11 student orientation experience ideas to try

How orientation can help increase retention, boost student engagement and improve academic success
By: | October 2, 2019
Successful college orientation programs sometimes involve a blend of traditional and less traditional elements like at Hamilton College. The college's program begins with a single day of regular orientation sessions that break into groups for a travel experience of their choice. Incoming freshmen at Hamilton College begin with a single day of traditional orientation sessions and then break into groups for a travel experience of their choice. Sometimes they are joined by President David Wippman. In 2017, he spent time with Biking in the Mohawk Valley Exploration Group.

Higher ed institutions that produce successful college orientation programs can increase retention, boost student engagement and even improve academic success.

Innovative orientation approaches range from fostering campus connections and community service to engaging diverse student populations and providing interactive events.

Here are 11 freshman orientation ideas aimed at improving the student experience.

1. Add elements of adventure

Weaving preorientation trips into an extended orientation adds more opportunities for students to interact with each other. If possible, make these trips free to increase student engagement and satisfaction. (Hint: Require students to leave their phones behind.)

Example: Orientation adventure trips at Hamilton College

2. Increase online points of contact

That means connecting with incoming students via their preferred mode of communication—online—and as many times as possible. For example, provide chances to participate in web-based peer coach meetings and online forums to ensure freshmen have support systems in place. Also, allocate questionnaires to incoming students. Their responses will help set up meet-and-greets with groups of students who share similar answers. Online orientations can be in place or or in addition to traditional on-campus orientations.

Example: Online orientation at Southern Utah University

3. Create a task force

This team of faculty, staff and students can engage virtually with new students all summer via live chats, webcats and a newsletter to prevent summer melt. During on-campus orientations, the team can be tapped to lead small, peer-led group activities designed to nudge students out of their comfort zones. 

Example: The First-Generation Task Force at Bentley University

4. Provide service opportunities

To further connect freshmen with the college’s surrounding community, have student leaders choose a select few of these incoming students based on their volunteer experience and motivation to participate in weeklong, preorientation service projects. These students can also continue these service projects throughout the year.

Example: The 1742 Experience at Moravian College

5. Provide the chance to get ahead

Similarly, offering incoming students the ability to enroll in credit-bearing classes through an on-campus summer experience can help lay the foundation for future academic success. 

Example: Freshman College Summer Experience at The University of Georgia.

Some freshman orientation ideas revolve around certain landmarks on a college campus. At Southern Utah University, incoming students are cheered by faculty, staff and students as they walk underneath the Carter Carillion bell tower.

6. Make orientation presentations more interactive

To ensure more incoming students take part in important informative presentations, consider replacing traditional methods, such as PowerPoint slides, with more dynamic activities like trivia games where students can win prizes if they answer questions correctly.

Example: Get your game on! at UMass Amherst

7. Take advantage of your visual arts program

Enlist current visual arts students to produce and direct entertaining performances that will not only attract a larger audience but also detail campus life and promote the best qualities of the school to incoming freshmen. Productions led by students will make these endeavors more authentic.

Example: “The Reality Show: NYU” musical at New York University

8. Publish first-time student perspectives

In addition to allowing current students to access their creative side for orientation, consider having incoming freshmen generate content based on their experiences—giving them important skills in the process. First-time students could join the college newspaper to write a special issue for their incoming class. Staff can teach important journalism tips while helping create a unique newspaper. 

Example: Maroon-News newspaper orientation at Colgate University.

9. Promote equity and inclusivity: Underrepresented students

A preorientation for underrepresented students and those from all backgrounds and identities can help ease their transition to college.  Such an event should not replace the regular orientation, so that these students can interact with all of their peers, but it offers a chance for students with similar situations to meet and interact with each other.

Example: Bridge preorientation at Smith College 

Example: P.R.I.D.E. Welcome Weekend at Trinity College

10. Provide opportunities for international students

As administrators know, international students face more obstacles in transitioning to schools than those who live domestically. During orientation, students can meet with a peer mentor who will guide them through the first semester while host families participate in special events. Other possibilities include tours of the surrounding community and family meals with faculty during orientation. This should be free but also a requirement for visa holders.

Example: the International Student Orientation (ISO) at Read College

11. Reach out to families

The college transition process can not only be daunting for students but for their families, especially parents. Freshman orientation ideas for families can include campus tours, lectures and artistic performances. Taking this initiative a step further, colleges may offer interactive games and physical challenges, such as climbing towers, during orientations. 

Example: Family Weekend at James Madison University

Steven Blackburn is associate editor of UB. 

Also read: Innovative orientation approaches at five colleges and universities