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Back to School Shopping – Bags for College


College Girl Holding A Black Tote Bag
Photo by Herwordskill

If you’re starting college for the first time in the fall, or are just returning for another year at your current university, you’re probably going to need a new book bag for the year.

But what kind of bag is the right choice for you?

College girls face different challenges than most people when it comes to shopping for a bag – you want something that’s strong, can hold all of your books, doesn’t hurt your shoulder, and still looks cute! That’s a lot of criteria to meet!

Also, there are so many different types of bags!

From the typical backpack to the designer tote bag, which should you choose? Is a messenger bag right for you, or do you just need something cute to carry a few notebooks in?

There are many pro’s and con’s to each of the types of bags, and I’m here to help you decide which one is right for you. I’ll also show you some inexpensive college bags to make sure you score a fabulous bag without spending too much!

Tote Bags

Marc Jacobs Tote Bag - Black and Pink
Tote Bag by Marc Jacobs

Tote bags are probably the most popular type of school bag among college girls, because they’re both cute and functional.

While tote bags are undeniably popular and adorable, they aren’t the right choice for everyone. I’m talking in particular about those who ride their bikes to class or lead active lifestyles.

Pro’s of tote bags:

  • Tote bags are your cutest & most fashionable option in college bags (at least in my opinion). I personally carry a huge tote bag to class, and I can’t see myself carrying anything else. Granted, I am a big advocate of form over function, and don’t ride a bike or carry tons of stuff around.
  • There are lots of colors and styles to choose from. With tote bags, your possibilities are endless. You can go basic black leather, funky hot pink patent, glittering metallic, and everything in between!
  • You don’t just have to use them for school. Tote bags are great because you can wear them for many different occasions. You can bring a large, classic tote to class, work, and out at night, and can wear it with almost any outfit. Try doing that with a backpack!

Con’s of tote bags:

  • They may not be roomy enough. Totes can be problematic if you need to carry lots of stuff to class, or if you have one of those teachers that requires you to bring your textbook to every lecture. The fabric can sometimes rip with too much weight, and your shoulders can also get strained. No fun!
  • Tote bags are impractical if you ride your bike to class or walk a long distance. Your shoulder is going to hurt if you have too much stuff with you, and forget trying to make a tote bag work while riding a bike. It’s just not going to happen.
  • Most totes aren’t waterproof, and many don’t close at the top. This means that your stuff can get wet if you encounter a sudden rainstorm, which is obviously not a good thing. Of course, carrying an umbrella will solve this problem.

Cute Tote Bags For Any Budget

Now that you know the good and bad sides of carrying a tote bag to class, here are some of my picks for cute college totes that won’t break the bank.

For even more cute & classy tote bags, don’t forget to check out the College Fashion article 27 Cute College Bags For Any Budget!

Cute Tote Bags For College

From Left: Roxy Jenny Bag ($42), Liz Claiborne Astor Place Striped Leather Tote ($118.80), Fossil Geneva Tote ($128), Steven Simplicity Tote ($158), GUESS Tribal Shopper Tote ($114)

More Cute Tote Bags For College

From Left: American West Hippie Chic Tote ($202), O’Neill V.I.P. Bag ($52), The Sak Berkley Large Tote ($93), DC Erin W. Bag ($54), Roxy Sideways Tote ($44)

More Cute Tote Bags For College

From Left: Betseyville Sporty Girl Tote ($122), Jessica Simpson Pacha Quilt Large Tote ($122), Lucky Brand Bags Patchwork Tote ($145.80), Liz Claiborne Rocklin Patent Tote ($74), Nine West Ruched Hours Tote ($99)


The North Face Plaid Backpack

A backpack is probably the first thing that comes to mind when you think of carrying books, pens, and papers around for school.

I’m sure it was probably your high school staple, and for good reason – backpacks are a really easy way to carry everything you need with you all day. At the same time, once you get to college, it might be time for something a little more sophisticated.

