Coach Mike: 25 Tips on Sending Your Kid to College
Parental advice from local Mike Sager
Illustration by Lars Leetaru
The summer before my kid went to college, we spent a lot of time together. Some of it felt like an extended boys’ holiday. Some of it felt like waiting for a part of my life to expire—counting down the days to the end of my son’s childhood.
We’d been living together exclusively for the better part of two years. In some ways I felt like his roommate. In other ways I was Mr. Bag Lunches and Laundry, all the usual stations of the domestic cross. My son’s best friend, Big Z, six-foot-six and 280 pounds, was our fond third wheel. I’d wake up in the morning for work and he’d be zonked out on the oversize sectional sofa in the living room. I’d come into the house after work and the boys would be hollering at the video game screen and at each other, laughing like a pair of loons. As a parent, you live for that kind of joyful noise. In those moments, you know you’ve done something right. If only you could bottle it.
Now, Z had left for college early, for football practice. One by one, my son’s other friends left as well. When the subwoofer in his little music studio wasn’t resonating up through the wood floor, palpable in bare feet, it was so quiet in the house that you could hear the scree of the red-tailed hawk who lives near the edge of our canyon—and the cawing of the squadron of crows forever trying to drive him out of their territorial airspace. That and the leaf blowers.
After the overwrought 15-year run-up to college acceptance (counting the various expensive years that precede grade one), after all the homework and painting projects, after all the fake smiles and careful negotiations with teachers, coaches, parents, and staff; after all the practices and games and insider team politics, all the extra credit projects and community service, all the heart-to-heart talks about working harder to achieve intangible goals that we promised would be realized in the nebulous future—well, what do you know? That future was here. We were here.
Never since his birth had he been sweeter, more mature, or more agreeable. Just a pleasure to be with. Except when he wasn’t.
And the tangible evidence was in the garage—an assortment of empty boxes and suitcases waiting to be packed for our drive northward in a rental minivan.
As the days of that summer passed, sunny and bittersweet, my son and I worked together on several projects in my office, ate BLTs with double B for lunch, grilled out, soaked languorously in the pool on particularly hot afternoons, watched movies, took an RV trip to Malibu, and camped on a cliff overlooking the ocean—they even had Wi-Fi. Heaven. That the trip was a collaboration on a small documentary was a nod to his coming future in film school. It assured us both that we had a shared interest we could take together into the next phase, and possibly the next after that. I felt the way the sunset looked on those clear Pacific days.
It felt like a golden time. We’d practiced at these roles for eighteen years. Here in the waning moments of his childhood, we’d finally gotten it right. Never since his birth had he been sweeter, more mature, or more agreeable. Just a pleasure to be with.
Except when he wasn’t.
Like when I tried to bring up college.
“I’ll do it myself!” he’d say. And then he’d say some hurtful stuff, look down at his phone, and stomp off.
I’ve always believed in something I call lifeguard parenting. I’m able to step away and watch from a distance. So that’s what I did.
In the meantime, I planned for the inevitable moment, probably about two days before we were supposed to leave for school, when he would realize this was actually happening.
I ordered everything off the list the school had sent, let them pile up in the garage by the boxes and bags. One night, with his exit close at hand, I was bursting with things I wanted to tell him, a cascade of advice that was keeping me awake. So I finally got up and started writing out a list. What follows is part of my original. My son is now a rising senior. Experience has contributed a few revisions, but most of it remains the same.
To the incoming freshman...
Twenty-one pairs of socks and twenty-one pairs of underwear.
Order the cheapest meal plan. The food kinda sucks. You can always add money, but you can’t get any back at the end of the semester.
The top bunk is better even though you have to climb up—visitors always sit on the bottom. You want everybody’s ass on your sheets?
Bring a small locking safe that will fit on a closet shelf.
Bring a small toolbox with the basics—hammer, wrench, box cutter, measuring tape, superglue, a level, an electric screwdriver.
If you feel lonely, leave your dorm room door open and play music a little loud. People will appear.
When it’s getting late, or when you’re sick of the crowd, you are allowed to stand and announce: “It’s time for everyone to leave.”
You can opt not to answer a knock at your door, unless it’s your roommate or a university official.
Every person who ever went to college has a memorable story about their first roommate. Usually it doesn’t involve lifelong friendship.
When you go to college, you’re starting over. Whether you were voted most popular or regarded as a weird outcast, your old high school persona is history. At college, you’re able to make a new first impression. Start making the tweaks and adjustments now. Ask yourself: How can I be the best version of me? Learn to project that image. Over time, you will become that person.
First impressions are lasting. Don’t be the kid who is eternally remembered for vomiting on the hall floor during orientation week.
Don’t lend anyone anything you expect to get back.
Do not complete the circle of gossip. If you hear something about someone, don’t run to them and repeat it and name the source. Keep it to yourself and use the information to find out more. Sometimes this is a better way to help. And it’s fun to watch the shit hit the fan.
Stay away from girls (or boys) who need to be saved. Usually, it’s themselves they need to be saved from.
Your college professor won’t think as highly of your writing skills as your parents, your friends, and your high school English teacher.
Go to class. Know the teacher. Even in a large class, nod your head during lectures to show you’re interested—professors see that. Participate in discussions. The fudge factor is very real.
College kids are always run-down or sick. Wash your hands. Use hand sanitizer. Take your vitamins. Eat fruit. Sleep. Eat something besides pizza. Swap spit only when necessary. Let your parents know when you’re sick. They can give you advice. You don’t have to grow up all in one semester.
Wash your jeans inside out. Take them out of the dryer a little early, while they’re still slightly damp, and fold, smooth, and lay them on top of the hot dryer.
Do I need to say this? Wash whites separately.
Let the water fill the washer a little bit before you add your liquid soap. After you see bubbles, start adding your clothes.
Even though you’ve taken all those fancy AP courses that contributed to your inflated 4.6 average, start out freshman year taking only the basic courses. You don’t know as much as you think you do.
The courses during the first few years are meant to be the busy work you do while you grow up a little bit and learn to handle college life and to care for yourself while living away from home. It’s a big Olympic-sized pool with lifeguards; adulthood comes next—that’s the ocean, with sharks. So this is sort of a dress rehearsal for real life. Get it? We’re supporting you! Work hard but don’t freak out and make yourself sick. They are only classes. You are only 18. You have a long way to go. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
Everybody is scared and unsure, even the ones who seem so perfectly perfect.
And remember: Only yes means yes. And put a Jimmy on it.
If you’re confused or hurt or in trouble, or even if you’re just super stoked, make Mom or Dad your first call. Growing up takes years. We are still here for you... even though we have no clue what you’re up to.
Best-selling author Mike Sager is a writer-at large for Esquire and award-winning reporter. For more, check out mikesager.com.