Checking Out the First-Year College Experience

By Joanna Nesbit

How a college helps first-year students adjust to their new home can make a big difference in getting comfortable in your first weeks on campus. However, the types of activities and orientations colleges offer vary widely. 

It doesn’t have to be a deal breaker if one school offers a cool orientation trip and another one doesn’t, but it can tell you something about the campus culture. For example, a small private college might have more money to spend on orientations than a state university does—but the state school might be a better fit for you for other reasons. 

Here are four ways to check out the first-year college experience at different schools.

Visit the First-Year Experience Webpage

First-year experiences vary widely, and not all colleges call them by this name, but most colleges and universities offer resources for new and transfer students on their websites. 

Some schools, like University of South Carolina, offer a University 101 class for students to learn about resources on campus and connect with other students in a small-group setting. Other schools pair first-year students with upper-class students or offer first-year summer experiences. Many, like Elon University, offer a combination. Arizona State, a large public university, offers first-year coaching and a Student Success Center. Some of these resources may be mandatory and some may be optional. 

Check Out Orientation Offerings

The goal of orientation is to help new students transition to college. During orientation, which is often held for a few days immediately before classes start, you will learn about campus services and resources, participate in ice-breaker activities with peers, and possibly register for classes if you haven’t already done so. Even if first-year orientation is not mandatory, it’s beneficial to go. 

Some schools provide summer orientations that require a separate trip from move-in day. Some (mostly public universities) charge for their orientation, which can be tough or not an option financially. Explore the school websites to find out what they offer. 

If you’re a transfer student, usually the school will hold a separate orientation for you. It will probably be shorter than the first-year orientation and may not be as comprehensive; you might need to ask more questions to get the information you need. 

If you’re returning after a leave of absence, such as a medical leave, military service, or stopping out to work, look for a returning students orientation. Some schools offer these to help students reconnect with resources and meet others who are also transitioning back into college. 

Learn About Advising

Find out how the colleges you’re interested in handle advising. Some schools assign you an academic adviser to help you schedule classes; others connect you with an adviser during orientation and leave it to you after that. Some schools merely give suggestions about courses to take during your first semester; others provide more detailed and more personal guidance. Some schools even guarantee graduation in four years as long as you regularly visit your adviser and achieve agreed-upon academic goals.

If the school’s website doesn’t offer enough information, call the campus advising office to learn the specifics. If advising isn’t assigned, it doesn’t mean the advising is bad. It does, however, mean that you need to make a plan to visit an adviser before you register each term. This is the best way to ensure you stay on track and get the classes you need. That said, if you know you’ll benefit from a more hands-on approach, you might want to explore colleges with mandatory advising. 

Talk to Others

Ask current students about their experience with advising. The admissions office can connect you with a student ambassador who will be able to tell you about orientation and advising, but you can also talk to students if you visit the campus.

If your high school has a college adviser or you are working with an outside college counselor, they might be able to give you some idea about what they’ve heard from students who have started college recently. A high school college adviser probably knows about your area’s local and regional colleges best. 

Hunting down this kind of information might not seem like a high priority, but knowing how a university helps students adjust to campus, as well as the school’s approach to advising, makes a real difference because it can help you rule it out (or rule it in) as a good choice. 

If you’re not able to visit a college in person, call or email specific departments, such as advising or admissions, or schedule a virtual tour. Most colleges understand that not everyone can visit in person, and they’re prepared to answer your questions by phone or email.

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