Here are the pro’s and con’s of buying a backpack for college. Depending on your situation, it might still be the best choice for you.

Pro’s of backpacks:

  • They’re really spacious. Backpacks are the best possible way to carry everything you could ever need to class. If you’re the kind of girl who needs her books, laptop, 10 different types of pens, cell phone, water bottle, snacks, money, makeup, and more, definitely consider a backpack to fit it all.
  • Backpacks are usually waterproof, which comes in really handy when you have important things in your bag & encounter a sudden rain storm. A cloth tote bag won’t protect you in that case.
  • They can do double duty as luggage and/or a gym and laptop bag. This is great if you’re really active or travel a lot on weekends.
  • Backpacks are great for heavy items. It’s always easier to distribute the weight of three textbooks and a laptop on both arms and shoulders than to have it all on one arm. If you’re carrying a lot of heavy stuff, backpacks are the way to go.

Con’s of backpacks:

  • Backpacks are way less cute than tote bags. It’s just true, and it will always be the case. The purpose of a backpack is function, not fashion. Don’t get me wrong, you can find backpacks that are cute, but a backpack itself isn’t about making a fashion statement.
  • There are fewer fabric and color options to choose from. Most backpacks that are the right size & price don’t come in many styles. If you’re looking for something really unique in terms of style, I recommend a tote bag.
  • They’re a little too high school. Okay, I’ll admit it – I had an L.L. Bean backpack in HS (hey, at least it was metallic). I thought it was great back then… But once I got to college, there was no way in hell you could pay me to carry it again. There’s just something about a backpack that’s so junior-high in a very bad way.

Cute Backpacks For Any Budget

If you’re looking for a cute backpack, here are some of my picks for the nicest ones for college girls. Plaid and argyle are hot prints for fall, so go for a printed backpack to make a statement.

Also, most of these are very affordable, so they should fit with pretty much any budget!

Backpacks For College

Clockwise from top: JanSport Right Pack ($52), O’Neill Caliber Backpack ($41), Nike Core Large Backpack ($46), Dakine Prom Backpack ($46), Hurley Grad School Backpack ($38), The North Face Isabella Backpack ($73)

Messenger / Shoulder Bags

Lacoste Messenger Bag
Messenger Bag by Lacoste

Messenger bags and shoulder bags are a decent compromise between a backpack and a tote bag.

If you’re undecided between the two, and looking for some function with a bit of style, a messenger bag might be the perfect college bag for you!

Of course, there are good and bad sides to messenger bags as well:

Pro’s of messenger bags:

  • Organizer pockets. If you’re always losing your cell phone or scrambling for a pen in your cluttered handbag, you might want to consider a messenger bag for some extra organization. Most good ones have pockets for absolutely everything, a definite plus.
  • Messenger bags usually have sturdier material than a standard tote bag. They’re designed to carry lots of stuff, so you don’t have to worry about one too many textbooks ripping the material.
  • They look cuter than backpacks most of the time. This alone makes me like them. It’s a fashion site, so enough said.
  • They are made of waterproof material (sometimes). See the above discussion of tote bags for more on this. Sudden rainstorm, and no umbrella? You want your bag to keep water out.

Con’s of messenger bags:

  • They’re not as cute as a tote bag, not as functional as a backpack. If you’re going with something over-the-shoulder & you don’t need to carry all your books every day, you should probably just get a tote bag.
  • For carrying heavy stuff, you’re going to be better off with a backpack. Carrying all the weight on one shoulder can cause posture problems, which is never something you want to inflict on yourself.

Cute Messenger Bags For Any Budget:

Messenger bags can also fit with any price limit, and you can get some really cute ones for not too much money! Some of the options below are a little pricey, but most of them are inexpensive.

As a bonus, a few of the choices below also include special laptop holders and mini-bags to keep you extra-organized.

