blanket
    courtesy Repat Wrap your student in memories with a T-shirt blanket.

    Saying goodbye to the teams, schools, and activities they loved is part of going away to college. But parents can take the stack of T-shirts kids earned over the years playing in the band or on their soccer team and have a quilt made for their new dorm. It is a way for kids to take a bit of home with them to college. One company that does this is Project Repat.

  • The ABCs of Adulthood

    ABCs of Adulthood by Deborah Copaken, photographs by Randy Polumbo (Chronicle Books, 2016)
    The ABCs of Adulthood was written for the author's own college-bound kids.

    Literary and sentimental, this book is both. Author Deborah Copaken (with artist Randy Polumbo) wrote this volume as a missive to her son and daughter as she sent them off to college. It includes everything she wishes she had been told when she headed to college herself.

  • Do Your Laundry or You’ll Die Alone

    DO YOUR LAUNDRY OR YOU’LL DIE ALONE Author Becky Blades' advice to her (and everybody else's) kids.

    The subtitle, “advice your mom would give if she thought you were listening” says it all. This beautiful little book is the collected art, wisdom, and humor of Becky Blades and includes what she failed to teach her daughters as they wound down their high school years. Here is a chance to let Blades nag your daughter for you.

  • The Girl’s Guide: Getting the Hang of Your Whole Complicated, Unpredictable, and Impossibly Amazing Life

    THE GIRL’S GUIDE The Girl's Guide offers insight and reassurance.

    While author Melissa Kirsch aims her clever and comprehensive book of advice at women entering the real world, any female undergrad will find insight, understanding, and reassurance among these pages.

  • The Naked Roommate

    Harlan Cohen uncovers the bare facts of college life.

    Author Harlan Cohen, a familiar face on the MONEY College Planner website, has been in the college advice business since his own undergraduate days and has released six editions of this classic how-to and what-if guide to college. This is a reliable, practical, and up-to-date resource for both college women and men.

  • And everybody’s favorite: Money

    George Diebold—Getty Images Your college student will go through a lot of these in the laundry room alone.

    One of the most popular graduation gifts is simply money. Here are varied ways to give the gift of funds: rolls of quarters inside a laundry bag, a deposit in the college account that is linked to a student’s ID card, a check for $20.16, a check or cash slipped between the pages of a meaningful book or a deposit in the student’s 529 Plan account.

    Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa Heffernan are co-authors of Grown and Flown, where they write about all aspects of parenting kids 15-25 years old. Heffernan is also the author of three books, including the New York Times best seller Goldman Sachs: The Culture of Success (Simon and Schuster, 2000).

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