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College orientation 101: What your student should know

Orientation is an important first "taste" of what school will look like.
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The time has finally come: your student has made their college decision and has submitted the deposit for their school of choice. But they’re not finished yet. Before they can enroll in classes and kick off the school year, they have one final step – orientation.

Whether your student is moving across the country, or staying close to home, just about every college has an orientation. For some, it may be a course online, while for others, it could be a few days on campus. But for all, it’s an important first “taste” of what their time at school will look like. Here’s how to make the most of it.

Attend if you can

If you have the option to attend your student’s college orientation, try your best to go. In fact, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 70% of students -- including international students -- come to orientation with at least one family member, says Stephanie Benson-Gonzales, the associate director of family programs. Maybe you don’t feel the need to go because you’ve been to campus before, or you have another child who has gone through a similar process, but oftentimes, the experience varies depending on the student and school.

Whether it’s checking out the cafeteria, or stopping in the school bookstore, familiarizing yourself with campus is an important step. But, it’s not the only step. “Parents need to be able to visualize what this experience on campus will be like,” Marjorie Savage, University of Minnesota’s parent program director, says. And that goes beyond just understanding the layout of the physical place.

“College orientation gives parents the opportunity to meet people in real time who will be there for students,” Savage says. Since college is anything but predictable, it’s nice to make connections with people on campus who can help your student, should they ever need it. But who exactly is the best point of contact? “Most schools should have some type of parent and family program,” Benson-Gonzales says. Oftentimes, they’ll give presentations and hand out their contact information during orientation.

And if you can’t attend your student’s orientation? Don’t worry – you have other options available. “Some schools will offer a Saturday orientation for families that can't make it during the week, while others are developing online orientations,” Savage says. But if you still can’t make it, “there will be plenty of opportunities for your student to be involved,” Benson-Gonzales says. “And it may be a great chance for them to connect with their peers.”

You can also coordinate with your student to ensure they pass along the information provided. “There are typically printed resources available that can be really helpful to reference at home,” Benson-Gonzales says. For example, although college orientations will often separate the parents and students, the orientation schedule can offer some insight into what was covered. “As you look through the schedule, see if you have any questions or concerns,” Savage says. And if you do, there’s plenty of backup available. “To get answers to questions, contact the parent or family program at their institution,” Benson-Gonzales says. Many universities have these types of programs readily available to help. But, if they don’t, “University Housing, Financial Aid, and the Dean of Student’s Office are all great resources,” Benson-Gonzales continues.

Whether or not you’re able to attend your student’s orientation, “know this is only one experience – in a series of experiences – that will prepare you and your student for what’s to come,” Benson-Gonzales says. “It’s a continuous process, so there will be plenty of other opportunities to ask questions.”

Be prepared

Preparation will differ depending on the student – and the school – but as a general rule, most information is going to go to your student’s email address, Benson-Gonzales says. This means they need to be the ones on top of any relevant timelines – and that starts with ensuring they’re actually registered and ready to go. But that’s not all. Students should also be prepared to sign up for classes at orientation, as it’s usually the time they enroll. They may need to take a placement test beforehand, or there might be certain requirements or introductory courses they should be aware of. Before heading to orientation, your student will want to ensure they have a relatively good idea of what to expect.

As for parents, think about general logistics. For example: accommodations. Will you be traveling in from out of town? Are you staying the night? If it’s overnight on campus, students may have the option – or requirement – to sleep in the dorms. However, that will likely not the case for parents, so make sure you’re clear on sleep arrangements before you get to campus. As for other logistics – consider the size of campus, what activities you’ll be participating in (i.e., will there be a lot of walking?) and what the weather might be like.

Ask (important) questions

One of the most obvious benefits of attending your student’s orientation is having access to the people who seemingly have all the answers – current students, members of the school’s administration, or those who work within the parent and family outreach program. But keep in mind: there will be plenty of other students there with their families, and they also might have questions, so there’s a chance you could leave without having all the answers.

“Think about what you really need to address,” Benson-Gonzales says. For example, inquiring about recreational sports – or the size of the closet in your student’s closet – may not be pressing as a question about finances. “While it’ll be different for every family, parents should ask themselves, ‘If I’m leaving with one to two questions, what would they be?’” In the end, the college will help you find the answers you need. “Generally, you’ll be presented with all of the basic information you need to know, but if something is super specific, you can figure it out,” Savage says.

If you’re curious about what questions to anticipate, Benson-Gonzales has a few ideas:

  1. How do parents and students connect with the Financial Aid Office after orientation? Are there counselors available to setup phone appointments or will they take meetings while you’re on campus?
  2. Does the college have a meal plan?
  3. How are housing and tuition paid? Does your student need to set you up to receive billing information?
  4. What nighttime safety services are available for students?
  5. How do students find community – especially during their first few weeks on campus?
  6. How does the university or college educate students about sexual assault, high risk drinking, and dating violence? How can parents partner with the school to talk with students about making responsible choices that support their well-being and the well-being of others?
  7. How does the university or college foster inclusion and educate students on power and privilege?
  8. What should students be thinking about over the summer?
  9. How can parents help their students progressively take on more responsibility over the summer to prepare for the transition ahead?

Understand the purpose

While parents and students will be given a lot of information during orientation, it’s about much more than just getting through your checklist. “The purpose of orientation is to introduce students and parents to social and academic opportunities,” Savage says. After all, this may be a student’s first opportunity to really imagine their life on campus – what they’ll study, where they’ll live, and which organizations they’ll get involved in.

“Students often don’t like ice breakers, but even when something seems like ‘fun and games,’ it’s important to keep in mind that every activity planned during orientation has a purpose,” Savage says. If your student buys in, they might just end up with one more friend once school begins – and even longer after that.

As for parents, orientation can often feel like they beginning of the end. Seeing your student venture out on their own isn’t always easy, but you can continue loving and supporting them, while nurturing their independence. “My approach is to help parents become coaches, rather than problem-solvers, so the goal would be to encourage their student to find the answers as much as possible,” Savage says. But how this happens may just depend on the student. “There is no ‘one-size-fits-all approach,’” Benson-Gonzales says. Instead, parents should just “progressively encourage their student to take on more responsibility.”

And if you’re still having a hard time completely letting go? “It’s normal and okay to try to ‘control’ and gravitate toward details,” Benson-Gonzales says. “Just know everything is going to work out.”