All the Right Moves: 5 steps to a smooth college move-in


My husband and I have taken ballroom dancing lessons. We’re not very good. (We’re pretty bad, really.)

That’s likely because we’ve never gotten past the beginner stage. The instructor gives us the steps but when we try to put them to music, we always miss some and throw in extras. We’re expending so much energy in the process that we’re anything but graceful and exhausted when we’re finished.

Contrast that to our friends, John and Nancy. They’ve been dancing so long they are the picture of grace on the dance floor. They move in perfect rhythm and know just where to go and what to do.

It’s a matter of experience. We’re beginners and they’re advanced.

However, when it comes to the “College-Move-In” Dance, that’s a different story. We’re quite advanced in this art form.

Our oldest son moved to college ten years ago. Our next son followed two years later. Then four years ago, our oldest daughter moved to college, and two years ago the youngest one moved out.

If I’m counting right, we’ve done the College-Move-In dance 14 times, and the Move-Out-Dance 14 more. That equates to hundreds of flights of stairs climbed (only one of the dorms had an elevator!) and countless boxes, bags, and belongings hauled out of our house, and into our cars, and out of our cars, and into their dorm rooms. And back again.

We may not be ready for “Dancing with the Stars” yet, but I think I can teach a few right moves to you beginner “movers and shakers” out there. If you’re sending your first child off to college, or you’ve done it before but are feeling out of step or confused, these quick lessons will help!

So put on your dancin’ shoes, and listen up as I show you…

…the five basic steps in taking your College-Move-In dance to the next level!

Step 1: Don’t miss a beat…START EARLY.

I’m always surprised at how long it takes to get everything packed and out the door for a college move. For the past two years, our girls have moved out within a day of each other. If we waited until the last week to start packing, things might have gotten crazy. Like really crazy!

I encourage my kids to start packing three to four weeks before moving day. When they have a box or basket filled, it’s moved out of their room and into a central location in the house. Since our bedrooms are upstairs, it’s easier to haul one or two boxes a day down the stairs and into the dining room than to wait until the final day and move everything at once. Doing this also helps clear space in their rooms to help them organize.

step 2: Do the “LESS IS MORE” Shuffle.

College checklists are everywhere! A Google search produces a plethora of “ultimate,” “complete,” “best ever,” and “essential” college checklists. I found a range of 69 items to 426! Please tell me which college has dorm rooms that will fit 426 different items! My daughters would love a room that size!

In my experience, most lists are overkill. Several include sponsored links peppered throughout with the goal of making a buck off already soon-to-be-poor college students and their parents. Others are just very comprehensive, including every possible want and need.

After the first or second year of school, each of my kids discovered many things they didn’t need. A floor lamp, clothes steamer, iron and ironing board, extra throw pillows, binders and empty notebooks…all came back home and filled my attic until I had time to sort and sell or donate them.

I suggest finding a middle-of-the-road list (which can be printed) like this, and then picking and choosing what fits your child’s needs. Or, find two or three lists that you like and combine them to make your own “best of” list. Make your list on a spread sheet so you can tweak it each year as you determine what’s really needed and what’s not (this is especially helpful if you will be sending multiple kids off to college).

Remember, schools often provide small appliances, furnishings, and other items either in each dorm room or in a community room down the hall. This year, my youngest daughter’s school is supplying a mini-fridge/microwave combination in every dorm room! Check your school’s website and work with your student’s roommate to avoid buying and bringing items that are already provided or can be shared.

The take-away: be choosy. If kids didn’t use an iron at home, they won’t use one at school. If you send an extra set of sheets, there will be one less empty spot on the tiny closet shelf for the things they really need. As you consider that bulky clothes-drying rack or handy-dandy tool kit, think: WWMKD? (What would Marie Kondo do?) If your student can live without it or it doesn’t spark joy, put it back on the shelf!

step 3: Keep in Step with ORGANIZERS.

