There’s a lot of advice out there about managing move-in day with your college freshman. We’ve gathered the best insider tips so you can not only survive but also savor this transition in your student’s life, and in your own.
One size doesn’t fit all
Just know that. It’s not so much about big vs. small campuses, local vs. distance moves, etc.
The real variables come from our personalities and family dynamics. You may find yourself fighting back tears all day, or you might not cry until you get home, or you might not cry period. Your student may be subdued and clingy, or they may dismiss you quickly. No matter how your emotions express themselves, they are large and new, for both of you.
Say a special goodbye at home
Move-in day is about your student and their new campus community. Your last special time together as a family can happen at home, beforehand.
Remember that your student is also saying goodbye to friends and sometimes a girlfriend or boyfriend. They may not be around much the last few days.
If possible, make sure younger siblings aren’t lost in the shuffle. Their lives are changing, too, and they may be way sadder than they appear.
Talk to your student ahead of time about move-in day and how it will unfold. Look at the schedule together so you agree about where and when “goodbye” will happen. This will help both of you feel more prepared for that moment.
Plan, pack, travel
Start with the college website and any written and electronic communications for first-year students. There will be lists of suggested items to bring to the dorm as well as lists of forbidden items. See our dorm shopping tips here.
Whether driving or flying, it’s ideal to arrive a day or more early if a hotel room fits your budget. This gives you time to pick up preordered items at Target or Bed Bath & Beyond, do other needed shopping, open a banking account, etc. It’s great not to feel rushed.
If you intend to add a day or two in the area after move-in, make sure you are doing this for yourself and not to linger near your student “just in case.” If they feel lonely and know you’re still nearby, they may want to be with you rather than engage in the welcome activities on campus.
When packing, keep in mind that you will need to unload quickly — things should be neatly consolidated (suitcases, boxes, plastic bins), easy to lift, and labeled. If using trash bags to pack, tie the bottoms and tie/tape the handles of hangers together.
Have all necessary start-of-school paperwork in a separate envelope or folder that’s easy to access.
Make sure your student also has: Driver’s license or passport, health insurance card, prescription information (if taking regular medications), banking information.
Discuss and sign a HIPAA (health information) release form; store scans on your phones or laptops. Find out more about HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) here. Your health care provider or insurance company should have release forms; they can be found online and often on the college website as well.
It’s a good idea for your student to photocopy all the cards in his/her wallet (front and back) and leave this at home with you in case of theft or loss.
If your student is separating from a serious boy/girl friend, you might gently suggest that they plan ahead for handling this, including deciding when and how to be in touch. A friend's son spent his whole move-in day texting his hometown g.f. and as a result missed out on a lot.
The day itself
Again, start with the college website and communications for first-year students. Many schools assign a move-in time as well as day. Arrive early during that time slot. Follow all instructions about parking, unloading, etc.
Dress comfortably and casually. A Swiss army knife and Lysol wipes may come in handy. I’ve seen advice to bring coffee and donuts as a way to connect with your student’s new hallmates…seems like more than most of us want to juggle. Chances are good there will be refreshments available, including bottled water.
Let your student lead the way, including talking with the roommate about who gets which bed, etc. Ask your student what you can do to help unpack in the room. Your student may be happy to have you make the bed, but don’t insist on this, or anything. It’s their space.
However, do take a photo or two of your student in front of the residence hall or in the dorm room. Family members who stayed home will want to see this!
Make a shopping list of anything you forgot that seems essential to have sooner rather than later. DO NOT STRESS ABOUT THIS. It's easy to order items online, or let your student take care of it with a walk into town to explore the local shops. My son’s college offered shuttles to Target the evening of move-in day.
If you overlap with the new roommate and parent(s), exchange phone numbers. This may only be for emergency purposes, but it’s nice to do. You may want to go out to dinner together at Family Weekend.
If there is programming for parents, plan to attend so you can ask any final questions plus begin developing your own connection to the college. If there is lunch on campus, you will want to walk over with other parents while the students go together.
When it’s time to leave — and typically this is built into the schedule by the college — leave. But first, take a long loving look at this face. Make the hug as long as you darn like. Your daughter or son is on the cusp of profound personal growth and in this moment of goodbye is someone you won’t quite meet again.
From a parent in New York: "Kids are nervous and it can cause them to be cranky. Remain calm and don't take anything they say too personally!"
Be kind to yourself
If you’re not ready to drive off, take a walk around campus or in town. Sit with a cup of coffee or tea at a spot that may become one of your student’s favorites.
Numerous friends have told me that, if this is your youngest or only child, it’s smart to take a detour on the way home. If work and family obligations permit, spend a few days doing something stimulating and fun, with or without a spouse or partner. Returning to the empty nest may not be quite as much of a jolt.
Did you fly out with your student and now you’re flying home solo? Pick the right book for the plane ride home! Tina Fey, Allie Brosh, David Sedaris… your favorite funny person. Have a friend meet you at the airport.
When you get home and see your student’s old high school track sweatshirt hanging on the coat rack, you will burst into tears (I did). Accept all the ways you feel right now — sad and possibly worried, but also thankful, proud and relieved (not to mention exhausted).
Your student's college life has begun...and you're starting an exciting new chapter, too.
Join Our College Parent Newsletter!
Get stories and expert advice on all things related to college and parenting.
Diane Schwemm is a writer and Managing Editor at CollegiateParent. She and her husband are parents of a college student and two recent graduates. In her off hours, she likes to read, hike and garden and, thanks to the influence of her family, appreciates ballet and basketball equally.