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Set Your Child Up for Success With This College Checklist

Beyond packing, be prepared to think about medical, legal and emotional needs

spinner image Father helping daughter moving to college dormitory
Ariel Skelley/Getty Images

Congratulations. Your high school senior has been admitted to college, has told the world about this choice on Instagram and is celebrating graduation with family and friends.

Now it's time to get your student ready to leave for college and be healthy, successful and safe there, too.

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"It's not just finding the twin XL sheets that most freshmen-dorm beds need,” says Mary Dell Harrington, coauthor of Grown and Flown, which includes lengthy chapters about the process of launching children for college. “That's the easy part.”

The hard part is preparing young adults to live on their own and take on new responsibilities, whether that's understanding when and how to seek medical treatment or learning how to plan the days to complete tougher academic demands.

"It's much easier to get wrapped up in the tangible,” Harrington notes. “You may forget about the more important things."

Here are five areas to pay close attention to when prepping your child for college life.

1. Physical and mental health

spinner image Mary Dell Harrington with her son and daughter
Mary Dell Harrington (center) helped her son, Walker Berning and daughter, Annie Berning, prepare for college.
Courtesy Mary Dell Harrington

At college most freshman will be responsible for monitoring their health for the first time. Before leaving for college, they will need a thorough physical, including any necessary vaccinations. This fall many colleges will require a COVID-19 vaccination for students living on campus.

Before moving into the dorm, students should know where to find health care on campus as well as local urgent cares, pharmacies and a hospital. If mental health support is needed, students should determine whether a therapist currently treating them can offer virtual appointments to a client who resides in a different state. Students may need to find a new therapist on campus or in the college community.

Students should also prepare to manage any prescription medications, both how to fill them and ensure they are renewed on time.

To deal with minor ailments and injuries, parents should make sure to include a first aid kit on the shopping list. Mir Kamin, the mother of a recent college graduate and a rising college senior, included instructions on how and when to use over-the-counter medications and other directions.

In addition, Kamin suggests purchasing a small safe for prescription medication. Some medicines, especially stimulants used to treat ADHD, are targets for theft because they can be sold illegally. The safe is also a good place to keep passports, social security cards and spare keys, she adds.

2. Legal paperwork

Before leaving for college, The National Law Review recommends creating at least three legal documents:

  • HIPPA authorization form, which allows health care workers to discuss the child's medical information with their parents.
  • Health care power of attorney, which gives parents the ability to make decisions about medical care in an emergency where your child is unable to make their own decisions.
  • General durable power of attorney, which grants a parent the authority to act on behalf of an incapacitated adult child, allowing you to manage finances, apply for government benefits or break a lease.
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Online services offer low-cost versions of each of these forms, but you will need to pay attention to details such as the specific requirements of your home state and whether the forms need to be notarized. If your family has complex issues to address, such as a child's unique health history or parents who are divorced, you probably will want to consult with an attorney to tailor the documents to your situation.

If your child is attending school in a different state, parents should research how the laws differ from their home state.

For example, the penalties for a minor possessing alcohol may be much harsher at college than at home. And even though marijuana is legal in several states, the laws about purchasing and possessing it differ from state to state, says Tevera Stith, the vice president for college through career for the Washington, D.C., chapter of the KIPP charter school network and a former college admissions counselor.

"You're responsible once you go across state lines to know what the rules are there,” she points out.

Finally, you may want to have your student sign a waiver from the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which protects the privacy of their academic records. Without it, you won't be able to look at their grades or discuss their academic progress with school officials.

3. The emotional roller coaster

It's important to take care of medical and legal issues early, to concentrate on packing in the final weeks.

But also be prepared for emotional reactions, both from yourself and your child. Many students work to “soil the nest” — cause strife in the family — before they leave, Harrington says. “It's much easier for them to leave when they've made it an uncomfortable situation."

On the flip side, parents may also be going through a range of feelings — including loss and apprehension about a new family dynamic, which may include a quieter household or even an empty nest. Parents should create an “open dialogue” about their own feelings, Stith advises, “without bombarding” their children. And be prepared to see a little less of your child before they leave for college.

"Parents need to check themselves, because while you are a big part of your child's life, you're not the only part,” Stith says. “A kid will want to spend a lot of time with their best friend, boyfriend or girlfriend. They'll feel like this is the last time they're going to see them."

By creating an open dialogue about their feelings, Stith says, parents “can process their own emotions.” The best approach is to be clear about what time you want to spend with them in the final weeks, whether it's a family game night or a special dinner out, Kamin says. But keep in mind that they may be spending most of their time with friends.

4. Academic preparations

If there is one thing rising freshman need to understand, it's that college will be more difficult than high school and requires them to take more responsibility. Parents can set students up for success, while still allowing them to advocate for themselves and take responsibility for their own education.

With your child, check the college or university website to see what kind of laptop or technology and software may be needed for specific majors or classes. Encourage your child to read for pleasure over the summer to prepare for an increased workload. Research majors that might be interesting to your student, and look at required classes to earn degrees in those majors.

Help guide your student to academic tutoring and other supports available on campus, and encourage them to take advantage of those services if needed.

5. The packing list

Colleges make this job easier by providing extensive checklists of bedding, electronics, school supplies and more.

Kamin suggests a few items that are essential for any dorm room: a power tower charging station and a fan. “Dorm rooms are notorious for being too hot or too cold,” she says.

She also suggests using soft luggage that can be folded or stowed under the bed or in the back of a closet.

But don't overdo the packing list, Harrington advises. “There are really only a dozen things that kids need. We recommend a minimalist approach,” she adds. “Let your teen get settled in and order what they need online.”

Before arriving at the dorm and getting unpacked, Kamin suggests writing your child a short letter to put into words what you want to say but that might be difficult to articulate at the moment you leave your child on campus. Share the letter when you depart.

"It boils down to: ‘I love you so much. I'm going miss you, but that's OK. You're on a big adventure now. Have a great time.’ “ Kamin says.

On that day, make sure you pack something for yourself: tissues. More than likely, you'll need them.

A College Checklist
for Parents

Medical Needs

  • Schedule a student physical.
  • Make sure student vaccinations are up to date, including a COVID-19 vaccination, if required.
  • Discuss safe sex and birth control.
  • Make sure all student prescriptions are filled and can be renewed.
  • Stock up on vitamins and over-the-counter medications.
  • Pack a first aid kit.
  • Create an emergency list with the family physician's number, campus clinic phone number, medical history, blood type, food and drug allergies, and emergency contacts.

Legal Needs

  • HIPPA waiver
  • Health care power of attorney
  • General durable power of attorney
  • Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) waiver

Academic Planning

  • Make sure your freshman has an updated laptop with software that may be required for specific classes.
  • Help your child research majors of interest.
  • Review financial aid materials so your student is aware of academic requirements for keeping scholarships and loans.
  • Create a list of academic supports available on campus.

Dorm-Room and School Supplies

David J. Hoff is a contributing writer who covers family life, health and education stories for national publications. A former reporter and editor for Education Week, his work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Washington City Paper and other publications.

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