Messenger Bags For College

From Left: Lucky Brand Bags “Abbey Road” ($182), Columbia Graphic TG Bag ($41), OGIO Road Trip Messenger Bag ($56)

Shoulder Bags For College

From Left: Vera Bradley Messenger Bag ($56), Split Senior Messenger Bag ($45), Dakine Station Messenger Bag ($56)

Your Thoughts?

Now that you’ve had the chance to check out the three most popular types of college bags, what do you think? Which one is your favorite, and which are you going to be carrying this semester?

Take the poll below & be sure to leave a comment to tell everyone your opinion!

[poll id=”20″]

Posted on on July 29, 2008 / Filed Under: Shopping / Tags: , , , , , , ,

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44 Responses to “Back to School Shopping – Bags for College”

  1. 1
    July 29th, 2008 at 6:54 pm

    I personally alternate between a backpack, a messenger and just a purse.
    Backpack for back to back classes with heavy textbooks.
    Messenger for just a light textbook that I can carry in my hand and then notebook pens/supplies/whatever else.
    Just a purse for when I don’t need a textbook and just need a notebook that I can carry in hand.
    Or…sometimes it just depends on my outfit or my mood!

  2. 2
    July 29th, 2008 at 7:19 pm

    Thank you for this-fantastic article! They also have really great LL Bean tote bags-they’re cheap, amazingly sturdy (my mom has had one for years that she uses all the time that’s in perfect condition) and you can build you own with customizable colors and monograms. I’m madly in love with the Roxy Jenny tote bad you have up there-too bad it’s not big enough for my laptop!

  3. 3
    July 29th, 2008 at 8:26 pm

    Remember ages ago when there was an ‘it’ bag — like the Esprit bag? Or even in more recent years the two-toned Herve Chapelier bags? Nice to see your variety-something for everyone!

  4. 4
    July 29th, 2008 at 11:24 pm

    I never really liked backpacks but the totes and messenger bags are really cute! I personally find messenger bags to be the best because of their functionality AND attractiveness but that’s just me

  5. 5
    July 30th, 2008 at 1:08 am

    I think the best functional schoolbag of all is those traditional Japanese schoolbags, where it functions as a classic handbag/briefcase style, and it also has straps for a backpack. <- classic, genuine bag that they use in Japan. This is the only online store I’ve seen that sells the original design. I’ve seen also seen real leather and wood handled version of those bags, but I haven’t been able to find them online. <- zippered tote style and what it looks like to be quite a bit of room and compartments inside – fulfills your waterproof requirement, huh? XD

    There’s also a few more inspired-by ones, although I think they somewhat pale in comparison with the originals: <- leather backpack with a rounded design <- more of a messenger bag style, also leather

    Great article though! Just want to point out a different culture’s POV on this.

  6. 6
    July 30th, 2008 at 10:20 am

    I use a waterproof messenger bag when I don’t take my laptop to class, It keeps my lunch fresh, my books organized and it matches most of my clothes.

    When I take my laptop I take it in a special laptop bag which is really cute or in a laptop backpack which weighs more but is more waterproof than the other bag.

    I carry loads of stuff around and I’ve tried the tote and it works wonders too (I got an I <3 EC bag from the online shop), In it I’ve managed to carry my laptop, my books, my pencil case and my lunch.

    I just alternate among the three depending on the weather, my classes and the amount of time I’m going to be at school (I drive back and forth for an hour everyday to get to college).

  7. 7
    July 30th, 2008 at 10:22 am

    I am actually in love with using all three bags on campus, though I would say my messenger bag gets much less use. I find just carrying a bigger tote to be easier than that bag. Then again my laptop is TINY

    Last semester, for my smaller forum classes I carry a bigger tote that I shelled out a ton of money on freshman year (Coach) or a floral Vera Bradley. I have three classes that I have to bring two text books and my laptop to take notes on so I have no choice but to carry around my huge north face (plain, black, blah). The last one I use is something I found on sale from Lucky that is just a tan canvas messenger that I got for $15 my senior year in high school and two years later it is in perfect shape.

    I love these articles.

