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A Guide to Freshman Pre-Orientation Programs

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You’ve made it through the college admissions process alive! At this point, you’ve likely committed to a school and begun to envision yourself there. In a few short months, you’ll be a college student. But what lies between now and move-in day? Before you make book your bus, train, or plane, factor one more possibility into your plans: a pre-orientation program.

Though they’re not offered at all colleges and universities, pre-orientation programs are quickly becoming more popular and finding increasing success. If yours is a school that offers these programs, read on to get the low-down on the possibilities for the week before orientation.

What is a pre-orientation, and how is it different from normal orientation?

Let’s get one thing straight: orientation—which is required of all incoming students—is completely different from pre-orientation. First, it’s not optional; all students participate in an orientation period following move-in day to learn the rules, regulations, and possibilities that come with starting college. Second, the subject matter differs. Likely, all things administrative, rules-related, or pertaining to student-life and safety will be explained to you during the mandatory orientation week that precedes classes.

Meanwhile, pre-orientation, which could variably last for only 3 days or up to a week and a half, is entirely different. It’s scheduled to occur before the school-wide orientation week—hence the name—and, because its content is either extracurricular or subject-specific, it’s optional.

What happens during pre-orientation?

Different schools provide a wide range of pre-orientation opportunities; you should look into your school’s offerings for the upcoming year. Some offer pre-professional or themed pre-orientations—such as Georgetown’s business pre-orientation or Harvard’s Freshman Arts Program—while other pre-orientations will focus on social justice, community outreach, or introducing students to specific religious communities (like this one at Cornell). Some schools—University of Chicago and Harvard just two among many have pre-orientation programs specifically designed for international students. If you’ll be studying out-of-country, this is certainly something you should look into.

Many universities have adopted pre-orientation models that feature outdoor excursions in small groups, such as hiking or kayaking. These programs have become extremely popular due to positive press coverage and a consensus that these types of small-group outings build community. And if you’ve never hiked but want to try, never fear! Often, these programs are offered at various levels of difficulty, so that everyone who wants to participate can, whether or not you’ve had the opportunity to do something similar in the past.

Okay, I know what it is now – why should I do it?

While pre-orientations are by no means necessary, they are valuable for several reasons. Perhaps most importantly, they allow you to ease into the transition from living at home to living on your own, with people your own age. Whether your chosen pre-orientation takes place on campus or in the woods, it will provide you with a period of low-stress time in which to meet your peers, potential friends, and future classmates without the stress of classes and homework that will come in due time.

Moreover, you may like getting to know the handful of students on your pre-orientation program even if you don’t end up becoming the best of friends. In the first weeks of school, as you meet hundreds of new people and are surrounded by many more strangers, you’ll definitely find comfort in the handful of friendly faces.

Often, subject-specific programs take place on campus and emphasize the facilities that will be available to you on campus. In these scenarios, pre-orientation is a great time to become familiar with your campus as well as to introduce you to resources that you may not have otherwise known about.

Finally, pre-orientation is a time of unadulterated exploration. Whether you choose to participate in a campus ministry program or an exotic hiking trip, you have the opportunity to sign up for a weeklong introduction to a new activity—why not take advantage of the opportunity?

How do I get into one?

Again, this varies from school to school. Check your university’s pre-orientation website to confirm deadlines for applications or registration to a pre-orientation, and note any additional billing or health forms that may be required for participation.

Some pre-orientation programs will require an additional application, while others will award spots to students by lottery. Still others will operate on a first-come, first-serve basis. Make note of whatever system your university adopts, and be sure to keep track of the requirements and deadlines of each pre-orientation program to which you apply individually. Often, these programs are each run separately by different entities on campus and thus have different deadlines for the required applications or paperwork.

How do I afford it?

It’s important to note that participation in a pre-orientation program often comes at an additional cost to tuition. Many universities that offer pre-orientation programs realize that this additional costs are not  within every student’s budget, and there are a couple alternatives built into the system.

First, universities will often offer several pre-orientation programs with price tags that range from fairly expensive to totally free. If you apply to a pre-orientation program conscious of its price tag, you can preliminarily seek out pre-orientation programs that are more affordable.

Second, some of the more expensive pre-orientation programs may offer financial aid. If your college has allotted funding to its pre-orientation programs, you may be able to find this information on the administration’s website or the website of the specific program. That said, even if it seems like there is no funding for the program you’re interested in, it never hurts to ask. If you find yourself drawn to a program that is not budget-friendly, it’s worth sending an email to see if any funding or scholarship money is available for you.

How does this change my move-in day plans?

Again, this will vary depending on the program you choose. The short answer is that it shouldn’t put a wrench in your move-in plans. Official Move-In Day remains the same for all students. If you will be traveling to campus from far away and need to bring all of your belongings with you when you arrive for your pre-orientation, you should coordinate your move-in plans in advance. Often, schools will allow you to move directly into your dorm room. Others may have you store your things on campus while they prepare your room. Regardless, it will likely make the most sense to pack a small bag for your pre-orientation program and keep the rest of your belongings separate.

While the housing situation varies for different programs, it is rare that you will find yourself living in your future dorm-room during your pre-orientation.

What if I can’t (or don’t think I want to) participate?

After all is said and done, choosing not to participate in a pre-orientation program is a valid decision as well. There are many students who much prefer to spend the waning days of summer at home with their families and friends, and there are still others who cannot participate in a pre-orientation program for logistical reasons. Whatever the reason, the choice to opt out of participating in a pre-orientation program is a valid one.

Ultimately, it’s important to keep in mind that your college experience will be what you make of it. Whether they participated in a pre-orientation program or not, every student will arrive to campus on move-in day with a mixture of excitement and nervousness about what’s to come. The key to a successful transition to college is to bring energy, excitement, a willingness to meet new people, and an open mind.


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Lily Calcagnini
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Lily is a History and Literature concentrator at Harvard University who is doing her darnedest to write a thesis about all of her favorite things at once: fashion, contemporary culture, art journalism, and Europe. A passionate learner, she cares deeply about helping high school students navigate the process of college admissions, whether it be through private essay tutoring or sharing advice on the CollegeVine blog.