There are many lists of freshman dorm necessities floating around on the Internet, but one list making the rounds among parents on Los Angeles' Westside is especially thorough. It's an Excel spreadsheet that usually lands in in-boxes with a disclaimer from the sender saying something like, "I know it's a little much, but it's nice to have it all spelled out."
This particular list is broken down into categories such as "bedding," "bedroom stuff," "common room," "hardware store" and "toiletries," and it has more than 100 items, including Dixie cups, Blistex, a mini cutting board, stamps, ruler, Wite-Out, thank-you notes and small vacuum.
Some people see helicopter mom in this list; others might see a just plain neurotic person. After all, an 18-year-old who has managed to get into college is surely capable of buying his own Blistex. But there is something else in the time, care and energy spent by the unknown parent who put it all together: the desire, however absurd, to take care of everything, just one last time.
"I think the idea of making the list, and thinking of the ruler and the Wite-Out, it makes us feel like we have control over the situation," said Los Angeles mom Kathi Sweet, whose own list (which does not include Wite-Out or rulers) is written in Post-it Notes scattered around her house in the weeks before her son goes to Lewis and Clark College in Oregon. "But the fact is what it is. They're going to say goodbye and we are going to miss them, and our hearts are going to hurt a little bit even if we have thought of absolutely everything."
A few parents will manage to avoid the monster shop that usually precedes the first semester of freshman year. There are those who will raid their family's linen closets for sheets, pillows, towels and comforters, and others who will spend just $200 to $300 for one of the dorm-bed-in-a-bag kits. But for many parents, preparing a child for college can become a summerlong ordeal with multiple trips to Target, Walmart, Costco or the reigning king of dorm supplies, Bed Bath & Beyond.
Colleges and universities generally discourage students from bringing too much stuff with them. "On one hand, your student should bring enough 'stuff' to make his or her space feel like home," reads a passage in the University of Southern California parent handbook. "On the other hand, since space is at a premium, things like drum sets and entire collections of National Geographic may not be appreciated by your student's roommates."
At the University of Minnesota, one rule even says that students cannot use horse trailers to pack in. (Apparently it has come up.)
"We have parents, especially mothers of daughters, who get really into what their daughter's room is going to look like," said Marjorie Savage, parent program director at Minnesota and author of the book "You're on Your Own (but I'm Here if You Need Me)."
But when parents call her office to find out if the dorm-room door is wood or metal so they know which message board to buy, her advice is to let the new roommates figure it out for themselves.
"Deciding how to decorate is how students start to learn about each other, and how they negotiate difference," she said. "It also gives them something to talk about when they first meet."
Most of the stuff that Los Angeles 18-year-old Mollie Braen will take to outfit her dorm room at Bard College, a liberal arts school 90 miles south of New York City, came from one mega-shopping trip to Bed Bath & Beyond with her mother. (Although the duvet, which Mollie describes as "the most ridiculously loud, floral multicolored blanket," was purchased on sale at Anthropologie.) Mollie's mom, Beth, was shocked to discover that college students can register at Bed Bath & Beyond, walking around the store with a scan gun and zapping whatever they think they might need.
"It's like what I did when I got married," she said, "except this time I'm paying for it all."
The store also has a program called Pack and Hold, which allows students to zap items at one store and pick them up closer to school. Although a spokeswoman wouldn't discuss the company's college business, it obviously has invested in marketing to students. It has collected information from many colleges on what is and is not allowed in dorm rooms, and it provides directions from colleges to the closest Bed Bath & Beyond.
That makes getting the new towels and bedding easier, but the Braens also have been busy determining the best way to transport across the country the things Mollie already owns. They bought rolling duffel bags that will squash down easily in a small space after the plane trip, and Beth Braen has been looking into whether it's best to send her daughter's shoes via UPS or the Postal Service. In the meantime, her husband has been researching the financials on mini-fridges, trying to determine whether it's best to rent, buy new or buy refurbished.
"I think that all this being very busy making the getting there happen is really a way to sort of hide the fact that you are dropping your kid off for the rest of their lives," said Beth, two weeks before Mollie's move-in date. "There's a prolonging of the inevitable, that they are not going to be there and your work, to a certain extent, as a parent, is done."
Sharon Lerman of West Los Angeles got the Excel spreadsheet list from a friend earlier this year and has been buying basics such as desk lamps and extension cords for her Stanford-bound son. On a recent shopping trip, she ran into three kids she knew, all logging items with their scan guns. "It was like a reunion," she said.
She has printed out the list and likes the feeling of crossing things off even though she thinks it's overkill. "The love part of you wants them to have every single thing they might need, but if you think about it in a more cognitive way, running out of something can be a learning experience for them," she said. "In the meantime, I got the isotonic 2-inch foam memory pad. He must be comfortable!"