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The 6 Most Important Tips for Parents Attending College Orientation with Their Freshmen

handy guide for parents at college orientation

When I embarked on college orientation for the first time with my daughter, I was clueless and unprepared.

No one told me the insider secrets of what to expect as a parent of an incoming college freshman at orientation. Although I’d found some helpful checklists online for tips for students at orientation (see the handy download at the bottom of this post for this ultimate guide I’ve now created for you), I wish a veteran parent had warned me about some things to do and NOT do as a parent at orientation.

So here’s the scoop—parents, pay attention. At college orientation, it’s about to get real.

The 6 most important tips for parents attending college orientation with their freshmen

1. If you're on the fence about going, consider this:

For most universities orientation is not mandatory for parents, and when my daughter went to college I wondered if it was truly necessary for me to attend. (After all, she was a big girl now—going to college, not kindergarten.) It seemed more convenient to enroll her in the orientation session for students only that was offered a few days prior to her classes starting. Plus there was the hassle of scheduling an orientation that fit both of our summer work schedules, and costs of the trip to consider.

Ironically it was a memory from her first day of kindergarten that convinced me to attend. Her elementary school offered an orientation day shortly before school started, where the kids AND the parents got to experience a shortened version of a “day in the life” of a kindergartner. It not only helped the kids see what the routine would look like, it also helped the parents have a visual of the awesome things their child would be experiencing.

Instead of having a complete emotional breakdown after dropping her off on that first day of kindergarten, I remembered the activities I’d seen her excited about at orientation. This helped me picture her thriving at school, instead of worrying about her. I realized orientation was just as much for the parents to embrace the transition as it was the students!

Overall, it's still a personal decision and every parent/student/university is different. If you simply can't attend, or feel like your student would be better off attending orientation solo as an entrance into independence, that's totally okay, too. (But read on for how you can still help your student make the most of orientation even if you don't attend with them.)

2. Know that you likely won’t be allowed to help them register for classes, and help them prepare wisely in advance.

This was a huge bombshell for me. I knew that one of the most important parts of freshman orientation was registering for classes. We (10 percent her, 90 percent me) were investing a tremendous amount of money in her college education, and since she was unsure of what major she wanted and expressed significant anxiety and uncertainty about the vast amount of offerings in the course book, I naturally planned to help guide her through this process along with an adviser.

Also, since my daughter is directionally challenged and a naïve optimist, I’d planned on sitting by her side with a campus map while she chose her classes to help her understand how long it might actually take her to cross a large campus in a blizzard. I was also worried about her safety if she took an evening class and had to walk a long distance back to her dorm at night.

I knew an advisory meeting was scheduled for each student for direction and coaching on the course selection, and I looked forward to asking wise questions that she likely wouldn’t even know to ask. But the meeting was for STUDENTS (not student + parent) and nothing in the orientation literature prepared me for the discovery that parents were culled from the herd during this process and funneled to a gated area on the other side of the registration hall! They even had guards at the doorways to enforce the “no parents” rule at registration.

Perhaps I should have known this, but I didn't, and it was a real frustration at the time. Now as a veteran parent, I understand the solo student+ adviser meeting is an important part of "cutting the cord" by allowing the kids to experience the important process of meeting with an adviser. (They'll have to be comfortable with this throughout college, so it's appropriate to begin this at orientation.)

However, if I'd known this was the standard, I'd have prepared differently. Here's what I would have done the first time around, and now what I have done with my other children before orientation:

  • Explore and review the college literature with your student BEFORE orientation and talk about what interests them. If they know what major they want, review the required courses so they understand the educational track and overall time frame required. Will it be doable in four years? Is graduate school required for the desired field? Who is paying for what?
  • If they are unsure of a major, looking at the various courses within the options is often a way to narrow down a general direction. Also look at what core courses are required before they declare a major, and what credits they might already have coming in.
  • Discuss a realistic "day in the life" of a college freshman. Challenge them to recognize how they function the best and imagine their schedule in the future. Will they be working part time, and how will that fit in? Do they struggle with motivation in the mornings? Are they more likely to skip class if they go back to the dorm between classes? As independent young adults, they'll be taking full command of their daily routine, and learning how to successfully own and plan in advance is a skill that many teenagers struggle with. Remember—the prefrontal cortex (the planning center of the brain) of teenagers isn't fully developed until age 25. Helping them picture the future and learn how to own their schedule successfully is a tool they need to thrive in college.
  • Challenge them to write down the questions they have to discuss with their adviser. Even if they claim they don't have questions, help them think through what they might need to know and how the adviser can best guide them. Some great questions to consider are "what if" scenarios, such as "what if I don't like this major, how will these courses apply to something similar (or totally different?)

3. Prepare to feel like you’re in a time warp.

At high school graduation, all parents look at their kids and see them at the age of 5 at their kindergarten graduation.  But at college orientation, the space-time continuum takes another giant backwards leap when you see yourself at age 18 as a college freshman!

I wasn’t prepared for the selfish desire to have a “do-over” and want to experience these years for myself once again. Walking around campus made me long for my cherished college days, and I struggled with a bit of sadness that it wasn't my turn again. (And of course I was wondering how in the world I was now actually THIS old!)

4. Don’t skip the parent sessions

You’re already there, so as boring as some of the parent sessions might sound, suck it up and go. They are actually useful, and it’s important for your student to attend their sessions (yes, they separate parents and students for many sessions) so be a role model and don’t bail on your part.

5. Talk to other parents during orientation

Students are advised to reach out and make friends during many cheesy ice-breakers during orientation. Thankfully, parents aren’t forced to socialize with each other this way, but it’s still valuable to strike up conversations with other parents at orientation. I chatted with one mom who had three of her kids attend that same college, and she had so many valuable insider tips and advice to share. (One great tip she shared that I’ve since passed on was to avoid “Parents' Weekend” that the school was promoting so heavily, because the hotel rates were double and the restaurants were packed. She suggested to come the weekend before or after and we’d get so much more quality time to enjoy the campus with our student—and we would have more of a chance to meet her friends.)

6. Don't buy textbooks during orientation

I've noticed that colleges seem to encourage unassuming parents/students to head straight to the bookstore after class registration and get their books right away. DON'T DO IT. First, it's best to wait until classes begin and the professor assigns work that requires one of the listed textbooks. Many times the list of "required" reading isn't implemented on the syllabus, and in my son's case became very expensive "lofting blocks" he just used to raise his bed in the dorm. Also, there are now numerous sources online to rent textbooks, as well as buy used. Some students also sell their used textbooks to other students, so sleuth around before you order a brand new $200 book.


FullSizeRender (54)Written by Kami Gilmour, mom of five teen and young adult kids. She's the author of a best-selling book that chronicles her imperfect journey of parenting in this season with a refreshing sense of honesty, humor, and practical insights:  Release My Grip: Hope for a Parent's Heart as Kids Leave the Nest and Learn to Fly. 


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