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. As you offboard your seniors, you have an opportunity to have a College Transition Conversation with them and their families, but in the interest of being helpful without overwhelming them, it can be challenging to know how to approach this important discussion.

Based on nearly 20 years of advising college students, I recommend the following elements of an effective College Transition Conversation that address academic, personal, and social aspects of this significant event in their lives.

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. 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. 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. Disability accommodations are known to take several 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.

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 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-In

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

By having the College Transition Conversation with your families, you have offered an extra invaluable service by helping them prepare for and adjust to the changes that come with going to college. Hopefully, you can be a key person in making sure their roommate doesn’t show up with a saw…or your student isn’t the one who shows up with the saw!

By Peggy Sharp, EdD, IECA Associate (TX), Sharp Focus College Consulting