Your Complete Guide to College Move-In Day

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Here's everything you need to know for College Move-In Day. We'll talk about what really happens during college drop-off so you know what to expect, how to know what you need to buy for college, how to pack for college, what to take with you, how to plan your day, and how to handle your emotions about your new college freshman leaving home.
25 tips for a successful college move-in day heading

How to Prepare for College

You’ll probably want start preparing for moving your student to their dorm early in the summer. In fact, there are several tasks you really need to take care of before you even start shopping or packing.

Make your move to college much easier by doing these things first.

1. Keep a List so You Don’t Forget Anything

Getting ready for college is a project for lots of moving pieces, so you’ll want to create some sort of system to track what needs to be done.

The Midlife Rambler College Packing Guide can help keep you organized along the way. You can use it to track information you need to know, what you need to buy, and what to pack. I found a spreadsheet like this invaluable as I organized my own students for their first college move-in day.

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2. Schedule any Doctor’s Appointments, etc. for the Beginning of Summer

You’ll probably need to provide updated vaccination records to the college so schedule any necessary doctor appointments, dentist appointments, etc. for the beginning of summer so you’re not trying to scramble to try to fit in everything you need to do in the weeks before your child leaves for college.

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3. Gather Any Necessary Documents

Before you leave, gather any documents your student will need to take with them to college, such as proof of health insurance, their birth certificate, social security card, etc.

Keep everything you’ll need in a handy folder. You’ll probably be asked for any needed documents when you check into the residence hall.

Keep everything you’ll need handy in a folder you can refer to easily when you get to the dorm.

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4. Schedule any Goodbye Celebrations for Before You Leave for College

You might be anticipating a special moment with your child where you can have one last dinner or give them a meaningful gift once you hit campus. I certainly was. I had secretly bought a copy of E.B. White’s Here is New York to present to my daughter at some moment during our trip.

But we were distracted with the business of moving and that moment never came. I returned home with the book still in my suitcase. (In fact, I found it the other day; I’ve never given it to her.)

Celebratory family dinner prior to college move-in day
Schedule any celebratory family dinners before college drop-off

I’ve heard of other parents who end up thrusting a keepsake watch or special card into their kid’s hands during the rushed final goodbyes. College Drop-Off is about the practical matters of getting settled and those practical matters will need your full attention. Make sure you make time for any special moments before you leave.

5. Talk About Expectations and Responsibilities Before You Leave for College

It’s important to convey your expectations for the upcoming school year: how often will we talk? What is the penalty for bad grades? How will money be handled? But the time to have these conversations is the summer before your child leaves for college. College Move-In time is too hectic and emotional to have a serious conversation.

Facetime conversation with college student
Schedule regular times to talk before college drop-off

6. Plan Your Move-In Date and Time

Many schools assign a specific move-in date and time to floor of a residence hall in order to control the chaos of everyone arriving at once. Find out what time your student is expected to move in and plan to arrive early at the beginning of your allotted window of time.

If you can’t make the assigned date and time, reach out to your student’s Residence Assistant or the College Housing Office. I’ve found that they’re happy to be flexible if necessary.

7. Recruit a Helper

In my experience, college move-in day is a three-person job. Your student will be staying primarily in the dorm room getting settled. You’ll need one person to help bring up items from your car to the room. And you’ll probably want a third person to do things like wait in the car as it’s being unloaded, wait in the long lines for dorm necessities, put together unassembled items, or run to the store for forgotten items.

A second helper can also help keep emotions calm and tempers in check if any of you are feeling stressed and emotional.

Father and Daughter getting ready to move in to college

How to Pack for College

After you’ve made all your decisions about what to take and bought everything you need, it’s finally time to pack! These tips can help the packing process go more smoothly.

8. Don’t Take More than You Need

The amount of stuff you’ll have to deal with will be overwhelming so you don’t want to have to bring or buy any more than you need. If your school is in a warmer climate, any winter clothes may not be needed until after Thanksgiving or can be shipped up later.

My boys showed up to school with a collection of shorts, jeans and t-shirts and simply grabbed whatever else they needed on weekend visits home. However, since my daughter was going to school in New York, we took some cold-weather clothes with us. We knew the weather was going to get chilly within a couple of months.

Nevertheless, we didn’t pack things like her heavy sweaters, long johns, and other winter month supplies. Instead, I shipped some of those up to her and she picked the rest up when she came home for Thanksgiving.

For reference, you can ship a box containing approximately 20 pounds of clothes from Atlanta to New York for about $30.00 via the USPS.

9. Arrange to Pick Up Necessary Items Once You’re On Campus

You don’t need to try to cram everything your child needs for the dorm into their suitcase. Bed, Bath and Beyond offers a Pack and Hold service where you can visit your local store, identify everything you think you’ll need at school, and then pick it up later at the Bed, Bath and Beyond by your student’s college.