Despite your best efforts to minimize the “stuff,” there will still be a substantial amount. This stuff usually exceeds the storage space (i.e. closet, dresser, desk and bookshelf) that comes with your student’s dorm room. Unless your child is a true minimalist (if so, lucky you!), you will need more storage options.

You can bring these from home, but you often don’t know what’s going to fit under the bed, in the closet or between the desk and mini-fridge until you get in the room to measure. Bring two or three plastic drawer units (a larger one for snacks, dishes, and miscellaneous storage and a couple smaller ones for desk supplies, jewelry, make-up, or medicine). We’ve found these rolling carts from IKEA to be handy, versatile, and pretty sweet-looking too. (Similar carts are sold at Target, on Amazon, etc.)

If in doubt, allow extra time at move-in for a store-run to Target, Walmart, or Bed, Bath and Beyond once you get to the college and know what you need. Alternatively, if you’d rather not fight the crowds and have enough room in your vehicles, buy an assortment of various sized storage options, and return what you don’t need later.

step 4: get down to the last detail.

In addition to packing, you’ll need to tend to several other details prior to your student’s leaving. Watch email and snail mail for important instructions from the college.

Your child may need to sign up for orientation meetings and register for classes (freshman often do this once they get to campus). Ordering textbooks, signing up for music group auditions, and taking placement tests are other tasks that are often required. 

Review health insurance options to determine if the school’s plan or your current family plan is best for your situation. Locate doctors, hospitals and urgent care facilities that are in-network prior to getting that mid-semester late-night call complaining of a sore throat, fever, or sprained ankle. For more information on being prepared for unexpected health issues, check out this helpful post by Laura at the “Almost Empty Nest.”

Schedule dentist, orthodontist, and doctor appointments during the summer if possible, and schedule follow-ups on school breaks.  Get immunizations up-to-date. Stock up on contacts through your eye doctor and fill medication prescriptions. (Note: no need to overfill. Most pharmacies will transfer prescriptions to one near your child’s college when due for a refill.)

Review your child’s money matters. Will a checking account be needed? A credit or debit card? How will your student make tuition payments and handle spending money? If you haven’t already, now is a great time to discuss budgeting with your child. Since college life offers more freedom than home, lay the ground rules now to avoid overspending.

Step 5: Remember the end of one song is the beginning of the next.

High school graduation and all the “lasts” of the senior year can bring sadness for kids and parents alike. Focusing instead on the new adventure and excitement ahead can ease that feeling of melancholy.

Now is a great time to have heart-to-heart chats with your child. Discuss hopes and fears (your child’s as well as your own) to help both of you prepare for the journey. Remember, your child is transitioning to adulthood and will respond better to two-way conversations than lectures. Fellow blogger, Debra Boucher, reminds us to lead our kids with empathy in her recent post “Trusting their fear.” 

Believe it or not, that first (and second and third and fourth) year at college is going to fly by! Before you know it, your child/adult will be moving home for summer break. It’s your chance to set the stage for the next year, to review your dance steps, and get things lined up for an easier transition in the fall.

Before everything is dumped into the back of your car and then all over your house, remind your child to sort and separate things. Pull out the items that won’t be going back next year: the jeans that no longer fit (thanks to the “freshman 15”), the high school t-shirts that are no longer cool to wear, the highlighters and pens that have dried out, and anything else that no longer “sparks joy.”

To get a head start on next year’s move, set aside things that will go back in the fall but won’t be used during the summer. Wash bedding and replace if necessary (since it may not have gotten washed as often as you had hoped!).

You’ve got this! With a little practice, you’ll soon be kicking up your heels, impressing your friends, and making “all the right moves” with ease!

After the good-byes have been said, and the tears have been shed, you’re allowed to feel relieved and joyful that the big move is complete!

Now it’s time for your own little happy dance!

I hope these tips have helped. If you have questions, comments or suggestions, please leave them in the comments below.