5 things I couldn’t get through college without

Smiling girl with books and digital tablet sitting at wall indoors
(Image credit: Artem Varnitsin via Shutterstock)

The Back to School 2023 period is almost here, and shopping for the things you need can be one of the most stressful and frustrating parts of your prep - whether you’re starting a new degree or looking to update your student loadout during the holidays. Buying tech can be especially daunting, considering the cost and desired longevity of the stuff you’re going to want to purchase.

However! As someone who was quite recently in university (class of COVID-19 rise up), I have a short and sweet list of the few things you’re actually going to need. The key aspects you should consider are price and priority. What is essential from day one, and what can you reasonably pick up later down the line?

A good laptop 

MacBook Air 2022

(Image credit: Future)

The best way to approach buying a new laptop is to think about the kind of work you’re going to be doing as your degree progresses. When I was at university I perused a lot of essay-based topics in the beginning, but poor planning on my part left me stranded with a lightweight laptop that struggled in classes that required InDesign or 3D rendering software when doing practical assignments in my final year.

We’re going to learn from my mistakes and hunt for the best back-to-school laptop for you. The best student laptops should always offer great battery life, durability, portability, and value for money. If you’re going to be pursuing a professional career in animation, 3D rendering, scientific research, or generally anything that will require more resource-intensive software, you might want something with a dedicated graphics card.

Most of the best MacBooks have now solidified themselves as staples in the creative arts, so if you’re going to be doing digital art, a MacBook isn’t a bad idea. If you’re planning to take your laptop with you everywhere you go, you might prefer one of the best 2-in-1 laptops.

An iPad 

Apple iPad Air 5

(Image credit: Future)

After my beloved 2-in-1 laptop inevitably died, I got an iPad - and it was possibly the best decision I made for the last two years of school, so much so it’s been passed down to other members of my family just starting out academically.

If you’re going to be doing an essay- and coursework-heavy topic, and want something affordable and versatile, an iPad is the way to go. Even if you already have a laptop, the best iPads out there right now can be a great addition. Digital artists can draw and take notes on the same device, and once the school day is done you can chuck all that learning away and watch your favorite shows on a clear, crisp display.

The variety of iPads available in 2023 means there’s certainly a model for you. If you’re after some serious performance and want to future-proof your purchase, the iPad Pro 12.9 (2022) is by far the best choice. The M2 chip is incredibly powerful, and the mini-LED screen will give you flawless viewing pleasure. At the other end of the spectrum, the more affordable iPad 10.2 (2021) has about 10 hours of battery life, which will take you through a whole day of classes and more. The upgraded selfie camera allows you to slay in all your meetings and online classes, and for the cost, it’s one of the best value iPads you can buy right now. 

Headphones

sony wh-1000xm4

(Image credit: Sony)

If you don’t already have a pair of good headphones or Airpods, they're an absolute must on campus. The idea of commuting without them is frankly one of my biggest fears, plus they’ll help you study, make clearer calls, and helpfully let other people know you’re busy and probably don’t want to talk right now.

There’s a lot of options out there, so picking up something that suits your needs is crucial. Personally, I’m an Airpods girlie just because they’re simple; I’m not too fussed about audio quality and I only really need them for getting to and from work and making calls.

The best headphones for most people will be the Sony WH-1000XM4. They offer excellent noise-cancellation abilities and a lightweight feel. Scoring an impressive 5 stars in our review, these cans offer multipoint pairing and auto play/pause on a built-in sensor so you can take control with ease. You’ll have seen the Sony WH-1000XM5 all over TikTok recently, and while that might be the latest generation in the line, the XM4s are still amazing and are sure to be a reliable pair of headphones you won’t want to leave the house without.

If you’re after a slightly cheaper alternative, the JLabs Go Air Pop received a surprising four and a half stars in our review, ensuring their impressive spot in our best earbuds roundup. The earbuds offer skin tone-based colors to give a more discreet appearance, adding a bit of minimalism in comparison to the everyday white or black of most earbuds. Just pop 'em in, get your jam on, and get going.

A portable mouse

Logitech MX Master 3

(Image credit: Logitech)

Having a good, reliable mouse can be a lifesaver. If you’re planning on studying in the library or in groups with peers you’ll want a mouse that can be chucked into your bag and put to work whenever you need it.

I would suggest a wireless mouse purely because it offers unparalleled versatility. You can use it with almost any device you come across during your studies, so you won’t have to worry about incompatibility if you’re consistently hopping between devices. Some of the best mice out there are wireless, like the Logitech MX Master 3S or the Microsoft Modern Mobile Mouse, both boasting ergonomic and pretty stylish designs. The Microsoft mouse is especially good if you’re ambidextrous!

Ergonomic design is especially vital for preventing hand cramps if you’re going to be sitting at the computer for hours at a time, so keep this in mind when you buy your mouse.

Webcam

An image of the Logitech C920 HD pro webcam

(Image credit: Logitech)

A lot of colleges may have maintained online distance learning for some lecturers, so you’ll want a webcam that’ll keep you connected. Unless your laptop has a high-resolution built-in webcam, you’re probably going to want to upgrade to something with more juice for video calls. There’s nothing worse than getting dressed and ready for class and realizing you look like a smudge on everyone else's screen!

The most suitable webcams you’ll come across will be affordable and suit your purpose, so you won’t need a super fancy 4K camera.  The Logitech C920 holds the top spot on our best webcams with its 1080p full HD video quality, low light capabilities, and affordable price. The fact that it’s still number one on our list since its release way back in 2012 speaks for itself.

Wireless Keyboard

Logitech Signature K650

(Image credit: Logitech)

Finally, you might want to consider investing in a wireless keyboard. I waited till the end of my degree to finally buy one and I deeply regret it. Library keyboards can be incredibly gross and often very old. You’ll be using your keyboard across different computers for many years, so you’ll want to invest in a typing machine that is responsive and prioritize your comfort for long typing sessions.

Securing a high-end - but not expensive - keyboard will also guarantee some super satisfying typing, and our top recommendation for that would be the Logitech Signature K650. It might not be the best for more demanding stuff like gaming, but the comfortable keys and lightweight yet durable chassis means it’ll slip into any bag and get the job done, wherever you are.

Muskaan Saxena
Computing Staff Writer

Muskaan is TechRadar’s UK-based Computing writer. She has always been a passionate writer and has had her creative work published in several literary journals and magazines. Her debut into the writing world was a poem published in The Times of Zambia, on the subject of sunflowers and the insignificance of human existence in comparison.

Growing up in Zambia, Muskaan was fascinated with technology, especially computers, and she's joined TechRadar to write about the latest GPUs, laptops and recently anything AI related. If you've got questions, moral concerns or just an interest in anything ChatGPT or general AI, you're in the right place.

Muskaan also somehow managed to install a game on her work MacBook's Touch Bar, without the IT department finding out (yet).