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Parent Edition: Your Guide to the College Transition

1998 - A Dorm Room Somewhere in Arkansas

As I approached the hallway of my dorm room for the first time, I heard a loud whirring noise. I couldn’t imagine what it was until I saw it with my own eyes. My new roommate’s dad was SAWING part of the closet door off so that her bright blue carpet could fit under it. With my mouth agape, she laughed cheerily and asked, “Isn’t this hilarious? Do you like the color?”

At that moment, I knew that transitioning to college was going to be some of what I bargained for but much of what I had not. I wished someone had told me what to expect and how to handle common scenarios of the college transition.

Here we are, 25 years later, and emotions, including excitement and anxiety, are running high for our graduating students. In addition to May flowers and Justin Timberlake's famous line, "It's gonna be May," this month also brings a lot of changes for high school seniors and their families. Parents and students alike are dealing with a mixture of excitement, nervousness, stress, joy, and sadness. It's overwhelming for everyone.

Graduation Day

After the initial getting dressed and to the ceremony on time all-consuming stress, the day is beautiful. Everyone is happy, students receive love and gifts, and parents feel immense pride. It may have looked something like this.

The Day After Graduation

Reality sets in. In 3 months, Junior will be moving away. He will be on his own, for better and worse (both are likely). The joy of graduation gives way to the "oh crap" of it all. How do we, as a family, get ready?

Student & Parent Transition Challenges:

Regardless of their background, all high school seniors who are attending college in the fall will go through a series of transitions:

  • Deep emotions connected to leaving home

  • Learning to live independently

  • Adapting to a college-level learning environment

  • Living in a very small space with someone who isn't a family member


Whether this is your first or fifth child going off to college, parents have their own transition challenges as well:

  • Deep emotions connected to them leaving home

  • Letting your child make mistakes without catching or preventing them

  • Teaching them what they need to know before they go

  • Financial stress of having a (or another) child in college

Create a Summer Transition Plan

There is a lot you and your student can do this summer to be prepared for the transition in the fall. I've outlined my main recommendations below.

College Orientation

All students have an opportunity to attend an in-person or virtual orientation for incoming freshmen during the summer. Orientation can be quite overwhelming, and students may find themselves unsure of what to pay attention to or prioritize. Here’s the truth: only three things matter.

  1. Advising & Registration: They need to get a first-semester schedule, based on a conversation with an academic advisor, and register at the appropriate time. I have known countless students to register for classes they were not advised to take and even some who did not register at the appointed time because they forgot and had to wait until just before the term started to get into classes. Advise them to set an alarm for their required advising appointment and registration time so they don’t miss these critical moments during orientation.

  2. They need to make a friend. Just one. Orientation staff plan a million events to keep everyone busy and this can be fun, but students often leave orientation feeling like they met a bunch of people but don’t really know anyone. Encourage your student to focus on getting to know one other person they can contact during the rest of summer and when they come to campus in the fall. This helps to have a sense of belonging right away and reminds them they aren’t alone.

  3. Disability Services: If there is ANY possibility the student may need disability services, they should make a point to visit the disability services office during orientation and understand the intake process. Really, if orientation isn't in June, they should contact DS as soon as possible to start the process. Disability accommodations are known to take 2-3 months to be put in place at many universities. Students with known disabilities (learning, physical, or psychological) should never skip this step, as it can make or break their first-semester grades.

That's it. Everything else can wait.

Time Management

The summer before college is the perfect time to practice independent living and there is no better way than learning effective time management.

Up to this point in their lives, students may not have had to manage their own time very much, if at all. They are often told where to go and what to do and their days are very structured. In preparation for college, students should establish a summer routine (set by themselves, not their parents) to practice what it will be like when they are on their own. A good “homework” assignment is to have the student create and implement a summer routine that includes the following:

  • Getting up on their own

  • Getting themselves to work or other activities

  • Scheduling their own medical or other appointments

  • Doing their own laundry

  • Basic cooking or meal planning

Roommate Chats

Remember my roommate with the blue carpet and saw? A significant component of the college transition includes who the student will live with. Here’s what I know: whether they are living with someone they already know or a stranger, there will be adjustments and growing pains. (Hopefully, they will not involve a power tool.)

Students should know who their resident assistant (RA) is on day one. This is an upperclassman whose job it is to take care of the residents on their floor. RAs are typically trained in conflict resolution and understand the university’s policies for dorm residence.

During the summer, students should contact their roommate regularly, ideally every two to three weeks, to get to know each other and determine who is bringing what for the shared space. If it’s possible to meet in person, they should since as we all know by now, Zoom only goes so far in getting to know another person.

Weekly Family Check-Ins

I conclude by offering a practice for families to do together during the summer before college. Set aside one meal per week to specifically discuss expectations. The student and the family should each have allotted time to communicate their hopes for what the transition will look like, and each week might have a theme for discussion such as:

  • Communication: how often can parents expect to talk or text with their student?

  • Money: what is the student responsible to pay for? Will they be expected to work during the first semester? Should they have a credit card? Do they know how to handle a checking account? Can they set up and follow a budget?

  • In-person visits: will parents come visit? Will the student go home? Will the first visit be Thanksgiving or sooner?

Consider Summer Transition Coaching

This is just an introduction that scratches the surface of college transition planning. While this is a great start, consider having your student do 1:1 transition coaching. I work with students during the summer on their UNIQUE goals and needs to ensure the smoothest transition possible. We discuss specific, practical strategies that anticipate the challenges they will face and plan ahead for how to make the most of their first semester on campus.

I would love to chat with you about how transition coaching can help your student. You can also join the mailing list to get free college advice delivered to your inbox.


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