Laptop Memory for College: What Is RAM and How Much Do You Need

Technology and computer concept. On the black surface lies RAM and an arrow with the inscription - Memory
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If you are anything like me, when buying a laptop for college, you may be overwhelmed by all the technical jargon. I had no idea how much laptop memory I needed for college. Luckily, when you break it down, it is not as complicated as it seems.

For most college students, 8 GB of RAM is recommended. Students should not go below 8 GB. However, if the student will do a lot of data processing, online gaming, video editing, or graphic design, 16 GB is recommended. 

Let’s break down what RAM is and how much RAM (memory) students need on their laptops for college.

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Laptop memory vs. laptop storage

Memory and storage are often used interchangeably, but they are actually two different things. 

Laptop memory is its RAM—this is its short-term memory that determines how many programs can run simultaneously. Laptop storage is where your computer stores the files that need to be saved but not accessed immediately.

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What is RAM?

RAM stands for random access memory. It is your laptop’s short-term memory. This memory clears when you turn off your laptop. 

When you open a program, it moves to RAM so you can access it quickly. The RAM stores the data—therefore, each program takes up RAM. 

For example: 

  • Tom’s GuideOpens in a new tab. found Google Chrome uses 1.8 GB of RAM if you have 20 tabs open
  • Microsoft OfficeOpens in a new tab. says it requires 1-2 GB of RAM 
  • ZoomOpens in a new tab. says it requires 4 GB of RAM 

The amount of RAM determines how many programs (or tabs) your laptop can run at once without slowing down. 

If you run multiple programs or software at once, you are using larger amounts of RAM. If you don’t have enough RAM to run these programs at once, your laptop will run more slowly or start to lag.

However, more RAM doesn’t necessarily mean your computer will be faster. If you aren’t using the RAM you currently have, buying a laptop with more RAM won’t speed up your computer and will be costly.

You may be able to change the amount of RAM your laptop has, but since many laptops have the RAM secured to the motherboard, it can be hard to upgrade, and it may be more practical to buy a new laptop, so it makes sense to buy a laptop with enough RAM from the start. 

How much laptop memory (RAM) is needed for a college student?

Most laptops and tablets today have between 2 GB-64 GB of RAM. 

The amount of RAM a student needs on their laptop depends on how they will use it.

8 GB of RAM is the sweet spot for college students.

Students should not get a laptop with less than 8 GB of RAM. Most students do not need more than 8 GB of RAM, but if the student does a lot of data processing, video editing, graphic design, or gaming, they should err on the side of safety and get 16 GB of RAM.

Let’s look at when you need 4 GB, 8 GB, or 16GB of RAM.

Is 4GB of RAM enough for a college student?

4 GB of RAM is not recommended for college students. If students will only be on Google and reading/writing texts on an editor like Word or Google Docs, then 4 GB is enough. However, if the student has multiple tabs open or streams video or music while working, they need at least 8 GB of RAM.

4 GB of RAM is the bare minimum and is not enough to multitask. If you are anything like me, you will want to have 10 tabs open, 4 documents, and a PowerPoint or spreadsheet while watching Netflix. To do this, you need more than 4 GB of RAM. 

Most schools recommend at least 8 GB of RAM. For online students, I would make this a requirement since you will be doing video calls, proctored exams, etc… where you want to make sure that they can stream while you have your notes, assignments, and class modules open. 

If you already have a laptop with 4GB of RAM, you can continue to use it, but you may run into problems if you have to run multiple programs and you need to upgrade later. 

For students looking to buy a new laptop, save yourself the trouble and buy a laptop with 8GB of RAM.

Is 8GB of RAM enough for a college student?

In general, 8 GB of RAM is recommended for a college student—this is enough for all schoolwork, including writing essays, taking tests, checking email, etc. Most students will be fine and able to multitask with 8 GB of RAM. For the money, 8 GB of RAM is the best deal for students.

Depending on your level of multitasking (how many different programs and tabs you have open at once), you may start to notice slower speeds with 8GB, but in general, you should be fine.

If you have an SSD for storage, then 8 GB of RAM should be plenty since it has virtual RAM that can be used if you run out of RAM. This should mean that you won’t see any slower speeds.

Learn more about Laptop Storage for College—Types of Storage & How Much You NeedOpens in a new tab..

I used two different laptops with 8 GB of RAM while getting my degree online, and they both worked great. I absolutely love my Mac with 8 GB of RAM.

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However, you should consider getting 16 GB of RAM if you do extensive multitasking, are an engineering/math/business student that will process a lot of data, a computer programmer, a graphic design or architect major that will deal with a lot of graphics, or a film student that will do video editing.

Is 8GB RAM enough for the next 5 years?

As time passes, programs require more RAM. While 8 GB is enough for now, if you want to keep your laptop for a long time (especially post-college or for a graduate degree), buy at least 16 GB of RAM. 

Is 16GB RAM enough for a college student?

A laptop with 16 GB of RAM is enough for college students. Students can rest assured that they will have plenty of RAM for the tasks and multitasking that they need to do and that it will be enough RAM to last them throughout college.

If you can afford 16GB of RAM, then this is what I would recommend.

How to determine how much laptop memory you need for college

Now that you know what RAM is and when you would need more, you need to determine how much RAM you think you need. 

Ask your college

Check your school’s website for technical requirements, or ask your advisor or tech department how much RAM they recommend. 

Understand what programs you will be using

As we stated above, how much memory you need will depend on how you use your laptop and what programs you use. To help you decide how much RAM you need, figure out what programs you will use.

Will you be processing data, editing video, doing graphic design, or using photoshop? Will you be playing video games? If so, you will want at least 8 GB of RAM or 16 GB if you can afford it.

Go to a tech store

If you still don’t feel comfortable making the decision yourself, you can go to a tech store (like Best Buy) and talk to the employees to ask what they recommend. 

My mom did this when she first bought me a laptop for school. They made it easier for her and coached her through it, and I ended up with a great laptop!

Now that you know how much laptop memory to get for college, check out our other tech posts: The Basics of How to Use Zoom for Online ClassesOpens in a new tab..

My favorite products for your laptop

Thank you for reading this article—I hope you found it helpful! Here are some of my favorite products for your laptop that I hope you’ll also find helpful.

External drive: Back up your laptop with an external drive. I have used Seagate drives Opens in a new tab.for many years, and their drives are great quality, and their customer support is very helpful!

Lap desk: Lap desksOpens in a new tab. make it easier to use your laptop anywhere, including your couch or bed.

Cleaning brush for electronics: Use a brush to clean electronics to keep your laptop clean.

Travelings case and/or bag: A protective laptop case Opens in a new a hard case that keeps your laptop safe when you are carrying it or traveling with it. Another way to carry around your laptop is with a laptop backpackOpens in a new tab. or over-the-shoulder laptop bagOpens in a new tab.. Use one (or even better, both) to protect your laptop when on the go.

To see all of my most up-to-date recommendations for tools and products for students, check out this resourceOpens in a new tab. that I made for you!

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