For Harvard's 1,600 freshmen this fall, the fast track to success begins with a boat ride in Boston Harbor, pretending to be immigrants.
At the University of Kansas in Lawrence, no new student's education is considered complete without a crash course in "waving the wheat," a hand gesture used en masse by Jayhawks fans at football games.
The University of Colorado, Boulder, offers book discounts to its 3,500 freshmen to get them to mingle with faculty.
At those three schools and others around the country, freshman orientation programs are mixing fun and outdoor activity with seminars on subjects like drugs, alcohol, roommate problems and homesickness.
While freshman orientation is hardly a new college rite, those activities have recently taken on added urgency for the schools themselves, quite apart from the benefits that students derive. Colleges desperately want students to feel happy and well-adjusted because they want to keep those students as paying customers for four years.
"Statistics nationally show that it's the first four weeks of school that determine whether a student remains at the university--whether they become comfortable with the environment," said Lovely Ulmer, University of Kansas' coordinator of orientation.
Many schools have even extended the orientation process to parents, to create a sense of kinship between the school and the parents and to ease the anxiety of having their children leave home for the first time.
Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., offers parents a talk on "the pangs of separation," aimed at dealing with the loneliness parents and students might be feeling. Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., invites parents to join students for orientation lectures.
Other schools have similar parent programs. However, the main target is still the incoming student.
The University of Colorado offers $2 discounts on student bookstore purchases for every faculty autograph a freshman gathers during orientation. The autographs act as proof that students have made an effort to meet their future teachers.
Colorado also holds a "Sex, Drugs, Wok & Roll" seminar for incoming freshmen at which fresh egg rolls are served up with advice. In addition to the traditional beach party, Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., offers workshops on responsible use of alcohol and handling first-year stress.
Students at Washington University in St. Louis will be treated for the first time this year to a four-hour Mississippi River sternwheeler cruise. "We had the idea of giving students a picture of St. Louis, helping students fit into the community and not just the university," school spokeswoman Carol Baskin said.
The Harvard boat trip, scheduled for Sept. 16, also aims to sensitize new students to the rich world of Boston that lies outside Harvard Yard. Students will be asked to imagine that they are modern-day immigrants landing in Boston Harbor for the first time.
"We want them to open their eyes, to look at skylines, advertisements on buildings, at manhole covers. We want them to land in the harbor the way immigrants did," said Burriss Young, Harvard's associate dean of freshmen.
On a more practical side, Syracuse University requires freshmen to draft and sign formal agreements with their roommates setting ground rules on study hours, stereo playing, overnight guests and any other potential source of friction.
Most commonly, though, orientation includes fun. University of Kansas freshmen gathered last week at their football stadium and celebrated "Traditions Night," a re-creation of a 1952 orientation ceremony featuring fight songs and a lesson in "waving the wheat."