The best part is that you don’t need to pay until you pick up your items. You may decide that you don’t need some items when you see the residence hall rooms. Plus, you’ll have more time to scrounge up one of those valuable 20% off everything coupons.

10. Pack Items in Storage Bins

If you’re driving, pack the items you’re taking to college in storage bins that can be used in the dorm. Suitcases can end up just taking up precious room in a small college dorm.

Since my daughter and I were flying to college, we needed to streamline our packing. We packed her clothing using Ziploc Storage Bags in order to fit as much as possible in the suitcase and kept track of the luggage weight with a luggage scale so as to stay under the airline’s 50-pound limit.

You may want to bring a large suitcase that your student can use to store out-of-season clothing in under their bed; just make sure it will fit under the bed.

Suitcases and other items to move in to college
These duffle bags were later used as a laundry carrier and storage for our of season clothing

11. Pack Other Items in Ikea Shopping Bags

Don’t pack items in cardboard boxes if you can avoid it. If you’ve got an Ikea near you, buy a stash of their 99 cent blue shopping bags. You can fill them to the brim with items and the handles make it easy to carry the bags up to the dorm room. Once you’ve unpacked, you can fold flat and store out of sight. Pro tip: these bags also make excellent laundry bags.

If you don’t have an Ikea near by, you can also pack items in trash bags. A few trash bags will be handy for throwing away product packaging, etc.

Need a Little Extra Support?

New empty nester? Anticipating (or maybe dreading) that upcoming college drop-off? We’ve got your back!

Sign up now for Midlife Rambler’s 7-Day email series, Thriving in Your Empty Nest,  and you’ll receive an email every day for the next seven days (plus a few bonuses) filled with support, tips, and ideas to help you transition to the next exciting phase of your life!

It’s on the way! Check your inbox for your first email!

You’ll also receive the Midlife Rambler weekly newsletter where you’ll be the first to hear about new freebies. Unsubscribe at any time.

Your Complete Guide to College Move-In Day 1

12. Take an Overnight Bag with Necessary Essentials

Your student may take a few days to get everything unpacked and organized. So, have them pack an overnight bag with a couple of outfits and other essentials such as toothpaste, soap and shampoo, any medications, a phone charger, and pajamas.

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13. Find Out What Happens on College Move-In Day

Move-in day can be a bit of a whirlwind, so it’s important to be prepared for what to expect. Here’s what you can expect to happen during the day:

  • Your child checks to their assigned residence hall. The first order of business will be reviewing the room assignments, filling out paperwork, getting necessary keys, etc. Make sure everyone has their ID handy and anything else the dorm might need such as a copy of your student’s birth certificate or any paperwork such as HIPAA forms.
  • You and your child transport their belongings to their room.
  • In the dorm room, you’ll meet up with any roommates who have arrived, then unpack and settle in.
  • Finally, it’s time for the parents to say goodbye and head back home. (I’ve got some tips on how to handle the goodbyes with dignity.)

14. Wear Practical Clothes

Moving is always a hot and dirty job. You and your kid will likely get sweaty and grubby as the day goes on. Dress in cool, comfortable clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty.

This is not the time for your college freshman to show up dressed to impress their new friends. That new outfit will be sweaty in very short order. So, encourage everyone to wear clothes you can move easily in and shoes that you can walk in for a long time.

Mom and Daughter dressed for college move-in
At least I took my own advice, even if I couldn’t get my daughter to listen to me

15. Bring Snacks and Drinks

You’ll be there for a while so bring along some snacks and drinks to keep your energy up. And if you’re bringing help with you, they’ll appreciate it.

16. Find Out Where to Park

In my experience, getting the items from the car to the dorm room can be the most stressful part of college move-in day. Try to manage the stress by finding out beforehand if you’ll be able to drop items off in a loading zone by the dorm or if you’ll need to park and then schelp your items from the car to the room.

17. Get the Lay of the Land Before You Start Unloading the Car

If you can, park your car and head up to the dorm to get a feel for how things are organized before you start unloading items. That way you can see where you’ll be able to unload your items and determine if the school has anything available to help with moving.

18. Ask If Bins or Other Things to Help Move Items Will Be Available

My daughter’s college dorm had giant laundry bins on wheels that you could load up with everything and then roll up to her room. Find out if something like that will be available to use and if so, make it your mission to grab one as soon as you can. Schools never have enough of these bins to serve everyone so you’ll have to make do if you can’t get one.

19. Bring a Dolly If You Can

If it’s convenient to pack, consider bringing a dolly to help move your kid’s stuff. That way, you can still get everything up to the room easily even if you can’t get find anything to help transport your items at the dorm.

