The Best School Supplies for Back to School: Reviews by Wirecutter

Photo: Katie Hausenbauer-Koster

Spiral notebook

Our pick

Mead Five Star

After subjecting a selection of the most popular notebooks to everyday writing as well as heavy abuse (such as throwing them down stairs and soaking them in water), we recommend the Mead Five Star as the perfect choice for an affordable, single-subject spiral-bound notebook—we’ve seen it at a wide variety of prices, and if you can grab it for less than $5, it’s worth the cost.

The Five Star notebook has some of the best paper we found at this price. You can write smoothly and crisply using an array of pens and pencils, with minimal bleed-through with all but the wettest of inks. Its hefty spiral binding survived repeated drop tests. And since it’s both perforated and hole punched, you can easily remove clean-edged pages or snap the whole thing into a binder. Combine all of those features with a plastic cover and pocket, and the Five Star is the best you can get for the money. If you’re looking for something a little more affordable (especially if you find it on sale), the basic Mead Spiral has similar paper quality without the bonuses. —TB

Also great

Black n' Red Wirebound Notebook

If, however, you’d prefer an even nicer writing surface, the Black n’ Red Wirebound Notebook offers a heavier-weight, premium paper for a better writing experience. It has a smoother surface, which allows for faster writing, and it uses higher-quality paper that creates less feathering and bleed-through. The double spiral binding is nice and tough, and the rubber-band enclosure helps keep everything in snugly. Thanks to the larger and tougher cover, this notebook survived our dunk test better than most. The only drawback is that it isn’t hole-punched, and when you tear out the pages they almost always detach along the binding, not on the perforation. —TB

Our pick

Black n' Red Hardcover Executive Notebook

If you’ve never used a high-end notebook, you might balk at paying between $7 to $20 for something to scribble notes in. But boosting paper quality does more than simply massage the egos of stationery nerds. The pages are dense and smooth, so your pen moves more quickly, letting you take notes faster. Your ink is also less likely to skip, smudge, or feather, so your notes will be more legible. Plus, the pages just feel better to write on. A European-manufactured book will be pretty good, generally speaking, but in particular Black n’ Red notebooks are widely available and an excellent value, as they’re typically priced below other European notebooks with similar qualities.

The Black n’ Red Hardcover Executive Notebook, which holds 192 pages of 90-grams-per-square-meter paper, has a sturdy cover that protects the pages from backpack drops and impacts, and during our dunk tests it helped to keep the pages dry. Even difficult pens like Sharpies put down a clean line, while ballpoints feel ludicrously smooth on this paper, and our much-loved Jetstream is a joy to use. Both covers are packed with information and special fields, too, and the Executive Notebook also comes with a bookmark.—TB

Composition book

Also great

Norcom Composition Book

Among traditional composition books, those made by either Norcom or Tops are all but identical, so get whichever one is cheaper where you shop. At Amazon right now, that’s Norcom. Both books are very smooth to write on, with paper that’s nice and flat—no warping or bubbling here. They’re great for use with a variety of pens and inks, everything from cheap BiC pens to our Jetstream pick to a Sharpie.

If you feel the need for something a bit more ecologically friendly, the Decomposition Book is by far the best recycled-paper notebook we’ve found—plus it comes in an array of fantastic binding designs. While its sheets are rough compared with traditional paper, they are smoother than the pages of most other recycled-paper books. In our tests this book was surprisingly nice to write on, especially with fine-tip pens. The paper was fast to dry gel-pen ink, and it wasn’t too soft when we pushed down while writing. That said, it feathered pretty badly when we used soft-tip pens like Sharpies, and in our dunk tests it soaked up more water than just about anything else.

Also great

Rhodia Staplebound Orange Lined Notebook

Looking for something a little simpler? The Rhodia Staplebound Orange Lined Notebook goes for about the same price as the Black n’ Red. It doesn’t have as many pages, and the paper isn’t quite as high-quality, but writing on it is still fantastic. The Rhodia notebook is thinner and lighter, too, and its corners are rounded. Next to other notebooks, it’s a lot lighter and generally more svelte, which is convenient if you want it for just one subject. If you like using pencils or if you tend to write very small, you’ll appreciate the fact that the Rhodia’s ruled lines are lighter in color than the Black n’ Red’s, so your writing will be less obscured.—TB

Binder paper

Our pick

Sparco College Ruled

After four hours of research and testing, and writing on and abusing nine different pads of paper, the best binder refill for you to scribble your notes in is Sparco College Ruled. It’s the smoothest paper we tested, which means your pen or pencil will move more quickly across the page compared to rougher papers, like Target Up&Up or Tops. Its smooth texture has almost no feathering or bleedthrough (unless you use permanent marker, which you shouldn’t). This couldn’t be said for paper from Staples, which was one of the worst we tested for both. Its price is solidly average, and its bright white color will make your notes stand out clearly when you’re revising them late at night.

As for the Sparco’s drawbacks, we didn’t like that the binding holes weren’t as strong as some others (it was able to lift 1.5 pounds of binder and paper to a height of around 10 inches before tearing). Sparco does sell a reinforced version, but it’s astronomically priced. Furthermore, while its smoothness feels great on pencils and ballpoint pens, it can cause some ink pooling if you use a fountain pen. But these are minor nits to pick with an otherwise excellent package of paper.

