CHESTERTOWN - Brian Schultz was supposed to be working at his summer job at Ikea in White Marsh, earning money for his coming freshman year at Washington College.
But instead of moving crates, Schultz was sitting on a lawn on the Eastern Shore campus, looking slightly dazed after taking a Spanish test almost two months before classes begin.
"It was all right," he said. "I took a lot of it in high school - but still, it's summer."
A generation or two ago, freshmen would register for classes via the U.S. Postal Service and show up a few days before the start of school to find out where the dining hall and libraries were.
If they were lucky, maybe they got invited to a house party by an upperclassman. Parents did little more than carry boxes inside.
These days, many incoming freshmen are summoned to their campuses during the summer for orientation - several days of testing, question-and-answer sessions, lectures and ice cream socials. Parents can meet with professors, inspect dorm locks and even take tours of the surrounding area.
College officials, especially at bigger schools, say holding several summer orientation sessions saves them from trying to herd thousands of freshmen through registration all at once in September. And it gives them the option of tweaking their class schedules to accommodate students.
"It's invaluable and makes it a much smoother process," said Jack Dunn, a spokesman for Boston College, which requires freshmen to attend a four-day summer orientation.
School officials also believe that early registration helps students acclimatize to the campus. Greater familiarity leads to less stress and more academic success, colleges say.
The retention rate for freshman who enrolled in the fall of 2000, the year before Washington College began its summer orientation, was 82 percent, said Mark Hoesly, the school's associate dean of academic advising. Last year, about 90 percent of freshmen returned for their second year.
Hoesly said, "I think it plays a significant part in that."
It becomes 'my college'
"It moves from being 'that college' to being 'my college,'" said Helene Murtha, associate dean of students at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.
Nobody keeps track of exactly how many schools have summer orientation, but more seem to be doing it. They generally charge a fee to cover dorm use, meals and their administrative costs.
At New York University, for instance, it's about $285. The University of Maryland, College Park charges $140. Colleges including Princeton University, the University of North Carolina and Loyola College of Maryland all have some form of summer orientation.
"It's one of the areas of great interest in the higher education scene," said Barmak Nassirian, the associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
Separating the parents
Most schools follow a similar formula: testing, registration and lectures. Some offer more exotic forms of orientation, such as wilderness camping or daylong fasts. And most schools immediately separate parents from their children - "it helps the letting-go process," Hoesly said - but let them meet professors and counselors.
"It helps everyone hit the ground running," said BC's Dunn.
The students' nervousness and awkwardness are apparent at first glance. The baby-faced freshmen-to-be move stiffly around campus, following confident upperclassmen clad in yellow T-shirts. During breaks, the newcomers gather in semicircles and shuffle their feet.
Getting incoming freshmen to admit that they are at all apprehensive about going to college can be difficult. "They're really nervous, but students are still into being cool," said Gerry B. Strumpf, director of the University of Maryland's orientation office.
During a dinner break, students at College Park last week took turns complaining about the food and what they thought was a meandering schedule. "I don't see what the point is," said Howard Lee, of Centreville, Va. "We get up at 6:30 to get our I.D. badge at 3:30."
"I feel like it's summer camp," said Jared Yoder, a Cumberland resident. "Not a big deal."
But others said it was an invaluable experience. Miriam Roth, who lives in Sacramento, Calif., had visited the East Coast only a couple of times before. As her plane descended into Reagan National Airport, Roth was so nervous, she said, her stomach hurt.
"I'm scared of getting lost. I'm scared that I won't meet anyone. I'm scared that my hair will get frizzy when it's humid," she said.
She met several other students during the day and peppered her dinner partner, Asher Berkowitz of Philadelphia, with questions. Does it get really cold? Do roads really shut down when it snows?
No, it's not that cold, Berkowitz replied. "I wear flip-flops during the winter," he said.
"Great!" Roth said. "I thought I'd need big boots."
Time for fretting
Many parents can't hide their excitement, especially when they compare their children's experience to their own. "He got a course in the history of rock 'n' roll!" said Steve Hopkins, discussing his son Jeffery's schedule for the fall at UM. "That's amazing!"
But Miriam Roth's father, Jerry, said he was probably more nervous than his daughter, even though his two older sons have already gone through college. After sitting through several lectures about financial aid and dining services, he took a short walk to fret about his daughter.
"I see her as prepared in some ways, at least academically," he said. "But she doesn't seem to know how to find things - she's always losing things like her phone and her credit card. I wonder how she's going to handle her own life," he said.
Another college expense
Even though Bill Gaull sat through several lectures at Washington College on how to help his daughter deal with money and how often to contact her during orientation, "it's still an emotional time for me," he said. "She's my little baby girl."
Most parents have to take time off from work to travel to orientation with their children and sometimes have to pay for a hotel, although some colleges, such as Notre Dame, make dorms available for parents.
Jerry Roth had to cut short a planned vacation to the Pacific Northwest, but he said he didn't mind. "The whole thing has made me a little less nervous. It's worth it," he said.
Incoming freshman Schultz said he didn't mind giving up a shift at Ikea to drive to the Eastern Shore to register for classes and conjugate verbs.
"Beats working," he said.