  8. 8
    July 30th, 2008 at 10:40 am

    Stephanie – That’s a good idea! I actually don’t own a backpack, but my boyfriend has one, and I sometimes steal his when I need to bring my laptop and some books somewhere. I should really just buy my own and alternate like you do.

    Aly – Ah! That’s too bad that it doesn’t fit your laptop. It is a cute bag though anyway!

    Tamra – Wow, esprit. You’re taking me back in time now!

    PavRav – Yeah, messengers aren’t bad. I think I’m just really obsessed with totes, so that’s a little of my bias in the article. They are a cute compromise though!

    Iris – Those bags are cute. Do most people in school in Japan carry those? The only things I really know about Japanese fashion come from Gwen Stefani’s take on it, and I’m sure that’s far from the normal reality there.

    Juls – Wow, an hour drive? I thought my 20-minute walk to class last semester was pushing it, but obviously that’s nothin!

    Jane – Ah, I totally forgot about Coach tote bags. They are really popular with a lot of college girls. I also like your idea of having multiple bags for different purposes. I think that’s the way to go because in college, you have so many different things you’re doing on any given day. You need to have flexibility with your bags!

  9. 9
    July 30th, 2008 at 11:39 am

    I usually go with either a tote or messenger, depending on what I’m wearing. And I must say the last time I wore a backpack was probably in Grade 3 – I understand why people do use them, I just can’t bring myself to ever do it – unless it’s the Fendi one, of course.
    LOVE the MJ tote and Lucky Brand messenger you featured by the way, great taste!

  10. 10
    July 30th, 2008 at 12:10 pm

    I honestly like totes, but I usually have tons of stuff to carry.

    I definitely would go for the Longchamp tote with the leather handles – probably in a colour that matches everything, like black. They’re around 100 dollars, but they’re worth it!

    I was wondering if you could find me a vintage, olive green messenger bag – not canvas, but more like army-inspired.

  11. 11
    July 30th, 2008 at 1:17 pm

    One thing to remember if you want to be able to use a cute bag at school–don’t get a super huge laptop. I went for the 17″ widescreen variety which was great for watching movies but TERRIBLE to lug around campus–I pretty much had to use a backpack. So think small for laptops if you want to carry a cute tote around!

  12. 12
    July 30th, 2008 at 2:13 pm

    These are really great, but i just purchased a North Face Backpack in pink, i think it is very functional and cute. Although after reading this i will most likley bring one of my cute totes for school as well and use it when i have a light schedule! But i agree for back-to-back classes im going to have to go with my super cute North Face Backpack!

  13. 13
    July 30th, 2008 at 4:53 pm

    I vote totes!

    I’ve used my LL Bean one (it’s a rugby striped one) almost everyday for the past 3 years and it’s still holding up durable, yet still cute. Plus, right now LL Bean’s doing 20% off on the original boat and tote bags (not sure when it ends), so you can go the extra mile and have yours monogrammed.

    However, I do keep the rugged backpack just in case I bring the laptop with me or have intro-level econ classes.

  14. 14
    July 30th, 2008 at 6:28 pm

    yes yes the whole straining thing is sooo true ! i carry a longchamp tote, very spacious but when it comes to carrying all your textbooks to school, my shoulder starts to strainnnnn. i sometimes switch to a messenger bag but also straining :( i cant carry backpacks cause i look like a turtle with it on >.< ill be sticking to my longchamp until it falls apart. boo heavy books :(

  15. 15
    July 30th, 2008 at 8:30 pm

    There is this kind of bag that i use a lot when going to classes: <—- i have that kind of tote bag except its all Grey!!

    i’m planning to buy a different kind of tote bag (on days that i dont have to carry a lot around and the pics below shows what kind i want to get):

    i like to switch in between tote bags and shoulder bags haha bu never backpacks.

