5 Secrets to Engaging New Students at Orientation

Posted on: Nov 12, 2018

Categories: College

Note: If you’re reading this in 2020 and brainstorming how to manage a virtual or modified New Student Orientation, I’d love to talk! I’m offering the keynote speech that I usually deliver at new student orientations virtually this year, and it’s the perfect way to bring your student body together even if they can’t be in the same room. Send me an email at curtis@curtiszimmerman.com to learn more. 

New student orientation isn’t just for giving out student IDs and campus maps: It’s your chance to quell students’ fears about making new friends, taking on difficult courses and coping with stress in a totally new environment. It’s an opportunity to really invest in each student as a human being and empower them to develop healthy habits and mindsets.

I’ve given my keynote speech at hundreds of colleges, some at which I’ve been invited back to speak at new student orientations ten years in a row. I don’t think that’s a fluke: Over the years, I’ve really listened to colleges in order to create the best possible orientation experience—one that energizes in the moment and inspires into the future. Here’s what I do to engage students, and what you can implement for your next new student orientation to make it the best one yet.

1. Connect with students face-to-face.

Achieving this doesn’t just look like more icebreakers, comedy sketches or lectures from professors: it looks like heart-level conversations and speakers that will truly inspire students.

Make sure your speaker has time set aside to talk with students after their presentation to answer questions and spend extra time with students who may need a little more encouragement and advice.  Having talked with thousands of individual college students and their parents, I have found this one-on-one, face-to-face interaction to be some of the most valuable to students. Be sure to have an advisor nearby in case a student has a more specific question about your university.

2. Blow them away—and make it last.

Orientation is the time to blow students away and to make them feel more excited about the next four years than they ever thought possible. There is a myriad of ways to make this happen, but I’ve found that teaching them something new and giving them something to keep is really effective.

That’s why I bring (in some cases) over a thousand sets of juggling balls for everyone in the audience. They give students a tangible reminder of my messaging that in order to succeed, you must drop the ball. I’ve talked to administrators who still saw students juggling in the dining hall months after my appearance. I also surprise them at the end of the program by eating fire—my keynote may be the spark, but they’re the ones I want to be on fire on their campus.

What are you doing to remind your students after new student orientation of everything that you shared? Make it more valuable than more spirit swag: Give them a reminder of who they are as a community member of your school.

3. Encourage authenticity.

There are few times more vulnerable in a young person’s life than their first few days at college: They’re leaving behind all of their friends, their parents and their home to live in a dorm, share a room with a stranger, take challenging courses and make new friends. Open up the floor for honesty and vulnerability by bringing in someone who will share their own real-life story.

For example, I share about my own dysfunctional family life growing up and the mentor who changed my life from the stage. Being real is the only way to help students really care about their investment over the next 4 years.

4. Make them laugh.

The best orientation experiences are a rollercoaster ride of serious authenticity and playful activities. Have you ever noticed how everyone in an audience shifts in their seats and gets comfortable after they laugh? Humor is the single best way to make new students feel comfortable.

Students don’t need more lectures or powerpoints. They need immersive experiences that get people out of their chairs, laughing and interacting with one another. Quick example of how this works in my keynote: We play the world’s hardest game of Simon Says with the important takeaway of being able to stop and think before you act on campus.

5. Talk to the parents. (If you don’t incorporate anything else, DO NOT miss this one.)

There has never been a more important time to have a serious conversation with your students’ parents. They’re in a huge transition as well,  and they need to be given tools to handle their own separation anxiety and equipped to help your students transition in the most healthy way. Parents need to know exactly what they should be doing and what they need to stop doing right now in order for their child to succeed in college.

Here’s to a new student orientation that empowers, challenges and equips with tangible takeaways for both parents and students.

Hope this helps you craft a new student orientation that inspires for years to come.

Living the Dream,


Curtis Zimmerman is a nationally-recognized keynote speaker and best-selling author who is a favorite at new student orientations for over 100 universities, including Florida State University, Savannah College of Art and Design and Western Michigan University.

Click here to have Curtis inspire students and parents on your campus.  

Click here for my guide to the 7 Things Parents of New Students Need to Hear.

And click here for my 7 EmpoweringTips for New College Students.