College orientation sessions are a terrific way for new students and their parents to learn about academic and student life. Just don't spend all your time on that jam-packed itinerary. Carve out an hour or two, do a little exploring and get some other, less obvious questions answered. Among them?
- Prepaid textbook options: Even if your child buys the bulk of his painfully expensive books online, via local used bookstores - look for them near campus - or through a book rental company, chances are he'll still end up making purchases at the campus bookstore. It's convenient, well-stocked, and it may be the only place that carries the more esoteric volumes and customized anthologies some professors require. So swing by the campus bookstore and find out whether you can open an account or prepay the tab, or if your child can charge purchases to his student account - in which case, you'll need to have a discussion with him about exercising some restraint.
Birthday cakes: Some colleges offer special order birthday treats through their dining halls or student life services, so scout out the possibilities when you visit the campus during orientation. Stanford delivers birthday cakes to the dorm, for example, and parents at the University of Delaware can arrange a surprise visit by the school mascot.
- Coffee houses, movie theaters: Scout out the surrounding area for student hangouts - coffee houses, burrito bars, movie theaters. Pick up a few gift certificates now and you can surprise your little darling with them later. A $20 gift card to the pizzeria near campus or $5 at a latte hotspot are great things to drop into a college care package.
Hotels & nice restaurants: If you're not delighted with the hotel where you're staying for orientation, this is a good time to scout alternatives for next time. While you're at it, look for nice dining possibilities. You'll probably need a little pampering after moving your child into the dorms, or at least a place with a decent wine list. And when you come back to visit later, your child will be dying for an alternative to dorm food.
- Dorm room measurements: You don't have to cart around a measuring tape, but spend some time eyeballing the rooms on your dorm tour. Dorm beds tend to ride higher than regular beds, but take a look at the mechanism that holds the mattress to the frame and see if it's even more adjustable. Then measure the distance from the floor to mattress - just stand next to it and see where the bottom of the mattress hits your leg. That's how tall your child's under bed storage bins can be - higher if the mattress is in its lowest position. Look at the cupboard space. Check if there's a mirror and a bulletin board. Look in the restrooms - do students store their toiletries in the restroom or shlep it back and forth? Ask your tour guide if all the dorms have similar restrooms and room furniture.
- Tech support: And finally, investigate the tech support options for students, including the availability of help when a student's laptop crashes at 2 a.m. Because you know the first person he's going to call, no matter what the hour, is you.
Print out a handy checklist to take along.