Back-to-school shopping is its own special kind of shopping beast. Everyone is after the same thing—the same pens, the same binders, the same notebooks—so by the time you hit the stores with the list of things your teachers said to get, you see a lot of empty shelves. But before you head off to clean Target out of its Mead stock, think carefully: When was the last time you used every single thing you thought you needed at the start of the school year?
If you’re like most students, you may still be waiting for that to happen. For every useful notebook or folder you think you need or your teacher says to get, you’re bound to pick up some you’re bound to barely, if ever, use.
Of course, it’s hard to specify who needs what for every single class they take, so these duds may not apply to everyone. But these are the school supplies kids rarely end up using during the school year, according to high schoolers.
1. Too many notebooks can weigh down your backpack
A notebook or binder (and sometimes both) is the backbone of many students’ start-of-the-school-year shopping list. But Nashley, a rising senior, has had enough. She resents the “dramatic” amounts of notebooks and binders teachers say to get at the start of every year—which makes sense if you consider that, if you get a binder and notebook for every single class you’re enrolled in, that adds up to a dozen (give or take) total paper-filled products—and a very heavy backpack. You will need something to write in, of course, but choose one slim binder or notebook per class, and consider a two-subject notebook for classes you have back-to-back.
Nashley does, however, like using highlighters when she studies. “They help me analyze the main points I need to focus on with my assignments," she says.
2. Binders aren’t that portable, either
Joe, a rising senior, thinks binders are overhyped and bulky. Instead, he prefers to use flat, color-coded folders. “I’m always told to get three-inch binders but I find it takes up too much space,” he says. “In the end, color-coded folders work better and are better for space, too.”
He also likes to have a set of mechanical pencils on hand to make taking notes easier. “This way, I don’t have to constantly sharpen my pencil,” he says. If you want to get extra-organized, get a pencil pouch to keep the pencils in.
3. Flashcards aren’t as useful as some teachers think
Many people use index cards as a tool for reviewing material before exams—but they’re not for everyone.
Miranda, a rising junior, says she and her classmates are “often” told to buy things at the start of the school year that they don’t need, but what she almost never uses are flashcards. “It’s not how I prefer to study,” she says. “But it’s still something teachers recommend we get every year.”
What she does like is a “random” planner she picked up from Target, which she uses to keep track of homework and due dates. (Otherwise, she says, it would be difficult to keep everything straight.) Some schools give out agendas for free at the start of the year, but if yours doesn’t, make like Miranda and head to Target. There, you’ll find several great options from brands like Moleskine and The Time Factory.
If you want a planner with a lot of bells and whistles, get a Bando planner, which comes with a ribbon to mark your spot in the year, a pouch to stick things in, and a pack of stickers to spruce up the otherwise dull task of writing down assignments.
4. Even if you like flashcards, you don't need to buy paper
In case you needed more anti-index card sentiment: Hailey, a rising sophomore in the Boston area, also says those 3-by-5 inch sheets of heavy paper don’t bring her joy—mainly because her iPad does everything they do, and more (and better).
Instead, she installs flashcard apps on her iPad, like Flashcards+ and StudyBlue, that take the place of index cards—you type the information in and either print the cards out or use them right on the screen (a finger-tap flips them over). It’s convenient, because all her textbooks are on the iPad as well. “It's a one-stop shop for assignments, submitting projects or homework assignments, and study guides,” she says.
5. Notebook paper might be provided by your teachers
Loose-leaf paper is sold by the baleful (metaphorically speaking) at the start of the school year. But Rebecca, a rising junior, doesn’t think it’s a true necessity. “I’m always told by some teachers to get loose-leaf paper,” she says. “But they always give out pieces of paper for us to take notes on.” Not all teachers will have such a loose policy for loose-leaf, but it’s something to consider before buying a couple hundred sheets and heading to school.
Something your teacher might not have on hand for everyone in the class is a graphing calculator, which Rebecca says has been one of her best investments thus far. “My most useful purchase was probably my graphing calculator because I use it in math and science,” she says. Most high school classes require a Texas Instruments TI-83 or TI-84, but check with your teacher to see which one you should get.
6. Glue sticks should be left in elementary school
Nick, a rising sophomore, says to leave the Elmer’s glue sticks on the shelves, even if they were once a backpack staple for you. After all, the number of cutout hand turkeys and paste-the-states maps one produces is reduced (tragically) upon matriculating in high school. “In elementary school, I used to use a lot of glue but nowadays in high school we rarely use it,” he says. “And when we need it, the teacher has some.”
Something a high schooler does need in high supply? Folders, and a strategy for using them. “Something that was useful for me was the folders because it keeps things organized for me so I can keep track of what needs to be done,” Nick says.
There are many ways to use a folder, but when I was in high school, I liked to get one for each class and use one side for ongoing assignments and the other for current materials or assignments I'd gotten back. To prevent them from getting overloaded, I'd clean them out every two weeks or so and keep anything I'd need later to study for the final in a separate folder at home.
7. Wite-Out doesn’t cover up mistakes that well
Dean, a rising junior, says his teachers often ask students to get Wite-Out so they don't have a “bunch of mistakes on their papers” in which they need pens, like essay sections on exams. But he finds Wite-Out messy and hard to use, instead preferring erasable pens. This way, he gets credit for using a pen when he’s supposed to, but can still correct errors without scribbling things out or dribbling White-Out on his papers.
Prices are accurate at the time this article was published, but may change over time.