Student desk with open laptop showing VPN connection sitting beside pens, highlighters, textbooks and ethernet cable

Online College School Supply List: The 14 Must-Have Items

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Last Updated on March 13, 2024 by Alexandra Markin

Online college is becoming more and more common due to its convenience and flexibility, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it can be difficult to know what to put on your school supply list for your online college education if you’re new to online learning.

During my time as an online student, I came to learn what items were really necessary for online college, since our needs are a bit different from traditional college students.

This post lists the 14 items every student needs to put on their online college school supply list no matter what your field of study.

14 Items For Your Online College School Supply List

The primary items you need for online college are a computer with a reliable internet connection, some traditional school supplies and a dedicated space to study.

You may need many more supplies depending on your field of study (such as medical or health), but the below lists the basic items every online student needs.

Save yourself some time by grabbing my FREE CHECKLIST to make sure you start your online course prepared and organized!

Online College School Supply Checklist

1. Laptop or Desktop Computer

Since the majority of online courses are entirely virtual, a reliable computer is a must.

Whether you choose a laptop or desktop computer, make sure it meets the technical requirements for your online course (such as running Windows 10 and Google Chrome). You can usually find these requirements on your school’s website but if not, email student services and ask.

Must-have student computer features:

  • Headphone jack
  • Good quality built-in speakers
  • Webcam
  • USB port (or multiport adapter if you have a Mac)

Many online students prefer a laptop as one of the biggest benefits of online learning is the freedom to study anywhere.

You can’t take an online course with just a smartphone. You’ll need access to a word processor and ProctorU (a third-party service designated to supervise online exams).

NOTE: An iPad isn’t necessary unless you like taking notes digitally.

2. Reliable Internet Access

As an online college student, you’ll rely heavily on your internet connection to:

  • Access online learning platforms
  • Attend virtual lectures
  • Submit assignments
  • Communicate with your professors
  • Connect with other students
  • Conduct research
  • Utilize YouTube and other resources when you need more explanation on course topics

It’s essential to have a reliable high-speed internet connection to prevent any interruptions or delays.

In most cases, the basic package from your internet provider will be sufficient. If you find your connection is slow or your package only comes with a limited amount of data, you may need to upgrade.

Using Wi-Fi only to study at home shouldn’t be a problem unless you find your study area has a weak signal. In that case, look into getting a Wi-Fi extender to strengthen your internet signal.

Because technology never works perfectly 100% of the time, have an internet cable on hand for those times you need to physically plug in to your router to access the internet.

I know from personal experience that the day will come when your Wi-Fi stops working – and it’s usually right before an exam or when you’re rushing to finish an assignment at the last minute!

If your computer doesn’t have an Ethernet port, you’ll need to get a USB to Ethernet cable. Check your computer’s port availability carefully before purchasing.

Virtual Private Network (VPN) Subscription

I never access the internet without my VPN (Virtual Private Network) connected, and I highly recommend every online student have one.

A VPN is a subscription service that encrypts your online activity, hiding your banking information, passwords and everything you do on every device that requires an internet connection.

Personal data is a valuable commodity these days, no matter who you are. The last thing you want to deal with during exams is having your bank account hacked or every file on your computer erased.

Even on a student budget, a good VPN doesn’t cost a lot. For a few dollars per month, you can buy yourself peace of mind.

I’ve been using NordVPN for over three years and highly recommend them.

MONEY TIP: If you’re a Rakuten USA or Rakuten Canada member, you can earn cash back on your NordVPN subscription purchase!

If you’re unfamiliar with VPNs or want to discover the little-known secret of how they can save you money during your studies, check out the post Why Every Online Student Needs a VPN.

3. Webcam

If your laptop or desktop computer doesn’t come with a built-in camera, you’ll have to purchase an external webcam.

The non-negotiable reason you must have a webcam is that most online exams are invigilated, meaning you’ll be remotely supervised through your webcam by a third party. The most common service online colleges use is ProctorU.

There will also be times during your course that you’ll want to Skype or Zoom with your instructor or other students.

4. Required Computer Software

Online courses require certain software to allow completion of the course. At the very least, online students will need:

While you can access the above applications for free, it’s not always the case for course specific required software.

Often these are included with your course fee, but sometimes you’ll need to pay an additional subscription or registration fee.

When I took my introductory French course, I had to purchase a 1-year Speexx subscription, whereas my required XLSTAT subscription was included with my statistics textbook.

Other times, required course software is available via free download. For my Java computer programming course, all I needed was the open source BlueJ development environment.

Course required computer software is a type of “hidden fee” to be aware of when you embark on your higher education journey.

For a list of other fees you can expect, read the post How to Choose the Best Online Degree Program and navigate to the “additional fees” section.

MONEY TIP: Did you know that most online colleges and universities provide students with a free or reduced-cost subscription of Microsoft 365? Check with your institution for details!

5. External Hard Drive / Flash Drive / Cloud Backup

So many students overlook this important item on the online college school supply list without even a second glance.

You will accumulate A LOT of digital files, bookmarks and databases you build for yourself over the course of your higher education journey.

Choosing not to back up this information is like putting all your eggs in one basket. If your computer crashes (or forbid gets hacked), you lose everything – and it happens to students way more than you think.