  16. 16
    July 31st, 2008 at 4:59 am

    i love this post! thank you!
    i’m kinda in-between totes and messengers
    something about messenger bags that i just can’t resist
    but totes are much cuter
    maybe i should just get both and alternate like the above said in the comments

  17. 17
    July 31st, 2008 at 12:06 pm

    Yep- Def in love with the plaid trend….Im still looking for the perfect shirt dress though – actually tough to find a quality piece that I like

  18. 18
    July 31st, 2008 at 5:19 pm

    Thank you! I fell in love with the Vera Bradley messenger bag at first sight and bought it yesterday!

  19. 19
    August 1st, 2008 at 2:32 pm

    a great new options for personalized bags.

  20. 20
    August 1st, 2008 at 2:35 pm

    We just received our new Build A….what an awesome site.

    You choose the bag, materials, colors, accessories and even embroidery.

    we just bought another for back to school

  21. 21
    August 3rd, 2008 at 7:03 am

    Hey, :)
    Since I have to go by bike I use a backpack.Eastpak has some nice ones,and now for fall you can the authentic ones with check patterns.
    Also you can get them in basically every color.;233;2389,fromWhere=floatmenu
    (I love the leather and checks ones)

  22. 22
    August 3rd, 2008 at 7:55 pm

    The first picture that you used with the girl with the yellow hat and the black tote bag..

    I want a bag like that! Does anyone know where I can get one??? Thanks so much

    ps. right now I have a plaid roxy backpack but it is mainly brown with some turquoise plaid.. that isnt explained very well but it is cute and I will probably have to ride my bike so I may just stick with it.

  23. 23
    August 4th, 2008 at 4:07 am

    Thank you for this article!! I’ve been wondering about what type of bag I’d need for college and now I’ve finally made up my mind. Tote bag all the way, but I’ll definitely be bringing a backpack just in case. Thank you so much!!

  24. 24
    August 8th, 2008 at 10:27 am ROCKS!

  25. 25
    August 8th, 2008 at 11:00 am

    What about cute laptop bags?! You can buy them in colors other than black, in styles that aren’t over-functional-looking, and spacious enough to fit a book or two.

    This one is cute:
    eBags has a bunch, you just have to sort through a little bit.

  26. 26
    August 14th, 2008 at 11:29 am

    heyy your article iz greattt! =) im actuali in mi last of hs nd im wonderin if using a backpack iz tha best/most fashionable thing to do as a highschooler?

  27. 27
    August 23rd, 2008 at 11:56 pm

    great post! i sorta use a combination of all ur ideas..i have a tote bag, a large purse, and i just got a plaid Dakine backpack that fits laptops

  28. 28
    June 8th, 2009 at 2:54 am

    i like your article. really helped me a lot in my decision. && it’s gonna be a tote bag. =D

  29. 29
    June 29th, 2009 at 10:10 am

    My best is tote bags !

  30. 30
    August 28th, 2009 at 4:36 am

    Hi there, thank you very much for this very useful article. I’m sure upcoming students who still can’t find the perfect college bag will take your tips in mind. A special thank you to the pro’s and con’s that you have presented. By the way, I mentioned you in my blog. Hope you don’t mind :-)

    Keep writing!

  31. 31
    September 21st, 2009 at 1:33 am

    I go for tote bag, since all I take to class is a 1.5 inch binder and up to one textbook. I spread my work so that I do the text stuff at home, and I thankfully don’t have teachers that demand taking textbooks.

    I never knew backpacks could come that pretty, though. :D

  32. 32
    September 23rd, 2009 at 3:02 am

    where can i purchase the Dakine Station Messenger Bag. I been trying to purchase it but the link that it sends me to does not have it. Please respond asap

  33. 33
    November 17th, 2009 at 10:59 pm

    Being a science education major is a tad hectic, so even when I used my sorority tote bag, I always ended up carrying textbooks which was a major bummer. So, my “middle ground” was getting a really cute North Face backpack (for under $75) and a Coach wristlet ($48) to keep my phone, wallet, keys, and chapstick in. It’s definitely a more affordable option than the coach purse that I fell in love with, but was $300!

