06/23/2011 02:08 pm ET | Updated Aug 23, 2011

The Surprising Task of Getting Your Child Ready for College

I want to talk today to parents who've recently attended a child's high school, upper school, or prep school graduation and are just a couple of months from taking or sending that child off to college. You may have heard a graduation talk on that grand day directed to your high achiever. But now you need a few words directed just to you.

Your child will likely experience another graduation day just a few years from now, and face the prospects of the job market, either immediately, or after the further expensive and extensive preparation of graduate or professional school. No one knows what the state of the economy, the nation, or the world will be four or more years from now. But we can safely bet that it will involve some sort of challenge for newly minted degree holders off to make their mark. And this has probably already crossed your mind.

Here's something you may not have thought about yet: What happens next fall at the first stage of the college adventure and in the semester after that will likely be in some way crucial for determining or charting out the possibilities for every subsequent opportunity your child will face.

Life has inflection points like that -- times that transcend in importance their own confines and either open up or close off options for the future. As a philosopher, I believe that life is supposed to be a series of adventures. The adventure we're on now is preparing us for the next one, and sometimes in ways we can't even imagine. This summer, the time between when your child stepped off the stage with a high school diploma and when he or she steps into a new college environment will be more of an adventure than you may have had the chance yet to realize. It is a time for helping your child prepare to arrive at their college or university home equipped and primed for success.

Since Emerson wrote his famous essay "Self-Reliance," we've had an American myth of the self-made man or woman, depending on no one else, taking charge of their personal destiny and charting a path through life that others can only watch from afar. But Emerson didn't for a moment believe that life success is a solo flight devoid of support and guidance. And your child's upcoming transition to college will be best managed by the cooperative engagement of everyone in the family who wishes him or her the best. The truth is that, as a parent, you have a job this summer that's more important, and perhaps more complex, than you've yet come to appreciate.

You've most likely had a lively involvement in your child's success at every step of the educational journey up until now, even if you've avoided the extremes of the infamous "helicopter parent" ever hovering and swooping in to interfere in situations that the student best faces directly. You've worked hard to get your child to school and to special events. You've met teachers, worked as a volunteer, and attended athletic contests. You've visited and talked through possible colleges, you've done all you could to help in the application process, and in the recently decision time that followed those long anticipated letters of acceptance or disappointment.

You may think that, as a parent, the majority of your work of support is done. Maybe you'll make a few trips to Target or The Container Store, or Bed, Bath, and Beyond, or other retail outlets to buy some supplies and a few things for the dorm. But you might have no idea of how much needs to be learned and accomplished in the small period of time that stands between now and your child's next great adventure and that shrinks every hour.

The main problem is that, if you're like most parents, you don't know what you don't know. And you want to avoid finding out at the worst possible time that something important should have been done days, or weeks, before. You need something that airline pilots and emergency room staffs use on a regular basis. You need a checklist of things that you and your child need to think about and accomplish now so that things will go smoothly on the first day of college classes.

Take it from me. I taught first semester freshmen for almost a decade and a half at The University of Notre Dame. I walked into my auditorium on the first day of class to witness a vast crowd of new students in various stages of excitement and exhaustion before the real challenges of academics and student life had even begun. Those in the worst shape had gotten to campus insufficiently prepared for their new life and had been scrambling all day every day just to catch up.

Where is the post office? How can I get my glasses fixed? What does it take to change a class? I need an extension cord and have no idea where to get one. How can I even find some of my classes? Why didn't I have more things shipped to campus from home? What in the world should I do with the things I brought that won't even fit into my dorm room? Is there a pharmacy nearby? I sure didn't know I'd need a bike to get around.

Why didn't I check on the kind of computer I would need here, and the software that would be necessary for my classes? And where is that campus computer lab I keep hearing about? Man, I'm not even sure where to get my clothes washed.

There are deadlines this summer, forms to fill out, contacts to be made, airline seats and hotel rooms to be booked, cars to be reserved, people to be contacted at the new school, places to be identified in the new town, and more things to be lined up, measured, packed, shipped, and inventoried than you may realize right now.

Things are constantly changing in the world of higher education, regardless of how many things seem to stay the same. What worked when you were in school won't likely work now. And even if you had an older child go off to college a few years ago, don't assume that you know everything that your current graduate needs to do or find out this time around, and at this, perhaps, new school. Even if it's the same school an older sibling has attended, remember what Heraclitus said in the ancient world: It's impossible to step into exactly the same stream twice, since the waters are always changing.

There is much to be learned this summer. In case you might be tempted to think that your child can take care of all this on his or her own, think again about what it was like for you to be eighteen and excited and confused and maybe too proud to admit you're too distracted by too many things or really don't feel like you know what you're doing.

Between now and freshman move-in-day, your child faces a marathon of challenges and a big load of things to learn and do, in order to prepare well for the next challenge, that inflection moment that will lay the foundation for all else that is to come, in predictable or in utterly unexpected ways. As a parent, you have an amazing opportunity to be of help. Start visiting the freshman website of your child's new college. Start writing down questions you or your child need to ask. Make a checklist of things that need to be done. And get the helpful advice of others who have been through all this. On one of the websites I help oversee,, we're providing specific suggestions every week that could make all the difference in your preparations, and your child's readiness, for this next big adventure. Come see us there, ask us your questions, and draw on the collective wisdom of a growing community of people who want to share thoughts about their successes and failures in this very process.

Your child can't do it all alone. And you can't do it alone. Add your voice to those beginning to gather online to trade stories and give advice. I think even Emerson would approve.