Back to College Shopping Guide, Off-Campus Edition

Around this time last year, I wrote a lengthy post detailing items that incoming college students would need to get settled into their new environment. That article ended up becoming one of the most popular posts I've ever published and garnered lots of link love. So when several readers suggested via Skribit that I post a follow up article, I was a little uncertain on how to improve upon the last post. That being said, this post will focus on upperclassmen: students that have lived on campus for a year or two and are ready to get their own room and live in an apartment off-campus.

Last Time..

Lots of items from my last post still apply - wireless router, a cheap laser printer, digital camera, USB flash drive, graphing calculator, and a pair of headphones - but some of my suggestions have since changed. I now recommend the Linksys WRT54G2 router. It may not do 802.11n but at 46 it's sufficient to supply you and your roommates with Wi-Fi, as well as being considerably smaller than previous models. If you consider yourself a tinkerer, go with the older and larger WRT54G, which can be upgraded to firmware opening up new capabilities.

As for headphones, I currently enjoy the in-ear Sony MDR-EX71SLs. For digital cameras, I have a feeling the thin Sony Cyber-Shot T700 will be interesting, but at 400 it is considerably out of the average college student's budget.

Renter's Insurance

For as little as 12 per month you can insure up to 10,000 of your belongings. That will be the best use of your money, ever. Every single one of my friends has had some sort of run-in with theft during their stay in college. Theft doesn't have to come in the form of a break-in either. One of my friends lived with 6 other guys in a house and it only took one shady "friend" to come over one day and steal everything - laptops, a Wii and even textbooks.
Georgia Tech Crimes on North Campus, 2008
Living on campus isn't much better.

Pick your roommates wisely and don't live with anyone you haven't known well for at least a year. The last thing you want is to live with a guy you found on CraigsList (also known as my last roommate) who constantly stunk up the house with his illegal substances.


So you have your own place and can hold the occasional soiree from time to time. Now what? Well you're going to need something more powerful than your MacBook's speakers to play music. Last year I reviewed the Slim Devices Squeezebox and was reasonably impressed. Since then, Slim Devices has been purchased by Logitech and they have just released the Squeezebox Boom.
Logitech Squeezebox Boom

While I have not personally tinkered with the Squeezebox Boom, the specifications make it seem perfect for the college habitat. Keep it in the common area to jam out to your music library and that of your roommates, as well as listen to Pandora, Rhapsody and other music services. On the other hand you could keep it in your bedroom and use it as an alarm clock.


While I would have no reservations recommending the Vudu box or Roku Netflix Player, this still is the college crowd. I'm better off pointing to my How To: Download with Newsgroups post and leaving it at that.
100-inch Projection Screen and home theater setup

Still on the subject of movies, when I lived with a few roommates I found an affordable used projector and projection screen on CraigsList and converted our living room into a home theater. The entire setup cost less than 200 per roommate and resulted in a 100-inch movie screen. The setup also fared well with Wii parties.

Nintendo Wii Party - Projector Screen

Water Bottle

The only downside of living off-campus is that you won't have access to the on-campus bus system, if your university offers that, so you will likely have to walk a bit to get to campus. For that twice daily trek, it's important to keep hydrated and carry water with you at all times. While Camelbaks and Nalgene bottles are campus favorites, there is a new contender this year: the KOR ONE.
KOR ONE Water Bottle

The 29 KOR ONE is eco-friendly and made without a nasty plastic production byproduct called "BPA" that is found in lower quality polycarbonate water bottles (even less than recent Nalgene bottles had this). Other features include an easy-to-use cap and handle.

Wireless Keyboard

If there's one thing I've learned from being in college for over 4 years, it's that there comes a time at least once a semester that I actually want to use my desk for studying and not just for computing. When that time comes, it is very handy to just push my wireless keyboard to the side and not have to deal with it.

While I can't tell you what kind of wireless keyboard you might like, I have been happy with the small-footprint Apple Wireless Keyboard.

Eye-Fi Wireless SD Memory Card

In my last back to school shopping guide, I recommended new students get an affordable point-and-shoot digital camera to catalog and share their experiences with their friends. Adding on to that idea is the Eye-Fi wireless memory card which takes out some of the hassle with uploading pictures. Especially in this day of Facebook this and Flickr that, the automatic uploading afforded by the Eye-Fi card is quite handy for college students.
On the other hand, imagine this ideal use case: John is a 21 year old college student and has an Eye-Fi card in a tiny point-and-shoot camera that he takes with him to parties, fraternity functions and so on. At the end of the night, all John has to do is turn on his camera when he gets home and a short while later all of his pictures will be on Facebook. No fidgeting with any confusing photo uploading software or websites.

Eye-Fi also makes the Eye-Fi Explore, an SD card that also geo-tags photos.