Not using a secondary backup or VPN subscription is easy to disregard. You tell yourself “These things won’t happen to me,” or “What are the chances?” in order to save money and the small fraction of time it takes to run a weekly backup.

You absolutely need some kind of digital secondary backup. The three best options to choose from are an external hard drive, large capacity flash drive, or my favourite, a cloud backup.

Pick a backup type and learn how to use it. You have been warned!

6. Headphones or Earbuds

Even if your online course doesn’t have pre-recorded lectures to listen to, you’ll need headphones to watch instructional YouTube videos without disturbing those around you. And let’s be honest – you’ll probably take an audio-heavy Instagram break at some point!

Getting a pair of noise cancelling headphones can help if you get distracted easily.

Also, ensure your headphones have a microphone. You’ll need it to talk with your instructor or other students on video calls, Discord study groups, etc.

If you choose wireless headphones or earbuds, carry a corded pair as backup. I only had to go to the library once without charging my Apple AirPods to immediately pack a corded backup. That day was a complete waste because I had scheduled my study time to watch Khan Academy YouTube videos.

Planning to head to the library for a change of scene? Read the post What to Bring to a Library Study Session to maximize your study time in a quiet space with no distractions.

7. Designated Study Space

Student desk workspace in the corner of a room
One of the many evolutions of my designated study workspace.

A separate, designated study space is a MUST for online students.

When I first started studying online, I though I could effectively study from my kitchen table, bed and couch. I couldn’t believe how wrong I was! I hardly got anything done, much less effectively.

A designated study space will help you focus, be productive and establish a study routine. All you need is a small corner of a room with a desk and receptacles to hold your study materials.

As you’ll discover, a study space setup is ever-changing. Start with the necessary items on this list and your space will grow with you as you evolve through your study journey.

Make your student desk setup as basic or aesthetic as you like. Add some ambiance to your study space with some candles and greenery!

8. Comfortable, Ergonomic Chair

Like my original study workspace plan, I thought my kitchen chair and the couch would suffice.

Invest in a comfortable, ergonomic desk chair. Unlike a traditional college student, you’ll be sitting in the same place for long hours.

Must-have student desk chair features:

  • Cushy seat padding
  • Adjustable height
  • Rolling swivel casters
  • Mid-back height for more support

Personally, I don’t like chairs with armrests because they bang into the sides of the desk when you’re trying to move around.

If you choose a rolling chair, a chair mat is crucial to protect your floors or carpets. I thought I could get away without one until I realized my floors were scratching!

My current chair (and the one in the photo above) is the Corsica Black Task Chair, purchased from Costco.

9. Dedicated Task Lighting

During those late night study sessions, regular room lighting isn’t enough.

You’ll need a bright desk lamp or floor lamp placed close to your desk. It will prevent eye strain and make studying at night actually doable.

10. Printer

Although a printer is not required for online students, I wouldn’t have successfully made it through my diploma without one.

The time will come when you’ll want to print out practice exams, digital notes, study workbooks, planner pages or checklists. Sometimes it’s just easier to print your essay and edit by hand with a red pen!

I’ve always been a fan of hard copy checklists. If you want to get more organized in your studies, visit the Online Student Life store for detailed checklists!

I’ve had HP printers for years, and their Instant Ink program can be a huge time and money saver if you find yourself printing a lot.

If you’re unfamiliar with the HP Instant Ink program or want to read my full review, check out the post Is HP Instant Ink Worth It For Students? Hint – if you print a lot, the answer is yes.

11. Traditional School Supplies & Stationary

Coloured pens and highlighters are essential to colour code your notes, making learning retention easier.

For online students, having traditional school supplies still apply.

This is the essential online college school supply list:

Everything on this list can be ordered from Amazon, so no need to even leave your house.

MONEY TIP: Students are eligible for a free 6-month trial of Prime student – after which you’ll pay half the price of a regular Prime membership. I think it’s 100% worth it. Start your 6-month free trial today!

12. Pencil Case

Because you’re taking full advantage of the online student lifestyle, you’ll need a pencil case to house all your school supplies to take with you on the go.

I like clear pencil cases to quickly see what I’m looking for, but go for the option that best suits you.

13. Backpack

Do you even need an actual backpack for online college?

Yes, you really do.

A pretty tote bag isn’t big enough to hold everything you need, nor is it a suitable ergonomic choice. Invest in a good quality backpack because you’ll use it much more than you think.

Packing your backpack properly as an online student is also important. We’re not on campus, so we have different needs. Check out the post Essentials All Students Need in Their College Backpack so you’ll never leave the house unprepared.

14. Planner

The key to being a successful online student is to effectively manage your time.

Types of planners that are popular among the online student community are:

  • Google calendar
  • Physical planners
  • Bullet journals
  • Digital planners via applications like Notion or GoodNotes

You can even use your smartphone’s calendar.

If you’re new to online learning, determining the right planner for your new responsibilities may take some trial and error, but stick with it until you find something that works for you. You may start your program with a physical planner and end with being a Notion expert!

Start with whichever planner you currently know how to use. Switching to a new method of planning is time consuming and can have a steep learning curve.

Online College School Supply List – Next Steps

By confirming you have all these required items before beginning your next online course, you’ll feel organized and ready to take on any challenge.

Share with us in the comments: what is your must-have online college school supply item?

If you found this post helpful, sign up for my email list below and follow me on Instagram to join our online student community – you don’t have to do this alone!

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