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Student Life

Why College Orientation Matters

Vicki Nelson

The transition to college can be disorienting. Students move from the familiar routine of high school and home into a new and unfamiliar world. It’s a big change for their families, too.

Fortunately, most colleges and universities recognize this dis-oriented state and support new students and families by offering orientation sessions before the official start of freshman year.

What Happens at New Student Orientation?

Orientation is a chance for students to learn how things work at their new school and meet other students as well as faculty and staff members. Orientation is also a chance for the school to start getting to know your student.

A good orientation program helps students feel excited about starting college and smooths the transition to campus life and the independence that comes with it.

Like schools themselves, orientations come in all shapes and sizes. They may be half a day or a full week; they may take place in early summer, mid-summer, or just before classes begin in the fall. Some orientation programs are highly structured and informative while others emphasize social bonding and feel more like summer camp.

Many schools invite parents, guardians and supporters to participate in orientation. Family members might attend the same programming as their student, or experience a separate but parallel program geared to their unique needs.

As the pandemic continues into a second year, many orientation programs will remain fully online. Whatever the format — virtual or in person on campus — all orientation programs aim to provide students and families with a sense of belonging. You will become more comfortable with the campus, learn about college policies and expectations, and start connecting with key people. It's a valuable experience!

Getting Acquainted

For many students, orientation is their first chance to meet members of the college community beyond the admissions office. Administrators and staff welcome students and conduct information sessions, student support staff introduce themselves, and faculty may be available.

During orientation, students become familiar with their new home and its rules and expectations. They learn their way around campus, and find out more about health services, meal plans, computer needs, curriculum requirements, college drinking policies and course registration (to name a few of many possible topics!).

They may meet with an academic advisor to plan their fall schedule, or take formal assessments such as math or writing placement tests.

Most important: They meet other students — both upperclassmen and their fellow first years. They can hear about life at college from those who’ve been there, and begin making the new friends who will share their journey in the fall.

Orientation is a chance for students to get acquainted with their new school; orientation also helps the school get to know your student. Orientation leaders and other staff members use this time to observe and learn about the students, working hard to draw out quieter students and reminding more boisterous students about college behavioral expectations.

A lot of getting-to-know-you happens in a short time.

Orientation is for Parents, Too

At orientation, parents and families have a similar opportunity to get to know the campus and the people who will be working with their student. They may learn about:

  • Policies, standards and behavioral expectations for students
  • How the college will communicate with parents and families
  • How billing is handled
  • How to access information through a parent portal
  • Who to contact if they have concerns
  • How parents can stay appropriately involved on the college level — perhaps through a parent association or council 

A Sense of Belonging

It’s a lot! But by the end of orientation, both students and parents should feel like they belong and are part of a new community.

Students usually take home (or in the case of online orientation, will be mailed) some college gear or swag and maybe their new ID card. They’re college students now!

And having met college personnel, in person or online, parents should be more comfortable when they drop their student off on move-in day, and more at home when they return for Family Weekend in the future.

Vicki Nelson has more than 35 years of experience in higher education as a professor, academic advisor and administrator. She has also weathered the college parenting experience successfully with three daughters. She established her website, College Parent Central, in 2009 to help college parents achieve the delicate balance of support, guidance and appropriate involvement as they prepare for and navigate the college journey with their student. Vicki also serves as co-host of the College Parent Central podcast.
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