Preparing your teen for college dorm life? Don't over-pack

You've shared a home for a lifetime and felt secure knowing that child of yours was just a bedroom away. Now, you're shipping your teenager off to begin a new chapter in an unfamiliar place, possibly hundreds of miles away — all without you.

Dropping a child off at college for the first time can be an emotional transition. And in that overwhelming run-up to the eventual goodbye, overbuying and over-packing are easy mistakes to make as parents hope to inoculate their teens against every collegiate scenario.

"Sometimes we don't know what to do with emotions," so parents channel them into packing and shopping to feel productive, said Beth Miller, a coordinator for residence life at University of Wisconsin-Madison who has been involved in campus life for the past 17 years. "But sometimes parents are purchasing things based on emotion and not necessarily based on need."

It's natural to want to send your child with all the dorm supplies necessary to start college off right, and overbuying is "an expression of love," says Mary Dell Harrington, co-founder of Grown & Flown , a website for parents of high school and college students.

"But their success doesn't have anything to do with the perfect comforter," she says. "It has to do with them actually doing the work and making friends and having a feeling of belonging. Those aren't things we can impact at all as their parents. What we can do is help with the comforter shopping."

Some packing tips from the experts:

Before the first set of twin XL sheets is even selected, the first stop on the road to buying just the right amount should be the college website.

Many universities list the items and amenities that come with each room. Some include dimensions for the room, the under-the-bed space and the best size carpet for the space. They also list prohibited items (possibly certain appliances) and have a packing list.

Check whether the room comes with a trash can or lamp. Is there a convenient printing center or does the student need a printer? Will your student walk down the hall, or across the quad, to do laundry? Some campuses allow twinkle lights, others don't. "Each one of these things will determine what your purchases will likely be," Harrington said.

Your child won't need — or have room for — everything on the college packing list, Harrington says. "These are all the millions of things your kid might possibly need," Harrington says. "Like an alarm clock: Maybe your kid is accustomed to using their phone as an alarm clock."

When shopping, focus on your child's needs for their specific dorm room, Harrington advises. Get the basics and a few extras, and then plan on running to the store after move-in to pick up a few helpful items, like a hook for that wet towel or a fan if it's hot. Of course, students can order online as well.

Get your child involved. "Have students lead the way," Miller says. "Ask them what they think they will need."

To save precious dorm space, roommates should talk about what they're bringing to avoid duplication, and check what supplies a dorm may provide, like vacuum cleaners and microwaves.

Rather than thinking about what the student will need for the school year, Miller recommends bringing enough for the first two weeks. That means students don't necessarily need their warmest coat if the cold isn't due to arrive before a family weekend or trip home. And don't forget to bring a few things that make college feel like home, like photos or posters.

Students should skip anything on the list that they haven't used at home, with some exceptions, Miller says. Those include items that will help with a roommate issue, like earplugs and an eye mask. Or, for students who need to walk down the hall to the bathroom, a shower caddy, shower shoes and something to cover up with are recommended.

To save money, Harrington recommends that families shop their closets first.

"They don't have to send their kid with all new stuff to college," she said. "It does get wrecked, and it's hard for kids to keep things orderly and clean in a dorm room because it's such tight quarters."

Remember, the room doesn't have to be perfect on day one. And parents, so full of hope and excitement for their child on move-in day, have many ways to tell their children they love and care about them without spending another dime or making another trip to the car.

"Show it through a hug, show it through a text message, show it through an email or a letter that you leave them on their desk," Miller said. "You can show them all of that without the physical and financial burden of over-purchasing and over-packing."


Lisa A. Flam is a news and lifestyles reporter in New York. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook .