Illustration by Leanna

For some of you, these are the last days of your childhood. High school is over. In less than a month, you’re going to say goodbye to your parents, your dog, your best friend, everyone, and start on a brand-new phase of your life.

Starting college is exciting and TERRIFYING. I, for one, couldn’t wait. I spent all my time on my university’s website, reading about residence life and study-abroad opportunities. I connected with future classmates on Facebook. I even checked the menu at our dining hall, and imagined myself eating there, every day (note: this was only exciting in my imagination). In short, I was obsessed with college.

But then one day it just hit me: I was going to have to leave my dog, Paris, behind. No more walks or slobbery tug-of-war or big furry hugs until Thanksgiving. No more conversations with my Amazon parrot, Kiwi. No more sitting outside watching the chickens dig in the garden.

My mom and I were best friends. I would no longer be living with her, no longer be able to able to drop in to visit my grandparents. I’d never been away from home for longer than a week. Thanksgiving seemed like a lifetime away.

Even if it hasn’t really hit you yet, you know on some level that your life is never going to be the same again. That’s not a bad thing—it’s just a weird thing, especially if you’ve never moved or switched schools before now.

So, how do you deal with this? Here is my unofficial guide for making the transition from home to college.

Before you leave:

Embrace your last few weeks at home. Get together with all your friends and have a party. Or go to the park. Or hang out at Taco Bell. Just do whatever you do for fun, because it’s going to be a while before you see one another again. Persuade your family to have a goodbye meal at your favorite restaurant—depending on the dining-hall options at your university of choice, it may well be your last taste of real food for a while.

When you’re packing for your dorm room, don’t discount the sentimental stuff. Having actual, printed-out photographs is a good thing. I brought one of my family, a few of my friends, and a couple more of my pets. And bring a few mementos from home for your desk. When you’re feeling homesick, those little reminders will be a lifesaver.

Be aware, this can backfire. I brought my Avenging Unicorn Playset, a gift from a dear friend that never failed to make me laugh, and was horrified when my new roommate unironically hung a Little Unicorn calendar on the wall. Somehow we got along despite her enduring love for all things cute, but that was a tense moment.

But anyway, back to packing. As I said, a few room decorations will make a huge difference into turning a bland dorm room into “home.” I hung a string of light-up butterflies over my window, which I subsequently NEVER turned on, but the butterflies made me happy (and probably helped my roommate recover from the mime-killing unicorn on my desk).

I also brought a few books from home, but I made the wrong choices. I was so excited about college that all I was reading were books about college or boarding school (Light Years by Tammar Stein, Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, Chicken Soup for the College Soul…). After a few weeks at school, though, the excitement had worn off and I wished I had some of my older, familiar books to lose myself in. New and exciting things are good to have, but make sure you bring a few favorite books, DVDs, music playlists, etc., for when homesickness hits.

So you’re all packed, you’ve said your goodbyes… now what?

When you get there:

Your #1 mission is to start connecting with people and making friends. Actually, your first mission will be to get to your dorm before the number of freshmen carrying refrigerators hits critical mass and to choose the best bed before your roommate gets there. But once you’ve got all your crap inside the dorm room, your next mission is to socialize.

Most likely you’ve already started. You’ve probably been to orientation and traded email addresses with a few people. No doubt you’ve joined Facebook groups for upcoming freshmen. I did all this and more, and out of everyone I tracked down online, I found exactly one person whom I actually ended up socializing with IRL. But my next-door dorm neighbors met each other online, requested each other as roommates, and remained friends for the rest of forever. So it’s certainly worth a try! If you’re trying to make friends online, look for people in your major or dorm, because you’ll want to see a familiar face when you get there, and you’re more likely to actually stay in touch after those Facebook groups become dormant. And, of course, if you have contact info for your future roommate, use it! Not just to organize things like who is bringing the microwave, but also to get to know each other. It’ll make things less weird when you get there.

My freshman roommate, Katy, is the friendliest person on Earth. I was super lucky to have landed with her—there’s no room for awkwardness when Katy is around. She was immediately ready with board games and conversation whenever things in the dorm got quiet. If you want to make friends, be like Katy. But if you’re shy like me, find the people like Katy. People will be hanging out in the common room or leaving their doors open for people to come in and hang out. You’ll never find so many people so desperate for friends again. Just talk to everyone, and accept every invitation.

Katy wasn’t around for my first meal on campus after my parents left. I hugged them goodbye and then held back tears as I stood in line for food. Once I stopped looking like I was about to sob, the girl behind me struck up a conversation (she told me she waited because if I started crying, she’d cry too). I had a lunch buddy! We didn’t end up becoming friends—might be none of the people you meet those few first days will be friends. But don’t be picky—just learn the names and faces and majors of EVERYONE. Some of these people will become friends, some classmates, and some of them will end up working in the same far-away city as you years down the road, possibly determining whether or not you get your dream job.

Lucky for me, the people who would become my best friends in college lived in my dorm. We were all in the honors program, which helped—if you’re lucky enough to get in a dorm with people who are all part of your major, program, band, or sport, you probably have readymade friends. But if the people you live with don’t share any interests with you, you might have to widen your search. Fortunately, residential colleges make it really easy to meet people.

Your school will have a bunch of orientation and welcome events. You should attend them all. My school had two big memorable events for freshman. One was called the Welcome Fair, where every club and group set up a table to recruit freshmen. I signed up for everything I or my new friends were vaguely interested in, and picked up tons of free stuff. Later on I chose which of those groups I actually wanted to attend: I never did end up at a yearbook meeting, but the tae kwon do class my friend Rachel persuaded me to take with her ended up being AWESOME. Even if your school doesn’t have an event like that, figure out how to sign up for clubs and join everything. Clubs are one of the best ways to meet people, because they’re generally small groups of people with similar interests. And they are also a really good way to segue into getting an internship or job later on.

Welcome Fair was useful, but my school also had a mandatory orientation event called Playfair. It was an entire evening of incredibly stupid “get to know you” exercises, with every single member of the freshman class participating, crushed in this huge mass of people in the indoor track. It was totally bizarre, and I don’t think anyone managed to remember a single face after it was over, but it was so surreal that it sort of bonded everyone together anyway, in our shared confusion. Six years later I met up with a fellow alumna whom I hadn’t even known freshman year, and we ended up laughing over Playfair.

Before you know it, all the stupid orientation stuff will be over and classes will start. You’ll still be able to make friends—and you’ll keep making them for the next four years. But take advantage of that limbo period between graduating high school and starting your first college class. It’s one of the weirdest, freest times of your life, when you’re a kid and an adult at the same time, getting the chance to completely start over in life along with hundreds of other 18-year-olds doing the EXACT SAME THING. (It’s hard to feel much self-pity about major life changes when literally everyone you know is going through the same experience.) And then you’ll graduate college and start this process all over again, except you might be the only person at work orientation, and everyone keeps their office and apartment doors closed. ♦