Silver Spring resident Miriam Hoffman, 62, is transferring from a small community college to the University of Maryland this fall, and says she is overwhelmed by the sprawling College Park campus.

"You just don't know where to go when you get there," the retired federal accountant said.

She is not alone in her bewilderment, new students confirmed this week as many of this session's 37,000 enrollees began swarming on to the main campus to register for the fall semester that begins Tuesday.

They are competing for space in such popular courses as business management, computer science and journalism.

School officials, recognizing that for newcomers just learning their way around the maze of buildings or competing for coveted parking spaces can be intimidating, this year expanded their program of orientation activities.

Since early August, new students have been advised, sung to, lectured at, fed at special lunches and dinners and guided through the registration process. A number of upper-class students are helping orientation staffers advise new students.

"New students are coming to a foreign campus, and even a secretary's smile can help them," orientation director Gerry Strumpf said. "What we're doing is trying to make the whole campus sensitive to helping new students."

The signs of another school year began to appear early this week near Easton Hall, as cars crammed with records, trunks and plants jammed the dormitory's parking lots. Outside nearby Elkton Hall, two students lugged a rug through the courtyard, weaving their way through a maze of cartons, lamps and a portable refrigerator.

Admission officials estimate that 4,100 freshmen and 3,800 transfer students will attend the university this fall. Most of the freshmen come from public high schools in the area, university officials said, and many transfers are from local two-year community colleges.

Denise Chambers, 18, a freshman engineering student who attended Connelly High School of the Holy Child, a private school in Potomac, said that before going through orientation, "I was really scared about going to such a big school. You feel like you're just a Social Security number."

However, the Kensington resident said, after a day of listening to pep talks and advice, registering and attending a dinner theatre with about 2,000 other new students, her fears were eased. "The program went really well," she said. "It packed so much for just one day."

Like a growing number of colleges and universities, Maryland has begun to treat freshman orientation as a process rather than an event.

The traditional two-day introductory program -- which crams in everything from routine paperwork, placement tests and library tours -- has been expanded to include a number of social activities such as concerts, dances and plays.

One orientation highlight is a play called "Time and Time Again," written and produced by university students. Performed during the recent dinner theatre on campus, the play features an upbeat portrayal of freshmen students and how they handle the transition from high school to college.

Serving as a sneak preview, it shows how new students cope with such common situations as class-schedule conflicts, homesickness, dating and exam cramming.

This Saturday there will be a series of Olympic-style sporting events for 1,500 new dormitory students on the campus mall. The university's resident life office is sponsoring the event to promote a sense of community among dorm students, many of whom are on their own for the first time.

In some schools orientation is required of all freshman, while at others, such as Maryland, it is elective.

About two-thirds of this year's crop of new students chose to take part in orientation this summer, Strumpf said.

Sometimes academic advisors channel into the program students who are considered to be at risk for adjustment problems, university officials said. Such students may include those who are poorly prepared for college work, who commute to campus or who have not decided on a major.

Drury Bagwell, assistant vice chancellor of student affairs, said that new students who take advantage of the university's orientation program generally have a more successful year and are less likely to drop out.

"We believe that orientation has a significant impact on retention of students," Bagwell said.

"If students come in and are happy and enjoy the college life, then they will continue and be more productive and make better grades," Bagwell added.