College orientations vary in style and substance from college to college, but most have an overriding goal in mind: to prepare your student for success.

That is something to keep in mind throughout the college years. Colleges and universities really want your student to have a fulfilling higher education experience, and to graduate on time.

Orientations are when your family’s relationship with your chosen institution starts, and so it is important for both sides in the new relationship to take this event seriously and to try to learn as much from it as possible.

Some orientations are in the summer or, more accurately, several times in the summer, allowing for the greatest participation possible by incoming members of the freshman class and their families. These are often two- to three-day events that have the feel of a professional conference, with plenary session speakers such as the college president or provost, and breakout offerings dealing with various aspects of academic and campus life.

Often, these summer sessions, or their early fall equivalent, will have a breakout session for parents, or even an entire parallel track, running an equivalent length with student orientation and intersecting only in the case of certain speakers or for group entertainment.

A small, but growing, number of institutions have begun to offer an off-campus “pre-orientation” program for students, also during the summer, but usually held at a nearby nature preserve or other place where students can experience some life in the outdoors and get to know their fellow classmates a bit better.

Nearly all schools are in the business of presenting a special freshman orientation in the few days before school starts or, at minimum, during “move-in” time on campus.

What these sessions will usually prove is that just as you and your student have been diligently preparing for college, so too have university administrators. They will also prove that these very same administrators are people just like you, with their own hopes and fears about the school year, and sometimes with their very own children going through the college transition process.

The specific topics and tone of an orientation will often mirror the culture of the college or university. Beyond the usual welcome speeches, and chances to share your new college parenthood with your peers, there may, in fact, be a fair amount of “testing” that your student is asked to do by the institution.

These may include:

  • equipment tests, i.e. making sure that electronic devices on campus are properly connected to university systems;
  • placement tests, helping to ensure that your student is assigned to the right mix of classes; and
  • attitudinal tests, information from which is almost always anonymous and which is used by schools to improve the way in which they do things the next time around, either at orientation itself or in an upcoming school term.

Placement tests for classes are worthy of special note, as sometimes students, with encouragement by their parents, intentionally do poorly on such tests in hopes that may result in an “easier” workload in the fall or spring semester. Tanking on purpose in such a test, or in any context for that matter, is never a smart idea.

In fact, this is as probably a good time as any to address honor, specifically the honor code that most colleges and universities live by. Sometimes such an honor code is engrained deeply in the culture of an institution and enforced by the students themselves; the University of Virginia honor code comes to mind. At most schools, the honor code is always there, but it lives in the background of the institution. At all schools, the honor code should be followed by new and returning students, so purposefully blowing a placement test would be a very big mistake.

At orientation sessions, other issues will be dealt with too, such as polices regarding cars on campus, how to deal with roommates, health and safety concerns and access to community service opportunities. But before you and your student know it, orientation will be a blip on the radar and it will be time – finally – to start classes.