When I first started living on campus as a freshman, I was still carrying the same lumpy backpack from when I was taking several AP classes in high school--in other words, my backpack could have fit two medium-sized dogs and probably your baby brother. With my classes spaced out over the week, I didn't have to carry as many textbooks, and I saw a lot of students toting around cute bags. It took a lot of experimentation to figure out what I liked, especially since I didn't know where to start.
What to Keep in Mind While Choosing a Bag
How much can it hold? Do you plan on carrying a lot? If so, watch out for chain straps or straps that hang on a ring for support. Try not to overstuff your bag. I've had straps snap on me in between classes. Fortunately the bag was supported by two straps instead of just one.
Is it compatible with your wardrobe? For the maximum amount of compatibility, you can go with a neutral color like tan, black, brown, or gray. But if you want to live a little and embrace color (colored bags are so fun!), then try a bag that goes with a lot of the clothes you have in your closet.
Do you want a bag that can stand on its own like a briefcase or satchel or a more flowy, bohemian bag? Structured bags look slightly more formal and classic than un-structured bags, but either style can go well with many outfits depending on your personal style.
Do you need a waterproof bag? If so, you're going to have to pass up on that bare canvas. Are you looking for an environmentally sustainable tote? Look into natural fibers like cotton, canvas, and hemp. You probably see a lot of canvas tote bags around campus. Different materials evoke different levels of formality. On a range of casual to formal, I would put them as: paper/reused materials, canvas, cotton, polyester, PVC/vinyl, fake leather, leather, sequins all over. This is just a generalization though, since it also depends on the style that the bag is made into.
Do you prefer to just toss all your stuff into one pocket and go, or do you need to organize your stuff with zippers and pockets?
Straps, Zippers, Magnetic/Snap Buttons
How do you want your flaps to close? Once I bought a bag with adorable straps, but it ended up being a pain to close every time. At some point I just yanked the flap open and stuffed things in. I should have made sure that it was closed with zippers not straps. Go for zippers and snap buttons, unless you're imbued with infinite patience...during the rush between classes.
Here's an overview of the basic styles of book bags and how they're great (and not so great
Tote Bag, Shoulder Bag
A very common type to see on campus and everywhere else. The tote is great for showing off your pop culture love with graphic prints and stuff, or you can go classy with a (faux) leather bag in an eye-popping color. Totes are great for when you have so much stuff that YOU WANT TO STUFF IT ALL IN. However, it's not so great for carrying extremely heavy loads because all the weight is placed on one shoulder. Carrying heavy loads unevenly for extended periods of time can lead to back problems.
Messenger Bag, Satchel, Crossbody
Slung over one shoulder, the strap hangs across your chest and the bag itself lies at your hip. This is good for distributing a large amount of weight, but ultimately you are still relying on one strap. If you ride your bike across campus, messenger bags are a good option because the bag stays put while you pedal, as opposed to struggling to balance a slipping tote bag on your shoulders as you bike. Downside: if you have breasts, the straps can look awkward cutting in between your sisters.
Backpacks have been getting cuter over the past decade. Sometimes you really can't help those days when you have a full schedule of classes. That's when a trusty backpack comes in handy. Jansport has a lot of bucket-sized backpacks if you're carrying around two chem books and an overstuffed binder along with a jacket. The cute backpacks tend to hold fewer things, so if you're ordering backpacks online, it's important to look at the dimensions of the bag to make sure it can hold a notebook and your other stuff. The downsides: having to take it off to get your stuff out, and a sweaty back (if you're prone to back acne).
Are you reading this and going like, Screw all this; I'm skipping the bag altogether? If you only have one class that's 5 minutes away from your dorm, then you can zip some pens up, scoop up your books, and dash. I think that everyone should have a wristlet if they live on campus, especially since some jean pockets tend to be either nonexistent or way too small to hold a smartphone. Sometimes you just want to go downstairs and eat without lugging around a giant bag with you.
A lot of us have bought bags, but if you're in the mood to shell out cash for one good bag that you can depend on for the year, keep these things in mind as you pick the right shape and style to use.