Helping Your Student Make the College Transition

A guest post from Alisha McMillen, a former client of mine.

Your student has spent the last four years working hard, making the grades, taking the tests, all for that acceptance to their desired college. Some get that coveted acceptance to their dream school, and some will be going to their back-up school. But all of them will have to adjust to a new normal. 

This new normal includes taking charge of their own destiny, making big decisions, and following through without mom or dad there to do everything for them. And doing their own laundry! It’s a big adjustment, whether they’re one hour, or 15 hours away from home.

I’m no expert, but I have twin daughters, Darian and Addy, who started college in the fall of 2022. So, everything is still fresh in my mind. Much to my and my husband’s dismay, my girls did not choose to attend the same college (welcome to different holidays and spring breaks for the first time in 19 years), nor did they both choose colleges close to home (one is at the University of Texas at Austin, about a 3 hour drive from home, while her twin is at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, a 10-1/2 hour drive or a plane ride away). Luckily, they started college a week apart, so we didn’t have to divide and conquer for dorm move-in. But I still worry that their graduations will be on the same day in three years. 

Slight diversion — While you’re buying all the stuff for dorm living, I want to be sure you know this – BUY THE IKEA BAGS! If you haven’t already, stock up now on these inexpensive rectangular zipping bags. You won’t regret it. They hold so much for move-in day. They smush down small for storage and can be used to bring items home on visits. Or just have them lay in wait for move-out day. Run, don’t walk, to Amazon or IKEA and snatch up six or eight bags. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

Now, onto your student and their academic and mental adjustment.

College is a completely different world for your student. They must start over — with friends, with activities, with their GPA. That’s a very hard adjustment for some kids who spent the last four years working hard to have the best resume. One of Addy’s assignments was to build a resume for a business class. The professor said she couldn’t use any of her activities or accolades from before college. She was very active in high school and had a full resume coming into college. She began to worry, because she felt had nothing of note yet in her first semester of college. Starting over is stressful.

Some advice directly from Addy: DO EVERYTHING. Don’t say no when you’re asked to do something. Get out of your dorm room and sit outside. Join the clubs. Attend activities She rushed, joined a sorority, and found a lot of good friends there. But there are tons of campus activities to join and find your “people.” And she says even if you live close enough, don’t go home every weekend. You must stay on campus to get plugged in on campus. 

Darian, who is not much of a ‘joiner’ says the same thing, however with a condition – don’t try to do it all or you will become overwhelmed and confused about which path(s) to take. We were shocked when our introverted, non-joiner came home at Christmastime to tell us she joined a committee for one organization. When she said she was on Outreach, our family was shocked. This is where your students become a new kind of brave and learn that they can do things on their own. 

Both also say, don’t be afraid to reach out. Exchange Instagram and SnapChat info with classmates, initiate conversations with people at activities, even with professors who can help you find your academic path. Just remember everyone is in the same boat at this time in their lives.

As parents, we’re walking a fine line between over-parenting and feeling like we’ve abandoned them at this transitional time. My suggestion is to always be available for them, but don’t quiz them or do too much for them. Especially on drop-off day —  don’t linger. Move them in, give your hugs, and go. It’s okay to cry, but don’t make a scene. It’s our time to be strong too. And many colleges have welcome weekend activities just for students. You want your student to feel good about joining the fun and starting to make friends. 

I text my daughters every day. And both girls call or Facetime their dad or me every day too. I know it can be unusual to talk that much. Together, you must arrange what works for your family. Whatever the frequency, just KEEP COMMUNICATING.

Support them but make them do the work. This was a hard one for me. I’m a doer and was always happy to do things for them. But it’s past time for them to start doing things for themselves. Talking to their advisor. Handling the administrative stuff for school. Normal daily activities. For one of mine, this meant making her own appointments with the new allergist’s office for her monthly allergy shots. For her sister, it meant dealing with the pharmacy to order an unusual medication, picking it up, and giving herself a shot by herself for the first time. One handled these tasks better than the other. Don’t fall for the “Mom – it always works out better when you do this for me” line. I surprised myself when I told her she had to do it on her own. 

On the flipside, don’t abandon them either. (Did I mention that fine line earlier?) When my daughter had the flu, she called on-campus health services who couldn’t see her for a week. She felt terrible and was confused about what to do. I arranged a mobile urgent care to come to her dorm, test her and give her medication. We need to remember, they’re in transition and they often still need our help. 

I have a care package company and was shocked to find out that the favorite item in the October box was a family photo. Many kids had neglected to bring one for move in. They didn’t even know they wanted one until mom and dad sent them one a month into their new experience. They’re looking for a connection to home. My girls have two photos prominently displayed in their dorm rooms – one of our family of four, and one of our dogs. And surprisingly, about half of my packages go out to guys, who love them. When I started, I assumed it would be only a girly business. Not so. Your sons want that hug in a box too, whether you make your own or source it out. They may not show it, but they still want to know mom and dad love them.

If you’re able to, go visit them. Even if it’s just for a night or two. And if you can, get a VRBO or Airbnb, with a full kitchen and washer/dryer. Take the family dog if you can. Do their laundry. Make them a home-cooked meal. Let them take a hot, PRIVATE shower. Just spend time together and let them get away from their dorm. My daughters love these weekends, and even spend most nights with us instead of in their dorms. One of them (you may have guessed – the joiner) invited nine friends for a lemon chicken dinner one night. She also brought 11 loads of laundry. “I’ve been storing it up for two weeks for your visit!”

You may have noticed I haven’t mentioned academics at all until now. Obviously, academics are the main reason they are at college. They know that and we know that. My girls quickly took charge of managing their academic schedule and speaking to advisors. Not every kid will do that. But you must remember, you no longer have access to their grades like in previous years unless they give you their login information. But I would advise you not to go that route. Now is the time when they need to take charge of their responsibilities. Let them fly. 

One final word of advice — try to remember that, though important, grades aren’t everything. Your student’s well-being is so important during this transition. Starting over from scratch will be hard on some students who worked so hard for four years for their grades and activities, only to have the slate wiped clean now. Be kind, be patient, and be understanding. That’s what they really need from us right now. 

Alisha McMillen and her husband, John, are empty nesters after their twins left for college. They have made a business out of it! Alisha is now Chief Designer/Founder of The College Care Package Company. You can find her online:

college care package, parenting teens, transition to college

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