It's that time of year again. 

Minivans and cars loaded with boxes, duffles, and electronics are shuttling across the country, bringing thousands of eager, excited, and sometimes scared teens to college.

Here's some things you just might want to make sure they can do before heading out.

The Checklist for Students (in no particular order)


  • Can they set up a checking account?
  • Do they know how to check their balance online?
  • Can they track their balance and debits (the real or electronic equivalent of balancing a checkbook)?
  • Do they know about banking fees and avoid ATM and debit charges, minimal balance fees, and charges for insufficient funds?
  • Do they know the amount of money that they have to spend (either their own savings or through parent support) and how that plays out over the course of a semester?
  • Do they understand credit cards and their inherent risks as well as their usefulness?  This is an entire topic unto itself.  If you're not sure of the answer, I'd stick with just one word: DON'T.


  • Can they make a bed? 
  • Do they know how to sort laundry and wash it appropriately?
  • Can they remove a coffee stain?
  • Can they iron and do they know that if they take clothes from the dryer immediately and smooth/fold/hang it they probably won't have to? 
  • Do they know how to sweep, use a dustpan, and vacuum effectively?
  • Can they sew on a button and patch a tear?
  • Do they realize that those rules about candles in dorm rooms are meant for THEM?  (I watched from the cafeteria at the University of Southern Maine as a dorm room curtain went up in flames and had my apartment entirely burned out when a sheet of fire entered my front window after a neighbor fell asleep with a lit candle.  Yes, those rules are there for a reason.)

Eating and Sleeping

  • Many first year students gain 10-15 pounds because of the great food modern 'cafeterias' (read food courts) offer.  Anyone will gain weight if they eat all their meals in the culinary  equivalent of a shopping mall.  But all colleges offer good food.  Do they know how to create a balanced diet and make good food choices? 
  • Do they realize that if you want to hang out talking for an hour or two over dinner you can get a second or third helping of salad instead of ice cream?  And just because it says 'all you can eat' doesn't mean you HAVE to?
  • Do they realize that if they have a 9:00 AM class and get up at 8:30, they probably should be in bed by midnight?  And that sleeping late on the weekends actually increases sleep problems?
  • Do they know that the added efficiency of being well rested more than compensates for the work you don't do by staying up late?  (This was the single most important thing I learned in my Intro Psychology class and is a great excuse for going to bed when you're tired.)

Safety (this will be hammered on during orientation, but is worth repeating):

  • Do they realize that crossing a street on campus is still CROSSING A STREET.  One student was so busy texting that they WALKED INTO my car when I was waiting for a light.  This is not uncommon.
  • They know drinking is probably illegal for them. Do they know that one drink per hour will keep them moderately buzzed but functional all evening but that the same number of drinks in an hour could put them in an emergency room? Either from alcohol poisoning, from being hit by a car or falling down a stair, or as an assault victim?
  • Do they know that going places with people you don't know - especially when either you or they are drunk - is simply a very dangerous thing to do.  Even if the other people 'seem nice' and are students too?

Courtesy and Manners:

  • Can they use a knife, fork, spoon, and napkin properly?  And do they know not to start eating before their host picks up their fork?  Most students will be invited to at least a few formal meals - probably important ones.  Make sure they don't flunk lunch.
  • They DO know not to text and check their email during a meal with a dean, professor, or potential boss don't they? 
  • Do they know how to address an e-mail appropriately?  'Hey Prof' does not make a good impression (though I get emails beginning like that every semester).  You can't go wrong with a "Dear Professor X".  Most faculty are happy to be addressed by their first name.  But when in doubt, formality won't do any harm (And they should remember that email is not a text and punctuation was invented for a good reason.).
  • Do they know that almost all professors - especially women - get really annoyed when they're addressed as Mr., Mrs., or Ms?  Even if they're too polite to say so?  Professor, Dr., or a first name is preferable.  If a professor hasn't listed their first name on the board or syllabus, they probably don't want students to use it.
  • Do they know how to be polite to the cafeteria workers, secretaries, and other people working hard to make them comfortable at school?
  • Do they realize that doing anything other than paying attention to a class is VERY distracting to the other students around them?  Talking, texting, watching youtube videos are all better done outside the classroom. 

As a psychologist who studies parenting during adolescence, I could go on about psychological preparation, social skills, and a thousand other things that it would be great if all parents gave our kids. 

But it's too late for that.  They're walking out the door.

If they can do THESE things, they've got a decent, practical start.

Some Resources:

  • 50 Things Everyone Should Know How To Do
  • The Experts Guide to 100 Things Everyone Should Know How To Do (Samantha Ettus)This is one of the few books my son brought with him to South Africa when he needed to pack everything he needed for 27 months into two suitcases.  Enough said.