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Free Apps You Need to Download Before Starting College

These apps won't be on a regular back-to-school list, but they're time-tested and essential for first-year students.

This story is part of Gift Guide, our year-round collection of the best gift ideas.

There are a lot of things first-year college students are told they need to buy before starting college: dorm furnishings, textbooks, laptops and other devices, and more. While these things might make the transition to college easier, there are some digital must-haves that rarely make college packing lists.

Based on my own college experience, and aided by some informal crowdsourcing on Slack, these are the apps that are essential for students to be prepared and successful. And in true college fashion, all of them are free to download and will help students save time and money.

Taylor Martin/CNET

Google Calendar

Or another digital calendar or planner

Having a reliable calendar or planner is an absolute necessity for all college students. There's always so much happening, especially in the first few weeks of the semester, and you'll need a way to organize class schedules, due dates, club meetings and other events. After years of using a paper planner, I finally converted to a Google calendar last year and haven't looked back since. Google Calendar is my preferred program because it's easy to access from multiple devices, can be color coordinated and it's simple to use and update.

James Martin/CNET

Budgeting apps

For managing money

If this is your first time living away from home or managing your own finances, you'll need a budgeting app to plan your financial decisions. Even after you've paid tuition and bought textbooks, there are other expenses you'll want to plan for. Some banks offer customizable budgeting services but other apps, such as Mint, work for everyone. CNET put together a list of the best budgeting apps for 2022 to help get you started. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Unidays Student Discount App

For student savings

If there's one thing all college students can appreciate, it's a discount. Unidays compiles different deals, promo codes and savings across hundreds of brands online and in-store. The savings are available to anyone with a student email.

Sarah Tew/CNET


For sending and receiving payments

Having a Venmo account is absolutely essential for splitting bills and costs with friends. Especially if you are living off campus, you'll need a cash-free, secure way to send payments to the people you're living with. Get an account set up and secured in advance so it's less of a headache later.

Patrick Holland/CNET

Pomodoro Focus productivity timer

For better study habits

Making the transition from a high school course load to college requirements can be difficult. Having a digital productivity timer can help students improve studying habits. The Pomodoro Focus Timer for iOS follows the Pomodoro time management method, with 25-minute timers for focused work, followed by a 5-minute break. After four sets, you get a longer break to reset your mental focus. This particular app tracks your study time and offers a variety of white-noise recordings to help keep you focused.

Sarah Tew/CNET


For class communications

GroupMe is an alternative messaging platform that many college classes use to create group chats. Often at the beginning of the semester, one student will create a chat for the whole class and email a link that will automatically add pre-existing GroupMe users to the chat. It's a great way to keep up with classmates without having to give out your personal phone number. It also has a helpful mute function for class group chats that can get notification-heavy.

James Martin/CNET

Transportation apps: Uber/Lyft

For getting around town

Finding your way around a new college campus and town can feel daunting. It's a good idea to set up an Uber or Lyft account before starting school, so it's ready for you to use whenever you might need it. 

Keep in mind that many colleges have digital campus maps you can either get through a university web-based app or a traditional app. These tend to be more accurate and have better landmarks and direction than Apple or Google Maps. Some cities also have dedicated apps for the town or university's bus routes -- TransLoc is a popular one. 

Katelyn Chedraoui/CNET

1 Second Everyday

For capturing everyday life

It is such a cliché to say, but it is unfortunately true: college goes by fast. 1 Second Everyday urges you to take a 1-second video every day, then at the end of every year it creates a movie of all your days. It's an easy and fun way to capture the college experience, even the days that seem too mundane to record. I've been doing this for about six months now, and it's such a great way to develop appreciation for all the good, small moments in life.

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