10 Things Every Parent Should Do to Help Their College-Bound Kid

If you've got a child getting ready to pack up for college, there are some ways you can help.

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In just a few weeks, 20 million students will go to college, more than 3 million of them for the first time. Here are our top 10 tips for parents of off-to-college students:

1. Web-surf the college. Go to the website of the school your child will be attending and, together, explore the academic side of things. The more your child knows about college requirements, available majors and minors, and individual course offerings, the easier it'll be for him or her to navigate the college once there.

2. Invest in some hardware. Every college student needs a portable computer for essential tasks such as note taking, online research, writing papers, and e-mailing. Pick a notebook, netbook, or tablet that weighs no more than 3.5 pounds, has a battery life of at least six hours, and offers wireless capability and a webcam. And don't forget word processing software: Microsoft offers Office Professional Academic 2010 for $79.95 to college students (you need your .edu address), and OpenOffice (a product of Oracle) is free.

3. Buy the tomes. You might save your child—and yourself —a pile of money if you buy the required textbooks in advance of the semester. The college bookstore will have the lists (at the store and often online), but you'll get your best deal if you consider all the alternatives: brick-and-mortar campus bookstores, online retailers (Amazon, Barnes and Noble, eFollett, half.com), and even book rentals (www.chegg.com, www.campusbookrentals.com, and www.bookrenter.com). Be sure to consider e-books, as well as print books, when both are available.

Extra Pointer: Check out meta-sites www.bigwords.com, www.bestbookbuys.com, and www.cheapesttextbooks.com for comparisons of prices at online retailers.

4. Splurge on some furnishings. Your child will have a more pleasant college experience—and might study harder, too—if you get him or her some nice dorm accessories. Start with a plush chair and iPod speakers (try Walmart, Target, Costco, Kohls, or BestBuy), then move onto a good desk lamp and desk chair (Office Depot, Office Max, and Staples have a good selection). Think of them as "house warming" gifts.

5. Set the (e-) rules. Determine how often your child wants you to call (some students may welcome five calls a day, while for others once a week is more than enough). And decide on Facebook rules: Are you allowed to post to your student's wall? Can you tag him or her in family photos? Are you going to be "friended" at all?

6. Make a financial plan. If you haven't done so already, now would be an excellent time to talk with your child about the cold realities of college expenses: Who's going to pay for tuition, room and board, and books, not to mention pizzas, clothes, and trips? An open discussion now can forestall great unpleasantness later. And if your child doesn't need to take on a job, don't force him or her to do so. At least at the beginning, it'd be much better for him or her to study a little more than to flip a few more burgers.

7. Have "the talk." It's not too late—or too soon—to review the basics. Discuss with your child the dangers of college: too much partying, risky sexual behavior, recreational drug use, and simple lack of sleep. If this is your child's first extended time away from home, he or she will benefit from your life experience.

8. Resign as manager. Many parents, especially conscientious ones, are used to "helping" their kids study for tests, "reminding" them of upcoming deadlines, and "going over" the homework nightly. But one of the most important skills in college is for your child to learn to do all this on his or her own. Don't stand in the way of your child's becoming a good student—and a responsible adult—by holding onto a high-school parenting model.

9. Let the professor help. Though most beginning students don't know it, college professors are happy to offer academic assistance to all students (not just ones in trouble) during their twice-weekly office hours. And they're often available in other modalities: E-mail, Skype, and even informal after-class chats. Encourage your child to make use of this most underused college resource. You've (pre-) paid for it.

10. Get there early. If you and your child haven't yet been to an orientation session, get there ASAP. Your kid will learn a tremendous amount about the college and, more important, will pick first-semester courses. With places in classes in short supply at many over-enrolled universities, it's "first come, first served." And when the first day of college arrives, drive your kid there. The beginning of college is a big event in your child's life. Share it with him or her.

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