College Move-In Day – Everything You Need to Know

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As a mom who has moved 2 of my babies to college, I know how daunting college move-in day can be. I’ve moved them into two different colleges, much too far away from home and I’ve done it by myself seven times. I have extensive dorm move-in day experience on my resume now.

As a military mom and professional organizer, I look at moving as a challenge to figure out and solve. These sixteen tried-and-true tips will make your college move-in day a breeze (or as close to easy as it can be). 

girl smiling in front of packed car with sign behind saying "welcome freshman", and packed trunk.

Who knows whether it’s my 25 moves with the military, my experience as an Air Force Transportation Officer (loading cargo and passengers on aircraft) or my professional organizing experience, but I enjoy the moving challenge of college move-in day. Now, the emotional mom challenge I can do without. But the planning, organizing and moving part of moving I can help with.

College Move-In Day

Pack Smaller Lighter Boxes – You might think having fewer boxes means fewer trips from the car to the dorm, but trust me, you’d rather have more lighter boxes than fewer heavier boxes. Lighter boxes give you flexibility.

  • Lighter boxes mean that everyone and anyone in your group can help carry them.
  • Lighter boxes are easier to pull out of the depths of the laundry cart.
  • If the line for luggage carts or the elevators is too long, lighter boxes allow you to carry them up the stairs. No, this is not something you plan on doing. No, it’s not something you want to do. But trust me, it may end up being the best of a bunch of frustrating choices. 
  • You can always pile two lighter boxes on top of each other if you can handle the weight, but you can’t cut a heavier box in half. 
  • Moving everything into a tiny room while a roommate is moving in at the same time makes it challenging to figure out where to put everything. Lighter boxes allow you to stack them on shelves, on chairs, on top of each other or even stand there and hold them, if you have to.
clear storage bin packed with clothing next to 2 stacked white boxes with handles.

Start Packing Early – Start packing several weeks early. The last week before college move-in day can be emotional and stressful. Don’t contribute to that stress by waiting to pack. You can easily pack heavier clothes and bedding early. This also allows you to estimate if everything will fit in your car.

Identify Every Item – Some colleges have a drop-off spot with squads of (overly) helpful students to unload your items and carry them to your room. They mean well, but sometimes your box or item will be misplaced or confused with another student’s belongings. You don’t want the stress of trying to find your one box among the tens of thousands of boxes and thousands of stressed out families. Use removable brightly colored tape to identify every single item. Write key identifying information:

  • Name
  • Dorm Name
  • Room Number
  • Cell Phone
green roll of tape with "Jess 321" written several times on tape and black marker.

Pack Your Car for Easy Unloading – Unloading is a chaotic time. Often the university will have staff hurrying you along to unload your car and then move out of the unloading zone. Take time to consider how you pack your car so that it will be easier to unload in the midst of move-in day chaos.

Plan Your Arrival Time – Consider your college’s move-in day schedule and the student body of the school. Will most people be driving from their home the day before or driving on move-in day? If you are able to move in anytime you’d like, it’s best to move in at the very beginning of the scheduled time. You should even show up 30 to 45 minutes early so that you can start moving in if they’ll allow you. If there are two move-in days, it also works well to move in at the end of the first move-in day. The rush of eager families moving in the first day is gone and the second day rush hasn’t started yet. If you are assigned a move-in time slot, ask the residential life office if they can give you any advice.

Be Prepared to Wait – No matter what time you arrive for move-in day, plan on waiting. Waiting:

  • for traffic onto the campus
  • for traffic onto the road for your dorm
  • for traffic into the loading zone area or parking area
  • in line to sign in
  • in line for luggage/laundry carts
  • in line for the elevator up
  • in line for the elevator down
  • in line in the hallways as too many luggage carts pile up
  • in the room trying to fit too many roommates’ stuff in too small of a space
  • for your student to decide where to place items

There’s no reliable way to hurry the process along without stressing everyone out. Simply be prepared to wait. A. Lot.

Bring Your Best Stress-free Attitude – Take a deep breath and know to depths of your core that this will be an incredibly stressful experience. Getting impatient, upset or frustrated is not going to help. Bring your calm, helpful parenting attitude (and keep counting to ten!). You don’t want your last hours with your baby to be marred by your stress. 

Bring Critical Equipment – Depending on your dorm room and what items you’re bringing, you’ll need different equipment and tools. Plan ahead so that you have what you need. Don’t add to the stress of the day with a gotta-find-a-store-and-find-parking-and-fight-all-the-other-stressed-out-parents-to buy-a-(fill in the blank)-to-fight-your-way-back-to-the-dorm-to-fight-for-parking-to-wait-for-the-elevator-to-give-up-and-take-too-many-stairs experience.