20. Allot Time for Last Minute Shopping

It’s probably inevitable that at some point during move-in day, you’ll realize you forgot an item or need something you didn’t anticipate. I like to schedule a shopping trip as the final thing we do on move-in day. We can pick up any needed items and I can gift my student with some fun snacks or some other little something to make their first week at school a little easier.

What to Unpack First and What to Unpack Last

We always unpacked the bedding first. That way, even if the rest of the day goes totally off the rails, your student can at least have a place to sleep. Then, unpack by category: study items, clothing, other furniture, etc.

Unpack any decorative items last. You won’t be able to really decide where to put them until everything else is in place and it’s too easy to get distracted trying to figure out the perfect place for that poster and ignore the more important items.

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21. Remember This is Your Child’s College Experience, not Yours

I frequently had to remind myself that this wasn’t my opportunity to finally have the college dorm room I always wanted or to be the involved parent I had always wished my mom was.

Unpacking at college move-in
This is your child’s college experience, so they get to be in charge

Your kid may be overwhelmed and need you to step in and help coordinate, they may want you to leave right away and let them handle everything alone, or they may want to assign you tasks throughout the day and spring for a final meal before you leave. Let them assign your role.

You should talk with your child about how you’ll help before you leave for college drop-off, but be prepared that your child may change their decision once you both get to campus.

22. Keep Your Calm and Give Everyone a Little Slack

My daughter responds to stress and overwhelm by being irritable and easily offended. I’ve learned the hard way that responding in kind leads to a disastrous experience we both regret. If your child expresses their feelings about the day by being bossy, rude, or impatient remember that they are going through their own emotions right now and give them a little slack.

I still chuckle over this article in The Onion for its spot-on depiction of my emotions during college shopping and drop-off:

“We’re only making this trip once, so if you want to just get a bunch of cheap garbage that’s going to fall apart in six months, that’s up to you,” Vernon said in an effort to quell a hopelessness and despair she had never before experienced as she was struck by a deluge of memories.

But it’s important to remember that the article ends like this:

At press time, sources reported that Molly was channeling her overpowering fears about soon being on her own and without her mother’s unwavering support into petulantly sulking in the electronics section.

Give your own Molly a chance to express their emotions with a bit of sulking, if necessary.

23. You can Cry

Yes, you need to be emotionally stable but it’s ok and expected for the parent to be a bit emotional. If you don’t tear up at least a little bit, it’s possible your child will wonder just how important they really were to you after all.

If your kid is also feeling nervous, too, now they have a chance to offload a bit of that emotion before you leave them alone. And they’ll be reminded that they are a valued member of the household who will definitely be missed.

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24. But Don’t Cry Too Much

If your child is hesitant and worried, be the cheerleader they need. Let them know you have faith in their ability to handle any new challenges. And, if necessary, plan a visit that’s sooner than you might otherwise schedule.

That way your child can look forward to a little spoiling from a parent when the world seems scary and overwhelming. You can look forward to the visit as well when you worry about how things are going. (And you will!)

Your Complete Guide to College Move-In Day 2
If your child is nervous about being away from home, schedule a visit for right after the first month

25. Don’t Plan on One Last Dinner Together

If your child wants to grab something to eat, then, of course, go for it! But your kid will probably want to spend time in his dorm, getting to know the people who will be their school family for the next few months. They need to get pizza and spend some time bonding with their new best friends once the parents have left.

college friends walking down the street

26. Bring a Change of Clothes for the Ride Home

You’ll probably be pretty grimy and dusty after a full day of moving so bring a change of clothes for the trip home. That way, you’ll feel presentable enough to treat yourself your own slice of pizza – and possibly pair it with a really nice bottle of wine – as you process this new role in your life and the adventure ahead for both of you!

27. Don’t Forget to Celebrate!

Don’t forget to take some time and raise a glass to yourself. You took that baby you were scared you might drop and raised it to be a young adult, heading out into the world. That’s a huge deal and you deserve to sit down and appreciate yourself for all you did.

Now the rest of the journey begins.

Need a Little Extra Support?

New empty nester? Anticipating (or maybe dreading) that upcoming college drop-off? We’ve got your back!

Sign up now for Midlife Rambler’s 7-Day email series, Thriving in Your Empty Nest,  and you’ll receive an email every day for the next seven days (plus a few bonuses) filled with support, tips, and ideas to help you transition to the next exciting phase of your life!

It’s on the way! Check your inbox for your first email!

You’ll also receive the Midlife Rambler weekly newsletter where you’ll be the first to hear about new freebies. Unsubscribe at any time.

Your Complete Guide to College Move-In Day 1

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