If you want something with tougher binding holes, we recommend the Office Depot Reinforced Filler Paper. While a bit more expensive, the reinforcement means that you can lift up your entire binder by a single sheet of paper and not worry about it breaking. This paper was almost as smooth as the Sparco, but slightly worse for bleedthrough. Like the Sparco, it’s bright white for easy reading, but it has lighter ruling lines, which are easier to read your writing against. The Office Depot regular paper is also very good, if you’re shopping there anyway: it’s almost as smooth as the Sparco, is marginally tougher, feathers less, but has darker lines than the reinforced version.

If you’re in a store that doesn’t stock Sparco or Office Depot products, want lighter lines than our main pick, or are tempted to use a fountain pen, both Mead and Mead Five Star papers are good options that are available in almost every shop in the country. They’re less smooth than either of the other picks, which is a bit better for fountain pens but worse for ballpoints and rollerballs; have very light rulings which are easier to read writing on; and the Mead Five Star was super tough in our rip testing, able to handle vigorous shaking without a tear. —TB

Three-ring binder

Our pick

Avery Heavy-Duty Binder

After researching 17 three-ring binders and testing 6, we recommend the Avery Heavy-Duty binder as a durable, easy-opening, and affordable choice for most students who need to keep papers, handouts, and other supplies organized. Its polypropylene cover is more durable than vinyl, which can crack or sag in fluctuating temperatures. And its single-lever D-ring mechanism opens and closes smoothly with one hand—even elementary school-aged kids should have no trouble with it. We greatly preferred this to the double-lever mechanisms found on the Target Up&Up and cheaper Avery Durable view binders, which require both hands and a bit more physical effort. We also prefer this D-ring style to round ring mechanisms because they hold more paper and keep the papers more neatly aligned on the right side, which makes them better for organizing school materials.

Office Depot’s Heavy Duty View binder and Wilson & Jones’s Ultra Duty D-Ring binder are virtually identical to the Avery Heavy-Duty. All three binders have covers made from stiff cardboard sealed between sheets of polypropylene, with clear plastic view sheets and four interior pocket sleeves. The single-lever D-ring mechanisms are identical as well (in fact, all the binders we tested featured ring hardware made by this company). But the Office Depot and Wilson & Jones binders cost several dollars more, depending on the color.

Also great

Staples Better View Binder

For a few more dollars, you can get the sturdier Staples Better View binder, which has some neat design features and comes in an array of colors. It was the only binder we tested that had a solid, semiflexible polypropylene cover, with rubberized seams and edge guards. This makes it a worthy upgrade if you or your student has a history of tearing through binders by mid-semester. Its single-lever D-ring mechanism was a tad harder to operate than the Avery, but it still opened and closed fairly smoothly. Inside, the binder has an envelope pocket made of clear plastic, with a button band closure. It holds about 100 sheets of paper, which is more than what could easily fit inside the pockets on the Avery. It’s also much easier to insert and remove labels on the spine of the Staples binder. Instead of slipping a label down the spine, as with the Avery and other binders, the Staples binder has a hard plastic window with a flexible tab that holds the label in place. —Courtney Schley

Sticky notes

Our pick

Highland Notes

After researching 14 popular products and testing six offerings from Highland, Office Depot, Redi-Tag, and 3M, we think that the best basic 3-by-3-inch sticky notes for the money are Highland Notes, which you can typically find for half the price of 3M’s category-leading Post-it Notes. Highland Notes stick effectively on a useful range of papers and surfaces, from printed books to loose-leaf paper to refrigerator doors, and they provide a pleasant surface for writing with pencil or pen.

That said, Highland Notes are available in a pretty limited range of colors and sizes compared with Post-it Notes, which offer a dizzying array of colors, sizes, and styles. If you need the most options, we advise picking up the Super Sticky variety of Post-its, available in a recycled version (which never hurts).

One piece of advice, whatever brand you choose: Avoid “pop-up” notes, which are glued accordion style, unless you plan to use a dispenser. Our testers and researchers concluded that the accordion fold simply got in the way of using the pad on its own, and such pads tended to unfurl when carried around in a book bag. —MB


Our pick

Swingline Compact LightTouch Reduced Effort Stapler

A stapler for school should be capable of stapling a lot of pages, yet light and small enough to carry along if you need to staple your assignment right before class. (It happens!) The Swingline Compact LightTouch Reduced Effort Stapler is the best portable stapler we tested: It isn’t much of a burden to carry in your bag (it weighs 1½ ounces), but it’s heavy-duty enough to staple most lengthy term papers.

We tested it against two less-expensive compact PaperPro staplers, the Evo and the StandOut. The Swingline had no trouble stapling 20 pages of copy paper, which neither PaperPro was capable of doing consistently. With some deformation of staples, the LightTouch proved capable of handling up to 40 pages—well beyond its 20-sheet rating, and impressive for any portable stapler. It’s also simple-to-use and quick. The “LightTouch” in its name refers to Swingline’s claim that the model “only needs half as much manual force as standard staplers,” and we did find that it worked with very little pressure. —JW

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