X

Article updated on August 23, 2023 at 5:00 AM PDT

12 Back-to-School Essentials You'll Actually Use

I graduated college in 2021 and wish I'd had these back-to-school essentials.

Our Experts

Written by 
Our expert, award-winning staff selects the products we cover and rigorously researches and tests our top picks. If you buy through our links, we may get a commission. Reviews ethics statement
Jessica Fierro Video Producer
Why You Can Trust CNET
16171819202122232425+
Years of Experience
14151617181920212223
Hands-on Product Reviewers
6,0007,0008,0009,00010,00011,00012,00013,00014,00015,000
Sq. Feet of Lab Space

CNET’s expert staff reviews and rates dozens of new products and services each month, building on more than a quarter century of expertise.

Our Picks

$730 at Best Buy
Apple's M1-powered 13-inch MacBook Air
Ultimate back-to-school essential
13-inch M1 MacBook Air
View details
View details
$17 at Amazon
mosiso.png
Excellent value laptop accessory bundle
Mosiso keyboard cover and laptop case
View details
View details
$32 at Baggu
baggu.png
Stylish and sustainable laptop sleeve
Baggu Puffy laptop sleeve
View details
View details
$299 at Remarkable
ReMarkable 2
Best E Ink tablet for writing and note-taking
Remarkable 2
View details
$38 at Best Buy
rocketbook.png
Affordable way to digitize handwritten notes
Rocketbook Core
View details
View details
$38 at Amazon
The Sony CH-520 is are budget on-ear headphones that sound surprisingly good
Best value headphones
Sony CH-520 headphones
View details
View details
$130 at Target
The Sony CH-720N headphones fold flat but not up
Best budget noise-canceling headphones
Sony CH-720N headphones
View details
View details
$100 at Best Buy
2nd-gen-airpods2.png
Solid earbuds for walking on campus
AirPods (2nd Generation)
View details
View details
$50 at Amazon
jbl-go-3-eco2.png
Tiny speaker, solid sound
JBL Go 3 Eco speaker
View details
View details
$60 at Anker
Anker 735 USB-C Wall Charger
Triple-device charger
Anker 735 charger (GaNPrime 65W)
View details
View details
$6 at Amazon
lifemate2.png
Easy-access to your key to everything (including your student ID)
Life-Mate Badge Holder
View details
View details
$22 at Amazon
matein.png
Excellent value backpack
Matein backpack
View details
View details

It's August, which means back-to-school shopping season is in full swing. With so many products out there, it can be hard to know what you actually need. 

I graduated college two years ago. During my time at university I compiled what is, in my humble opinion, the ultimate list of tech, tech accessories and more to make your academic life easier. So from one recent student to another, here are the back-to-school essentials I'd recommend.

Watch this: Back-to-School Essentials You Actually Need

Best laptop for students

$730 at Best Buy

Ultimate back-to-school essential

13-inch M1 MacBook Air

If you're only going to get one thing from this list, I'd recommend the 13-inch M1 MacBook Air. It works well for standard tasks like research, writing essays and taking Zoom calls. Plus, starting at $1,000, it's currently the most affordable MacBook Air at Apple. 

Pro tip: Never pay full price for it. In the past I've seen the laptop drop down to $750 at retailers like Best Buy. If you do want to buy it at Apple, get it from the Education Store for 10% off. Make sure to buy it on an Apple Card if you own one for 3% cash back. Apple's also currently running a Back to School sale which gives you an Apple gift card up to $150 when you buy a Mac, as well as 20% off AppleCare Plus. 

The laptop you pick will ultimately come down to what software and hardware will work best for the tasks associated with what you study. If a MacBook Air doesn't suit your needs, check out our full list of the best laptops for college in 2023 to figure out what's right for you.

$17 at Amazon

Excellent value laptop accessory bundle

Mosiso keyboard cover and laptop case

Protect your laptop from scratches, dents, liquids, crumbs and other hazards with this keyboard cover and laptop case bundle from Mosiso. The set includes a laptop case, keyboard cover and a screen protector. I don't love the screen protector because I prefer to clean my screen with a microfiber cloth, but the laptop case and keyboard are definitely worth the money.

