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Student Life

Here Comes Move-In Day!

Kimberly Yavorski

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The weeks leading up to your freshman leaving for college are a virtual amusement park (i.e., beyond just a roller coaster) of emotion and activity. Shopping and packing, paperwork and appointments, connecting with new roommates, saying goodbye to old friends…

Some students — and parents — embrace the chaos while others resist and procrastinate. To help you make it to (and beyond) move-in day with your sanity intact, here are eight things to prepare for and work on with your student, with special thanks to Patricia Hilkert, Director of New Student and Family Programs at Northwestern University, for insights into what makes a successful transition.

NOTE FOR 2021–22: The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will continues to impact campus life during the coming academic year. However, the basics of preparing to start college will stay the same. If you missed our list of "Summer Action Items for Incoming Students and Parents," be sure to review it here.

1. Get in the email habit.

Some colleges still send U.S. mail, but many are “green” and only communicate electronically — and with the student, not the parent. That means you need to ask your student for information or do your own sleuthing to find out what’s due when. (It may be an option for your student to grant you access to some areas of their student account; the school will tell you how to do this.)

Summer is a good time for your student to clean up old email accounts and get in the habit of checking their new college account daily. It can be tough to find a balance between helping and taking over — start by making sure they’re paying attention to action items from the school so they don’t miss deadlines for:

  • Accepting the final financial aid award. An offer of financial aid (typically some combination of grants, work-study and student loans) doesn’t make it official — the award must be accepted, by the student.
  • Course registration. Depending on the school, this will happen over the summer or at move-in. Students who register late may not get their preferred schedule.
  • Waiving the college health insurance plan (if your student will stay on your plan). Before waiving, learn more about the options for health care on campus.
  • Reviewing/paying the fall semester bill.

2. Collect and shop.

Colleges share suggested packing lists as well as a list of items not permitted in residence halls. Dorm rooms tend to be small and have limited storage, so less is definitely more. Not everything on the list is essential, and some items can be shared by roommates or purchased later if need be.

Check out this helpful shopping/packing advice:

Dorm Shopping Tips for Parents

3. Expect emotions to fluctuate.

As the summer progresses, try to ignore the attitude. Experts refer to the unpleasant behavior that can come with a large life change as “soiling the nest.”

Your child may cycle rapidly from happy and cooperative to sullen and argumentative. Remember that, though they may not want to admit it, this whole “going away to college” thing is scary. Soon they’ll be living in an unfamiliar place, and in some cases sharing a room for the first time with someone they've never met.

Cut them some slack, and give them some space. Respect their desire to spend time with high school friends rather than family (if social distancing permits). School calendars vary, so there will be lots of goodbyes starting in early August.

4. Teach independent living skills.

Think about the things you do for your child that in college they'll need to do for themselves. They should be competent in the following life skills areas:

  • Laundry (How much makes up a "normal" load? Hot or cold water? Folding and putting away is part of the process…)
  • Basic cooking skills
  • Basic cleaning skills (custodial staff will clean the bathroom and common areas but your student and their roommate will be responsible for their room)
  • Managing their bank balance and writing out a check
  • Making an appointment (by phone and online) and using their health insurance card
  • Using public transportation
  • Addressing and stamping a letter
  • Keeping personal documents and valuables safe

Don’t assume anything! Northwestern’s Patricia Hilkert has found that some students still come to school with no idea of how to do laundry and “expect student orientation leaders to teach them.” Not gonna happen.

5. Talk about keeping in touch.

While some parents and their college students are in contact daily, others touch base once a week or month. How often and what method of communication (phone, text, social media) do you expect will work best? You’re looking for a balance that you’re both comfortable with.

While you’re at it, make a note of their campus address so you can send an occasional card or care package (family members may ask for it, too).

Hilkert points out that parents who expect to hear from their students often may be disappointed or have their feelings hurt. Don’t forget that your student will not only have classes but also extracurriculars and maybe even a job. “If you’re not hearing from them, everything is right. You will hear from them when everything is wrong.”

6. Review move-in day procedures.

Take a look at the move-in day schedule and be sure you understand how everything will work. At some schools, upperclassmen with carts are available to help unload vehicles and handle the heavy lifting; others leave you on your own. Know where and when to check in (you may be assigned a specific time slot).

Many schools offer move-in orientation programs that provide useful information for families and students alike. If you’re traveling a distance and plan to spend a night or two, book a room in advance. Build in time for a shopping trip to pick up last-minute/bulky items. Be sure to have water and snacks on hand, and be dressed for heat and dirt!

7. Don’t rush the first visit home.

Experts agree students should stay on campus for the first month or two. “Going home frequently messes with the transition,” Hilkert says, and can actually make homesickness worse. “It is better for students to stay on campus to form relationships and get involved.” Make plans for them to return home for the long fall weekend or Thanksgiving break and get those dates on the calendar.

8. Be prepared for move-in day to go fast.

Once everything is in the room and you’ve helped make the bed (they’ll roll their eyes, but every other mom is doing it!), follow your student’s lead. Let them decide where to put stuff, and how much they want to unpack right now. Go to the parent programs. Give a hug and say goodbye.

Don’t be surprised if the tears flow before you make it to the car, and then again when you get home and look into their empty bedroom.

Before you know it, they will be back for break. Each goodbye gets a little easier.

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Kimberly Yavorski is a freelancer and mom of four who writes frequently on the topics of parenting, education, social issues, travel and the outdoors. Her work has been published in Grown & Flown, Your Teen, Sammiches and Psych Meds, Her View From Home, Pacific Standard, The Progressive, Racked, and Reader’s Digest.
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