Now that you have your own place, it's time to celebrate your freedom from the dorm room and invest in a high quality chair that will last through your graduation and into your graduate school or job years. For me, that chair was a Herman Miller Celle. First off, as with anything bearing the Herman Miller name, the Celle is not cheap. It starts at 450 and runs to over 600 depending on configuration.
Review: Herman Miller Celle Chair

Unlike run-of-the-mill Ikea chairs, the Celle is completely made with your posture in mind. It's a firm chair that keeps your back in line.

Organization and Study Habits

While I'm on the subject of college, I'll take this time to reply to three college-related Skribit suggestions; one related to study methods, one related to organization for back to school and the last related to how I motivate myself.

Study Methods - My usual study habits include going to every class (obviously) and taking copious notes in Google Docs (collaboratively if I have any friends in that class). When examination time comes around, I read through my notes once before sleep, then wake up around 4-5am and go through them several more times, all-the-while researching items I don't have enough info about.

I avoid pulling all-nighters when possible. Several of my friends have no problems with all-nighters and even plan them, but there's nothing that sucks quite as much as being one of a handful of students pulling out their hair and typing away in a cold library at 4am.

All-nighter in the library
The all-nighter that led to this Twitter research paper.

If classes don't have any assigned textbooks, I'll buy a used study guide or textbook relating to the approximate subject matter and use it to research important topics discussed in class, to get another perspective. These tactics are fine for non-engineering classes. However, when it comes to physics, math and computer science examinations, excelling on those only comes from paying attention in class and following the exercises, so I can't provide too many pointers there.

My takeaway point is that I study more than what's covered in class. I read the Wikipedia pages of all related topics and the like. Study groups are incredibly useful as they help you see things from another perspective and thought process. They also tend to be a huge time sink. I've sat through many study groups thinking that we were just wasting time cracking jokes.

For more thoughts on being productive in college, the comments in this Metafilter post are quite helpful.

Organization - Organization is easy for me because most of my stuff is digital. I only have one paper notebook this semester and that's because the auditorium that class is held in is too cramped to use my laptop comfortably, so I just write down my notes. There are only two things I need to keep track of - upcoming assignment due dates from course syllabus websites, and class notes from Google Docs.

To Do List

For due dates, I keep a little notepad on my desk and periodically check course websites for due dates and make a to-do list every week. I used to use the iPhone app Things as well as Evernote for my to-do lists but I would always forget to check it. Being able to manually scratch out completed tasks provides a nice sense of accomplishment, rather than just clicking off a completed task. As much as I want to lead a completely digital lifestyle, knowing when to use pen and paper is a handy trait.

For more on how I manage my digital life, read How To: Live the Cloud Life.

Motivation - In college, at least some motivation is inherently present for me. I have to do this or that, or I might fail a class and resort to taking the M-train (an ongoing joke at Georgia Tech about switching to the "easy" management major from an engineering major - see popular video from Georgia Tech students below).

But that doesn't mean I can't make mandatory assignments more tolerable with a comfortable working environment. For me this means a nice temperature, lots of light (also helps keep me awake), fast-paced music, and a bit of tea or club soda. Furthermore, my motivation breaks down into a basic cost-benefit and opportunity cost analysis. Is it worth my time? How else could I productively use my effort?

This reminds me of David Seah's Printable CEO:

Some tasks like this blog and working on Skribit are passion projects. I indulge in helping them succeed. I already have all the motivation I need. My motivation for school is all about striving to finish and receive my degree so I can spend all of my time on aforementioned passion projects. In other words, all of my motivation is about thinking ahead and taking the next step.

What are your passion projects?


College has pushed me through various living conditions and now that I'm in my final semester I happily live by myself and can get my priorities in line. For your viewing pleasure, I present to you my last four years of college living situations:
Georgia Tech Glenn Hall Dorm
Freshman Year: I wasn't moving in in this picture, but rather it was a few months into school and I was getting a new roommate. The first roommate assigned to me smelled bad, did drugs and we didn't get along too well in general.
Georgia Tech Woodruff North Dorm
Sophmore Year: I lived in a "suite" which was a 2 + 2 that shared a bathroom. We had setup a desk room and a bed room. That didn't work out too well as some of us would need to study while the others wanted to play GameCube. We reverted back to one room with the early birds and one room with the night owls.
Junior Year: Moved into an off-campus townhouse with a friend from high school and my neighbor from freshman year, Chris.
Senior Year: Still in a townhouse but our third one. The first one had a bad case of bed bugs that fumigation couldn't kill and the second one was temporary until the larger townhouse we wanted was available. Chris and I got a new roommate as our last one went to work his co-op semester.
Living room and roommates playing PS2
Senior Year: Roommates doing what they do best, playing PS2 all-night.
My current apartment in midtown
Super Senior Year: My own place finally.

What would recommend for a college student moving to an off-campus pad? What has helped you get through college?