  34. 34
    May 9th, 2010 at 10:46 am

    I usually carry a bag that looks like a cute leather tote from the outside, but inside has a padded compartment for my laptop. I also have an adorable cloth bowling bag from Apple & Bee that I bring when I need my heaviest textbook (maybe once every two weeks).

  35. 35
    July 12th, 2010 at 1:13 am

    Think another really good bag would be a hobo bag because it’s huge, in some cases it’s made to be durable depending on what type you get. And they come in a kinds of fun colors and prints. Usually on a hobo the handle is also very durable.

  36. 36
    August 19th, 2010 at 4:07 am

    I love this article! (:

    I love carrying big tote bags, but my problem with it is that when I put a lot of small things in it, everything gets mixed up and lost, so when I try to reach for, say, my wallet inside, it gets lost among my other stuff (e.g: I put my daily planner, small hand sanitizer, ipod, phone, etc in my big bag). I also use the little zippers, but they get full since I have a lot of small stuff =X
    Do you have any suggestions/tips on how to organize a big tote bag (with not that many compartments)?
    Thank you!

  37. 37
    September 18th, 2010 at 2:49 am

    Try getting small wallets and change purse and make up bags. Those are some small solutions.

  38. 38
    August 20th, 2011 at 10:54 am

    I have to take a backpack. I live off campus and take the city bus each day. The backpack means I can bring everything with me while also keeping it secure. Tote bags are way to easy for someone to steal from on a busy bus and while I love messenger bags, they put too much strain on my shoulder and neck with the amount of books I have. Sometime, practicality will always win.

  39. 39
    October 4th, 2011 at 12:14 am

    I take a tote bag to school & I finally found this cute tote bag that looks so good but it was $4 & made from recycled bottles, environmentally friendly! I couldn’t buy any other bag b/c my mom gets tons of bags for free from make up I could use, but none of them were right for me except one of them, until now with the $4 tote that has long handles.

    The problem was it was wide so I thought it’d look odd wearing it across the shoulder(I can’t carry it on 1 shoulder), until I made it into a drawstring bag by knitting(& poking tiny holes around the edge of it). My shoulders really hurt & I read a backpack is the best way to carry heavy books because it uses the strongest muscles, your back. So I fascened 2 paper clips(twisted them so they stay tight) on the bottom & pulled the straps down into it so I could turn it into a mini backpack(it looks soo good even with my rough alterations) & I can turn it back into a should bag too. I use the mini backpack for my heavy books so I don’t strain my shoulders.

    My point is, they should make verstile tote bags like that that can be turned into mini backpacks as well with adjustments of straps. All bags are designed for some functionality inside while keeping fashion, why can’t they do that for the outside. We shouldn’t have to chose between fashion & functionality, not when people can develope shoulder problems & other health problems.

    And that brings me to the over the should 1 strap backpack. I love those with their style, but I wish they could keep that style but make it 2 shoulder straps somehow. Because that has a messenger style bag over-the-shoulder strap & So I think it is bad for your shoulders too..

  40. 40
    January 18th, 2012 at 8:07 pm tryng to search one :( ..i have a backpack(school) ,,,a purse .and i want to take my camera wich as also a backpack…and im tryng to search a tote or a messenger bag for my school backpack to put my book and to put my make up and little thing on it…

  41. 41
    January 30th, 2012 at 3:53 pm

    I alternate between a backpack and a messenger bag. I always used a backpack because of shoulder problems and I use them on days that I have more than 2 classes. I really like the bags that Dakine make. They have a variety of bags (from handbags to backpacks).

  42. 42
    February 15th, 2012 at 7:53 pm

    It is really hard to find a simple bag that will carry a lot of stuff.

  43. 43
    June 11th, 2012 at 5:51 am

    hmmmmm…….really liked the id card holder

  44. 44
    August 10th, 2014 at 4:53 pm

    Ummmmmmm I love these bags

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