$32 at Baggu

Stylish and sustainable laptop sleeve

Baggu Puffy laptop sleeve

Add some personality to your laptop with Baggu's colorful sleeve. This laptop sleeve provides extra cushioning when you're on the go, and it comes in fun patterns. I also love the fact that it's made of recycled materials.

$299 at Remarkable

Best E Ink tablet for writing and note-taking

Remarkable 2

The Remarkable 2 is an E Ink sketch tablet. You can use it to handwrite notes and annotate PDFs, and you can transfer your notes to the cloud or your computer. Handwriting can help with retaining information and doing it digitally means you can keep your notes backed up and save some trees. I prefer writing on it to the more expensive iPad because the Remarkable 2 has a more paper-like feel.

$38 at Best Buy

Affordable way to digitize handwritten notes

Rocketbook Core

The Rocketbook Core notebook allows you to digitize your handwritten notes without breaking the bank. Write in it with the included Pilot Frixion pen, scan your notes with the Rocketbook app and send them to the cloud. Then just dampen the included microfiber towel to erase the page and dry it to reuse it. The Rocketbook looks like a regular spiral notebook. The pages feel like matte photo paper, so the pen glides on them more than it would with regular paper. But overall, the experience is pretty similar to writing in a normal notebook.

$38 at Amazon

Best value headphones

Sony CH-520 headphones

A good pair of headphones can help you get in the zone while studying. If you can go without noise-cancellation, the Sony CH-520 headphones are a solid budget option. They're lightweight and comfortable and they have decent sound and great battery life. I've even seen the black pair drop down to as low as $38 at retailers like Amazon.

$130 at Target

Best budget noise-canceling headphones

Sony CH-720N headphones

If noise-cancellation is a non-negotiable for you, the Sony CH-720N headphones are a good pick. They're lightweight, comfortable and have good audio quality with great noise cancellation and ambient sound modes. Don't get me wrong, they aren't as premium as the Sony WH-1000XM5's, but they'll do what you need them to do. And if you can find them on sale for less than the $150 retail price, you'll get an exceptional bang for your buck.

$100 at Best Buy

Solid earbuds for walking on campus

AirPods (2nd Generation)

I liked wearing earbuds as I walked around campus because they're less bulky and let in a bit more sound so I could stay aware of my surroundings. I used the original AirPods in college and still recommend them. More specifically, I'd get the second-gen version because the sound quality is great and because, starting at $130, they're currently the most affordable AirPods at Apple. I've even seen them drop down to $100 at retailers like Amazon.

$50 at Amazon

Tiny speaker, solid sound

JBL Go 3 Eco speaker

Aside from getting a degree, what is college for if not sitting on the grass in between classes, vibing to music with your friends? Here's the speaker I'd recommend for that: the JBL Go 3 Eco. It's water- and dust-proof and has surprisingly good sound quality for how small it is. And it's largely made of recycled materials to make it more sustainable. 

$60 at Anker

Triple-device charger

Anker 735 charger (GaNPrime 65W)

You can charge all the tech I've mentioned in this article with this Anker 735 charging brick. I was constantly looking for outlets at once in school when I should've just used this. There are two USB-C ports and a USB-A port, meaning you can charge three devices at once. It's a game-changer.

$6 at Amazon

Easy-access to your key to everything (including your student ID)

Life-Mate Badge Holder

Aside from a laptop, this $7 Life-Mate Badge Holder may be the most important thing you buy for school. In college, my student ID was my key to everything -- dorms, dining halls, libraries, you name it -- so I needed easy access to it. Having it on a lanyard like this is what worked best for me.

$22 at Amazon

Excellent value backpack

Matein backpack

I've used this Matein backpack for over six months and it's maintained its shape and has lots of pockets, which I love. Another cool feature? It can act as a charger. Start by plugging the backpack's internal USB-A cable into a power bank. Then plug another USB-A cable into the backpack's external USB port and you can start juicing your devices up. This backpack lists for $40 but I've seen it as low as $24 at retailers like Amazon, which is amazing.