  • Collapsible hand truck (from Amazon)- You’ll end up toting boxes (even those light-weight ones you packed) much farther than you expected. And possibly up way more stairs than you ever expected. When my son goes off to college, I’m going to try this UpCart that has wheels designed to go up the stairs. 
woman pulling boxes up stairs with unique 3 wheeled hand truck.
  • Bungee Cords – These will secure your items to the hand truck and in the luggage cart. 
  • Toolkit – Be sure to pack key tools that you may need. 
  • Rubber Mallet – If the height of the dorm bed can be adjusted, a rubber mallet makes the job so-oooo much easier (ask me how I know). 
  • Tape Measure – You’ll need this in case you have to make an emergency run to purchase a shelf or other item for the room. 
  • Command Hooks – You’ll find 101 ways to use Command Hooks in the dorm room. Purchase several variety packs in different sizes. You’ll always be able to use any extras next year. It’s so much easier to bring them with you than to try to run out to a store on dorm move-in day. 
  • Disinfecting Wipes
  • Paper Towels

Bring Cold Drinks – College move-in day is in August or September. It’s hot. You’re doing lots of physical work. You’re stressed out. And now you’re thirsty. You don’t want the hassle of fighting hundreds (maybe thousands) of other families to find somewhere to get a cold drink. Pack a collapsible cooler with water and other refreshing drinks. 

Plan for Food – No matter what time of day you move in, someone in your group will end up hungry. Just like with drinks, you don’t want the hassle of finding and fighting hundreds of other people to eat. And you won’t want to waste the time in the middle of moving and setting up the room. Bring food with you. Plan to enjoy a meal together later once the move-in chaos is over. 

Remember This Is Your Student’s Experience – Make gentle suggestions to your student but follow their lead. Let them lead the way. Have them sign in. Let them walk into their room first. Let them make decisions on where things go in their room. You may suggest, for example, that the room would function better one way, but if your student doesn’t want that then don’t push it. Don’t make a scene or embarrass your child. You will be leaving in a few hours, but your student will remain there for 4 years and cares about making a good (not embarrassing) first impression. 

Be Polite to Other Parents (no matter how selfish or clueless they may be)  No matter how frustrating other parents are, be polite. Say it with me, “I will be polite to everyone (no matter how annoying, arrogant, clueless or just downright ******* they are).” Again, you will be departing in a couple of hours and your student will remain there. Alone. Don’t leave your student to be known as the one with “those parents.” Let the student of the annoying parents be the one with “those parents.”

Plan How to Say Good-bye – Talk with your student before you leave home or during the drive there. Look at the schedule and discuss when would be the best time for you to depart. Discuss whether you’ll say good-bye in the room or at the car. Consider having a code phrase that your student can tell you when it’s time for you to go. Discuss and plan and then be prepared to be flexible. If a group of hallmates stop by and invite your student to head out to lunch or an activity, be ready to change your goodbye plan. This time is about your student. 

Know When It’s Time to Go – Your student may hesitate to tell you it’s time for you to go or use your code phrase. She won’t want to hurt your feelings. She’ll be ready for you to go so she can start her new adventure and at the same time want you to stay just a bit longer. You’ve known your child for 18 years, you know when it is time for you to go (even if you’re not ready to leave). It will never be easy to say good-bye and leave your baby all alone in a strange place with bunch of strangers. Dragging it out won’t make it any easier. Trust me, I know. 

Leave A Note or Send a Text Later – While your student is eager to start their new adventure, they’ll miss you. It’s important to give them concrete reminders that you love them, support them, are proud of them and there for them. Leaving a card with a loving, supportive note for them to find after you leave is a nice surprise that shows how much you care. A quick, supportive (not smothering) text is a next best option. 

Look Forward to Parents’ Weekend, Thanksgiving or ChristmasIt will be tough to drive away and leave your baby in a strange place without you. I had to sit in the car and fight the overwhelming (and doggone irrational) urge to just live in my car there a block from her dorm for the next four months until I could bring her home for Christmas. Remind yourself that Parents’ Weekend or Thanksgiving or Christmas (for those of you with a really large geographic separation) is not that far away. Start making plans for ways to make that time with your baby special for them. Start planning fun and creative college care packages you can send (my favorite way to show how much I miss and love my babies in a concrete way). 

You can do it. You can survive college move-in day. With these 16 tips, you can might even find that you enjoy college move-in day!

See all my tips, ideas, printables and care packages in the table below. You can scroll though the table and look for ideas or search for specific ideas with the magnifying glass in the upper right-hand corner (on desktop). Click on the topic and then click through the specific article.

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One Comment

  1. While moving my daughter into the dorm apartment for her internship this summer, it was hard to remember that it’s her experience. I tried to help, but quickly found out, it was better to let her tell me what she needed help with, than for me to just start helping.

    I also should’ve been more polite to the other interns. My daughter is only 20, and wouldn’t drink anyways, but the other girls are older and had a lot of alcohol. I reminded them of the rules they signed about not having alcohol around someone under 21. My daughter asked me to not talk the rest of the time because I had made it uncomfortable for her around her roommates. I should’ve just let her handle the situation on her own.

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