For college freshmen, it used to be sink or swim. Today, many get swimming lessons -- special credit courses designed to get them used to college and to make the best of it.

Colleges nationwide are paying more attention to "the first-year experience," as it has come to be called. The theory, backed by research, is that students who have a good first year will come back for more, do better academically and stay to graduate.

The courses look like everything from an extension of freshman orientation to an academically rigorous seminar. Sometimes they're required; sometimes they're not.

This fall for the first time, St. Louis University is offering "University 101" to a group of 300 freshmen. They meet for two hours weekly for eight weeks in groups of 20 to talk about issues common to young people new to college in general and SLU in particular.

Leanna Fenneberg, from SLU's department of housing and residence life, and Mike Rozier, president of SLU's student government, have been taking one group through the course. They follow a syllabus with prescribed topics such as relationships, diversity, and time and money management. But they follow it loosely, allowing time for whatever is on students' minds.

In an early session, when they were still getting the hang of campus life, the students were full of practical questions: How do I change my meal plan? What if I'm not getting along with my roommate? How can I cook macaroni and cheese in a microwave?

Fenneberg and Rozier make games of as many topics as possible. The course also includes quizzes, reading assignments and short papers -- all for a grade and one college credit.

Shawn E. Swinigan, the university's director of residential life, said SLU's ultimate goal is to offer the class to all freshmen.

Katie Bordner came to Webster University this fall from Jefferson City, Mo. Like all new Webster freshmen younger than 20, she had to enroll in a special three-credit, semester-long freshman seminar. Webster offered 29 choices, many with titles such as "Trials, Tribulations and TV" and "Sex, Shadow and Society."

Bordner is one of 16 students taking "Book, Disk and Reel: Cultural Worlds through Sight and Sound" from Don Conway-Long, assistant professor of behavioral and social sciences.

Human global diversity is the subject. As in Webster's other freshman seminars, the students read a few books and watch a few movies that apply, make oral presentations, engage in discussions, write short papers and learn how to use the college library.

The emphasis is on helping students adjust to the academic demands of college, but there is a social aspect to the courses, as well.

Conway-Long knows all of his students by their first names. They call him Dr. Don.

Bordner likes the seminar, even though "it requires a lot of reading, which is kind of a kick in the butt." The same could be said of her first paper for the class, which came back with a grade of 70. As a journalism major, she thought she knew how to write.

"I'm kind of like a creative writer," she said. "I write like I talk, and that's not always proper syntax and stuff." Having realized that, she did better on her second paper.

College has been a change of another kind for Curtis Wolterding, who was home-schooled in Woodbridge, Va. At Principia College, he is learning that "I have to get up at a certain time. I have homework due."

A freshman seminar called "Frontiers" is helping him adjust to these realities and to college-level academic work. The class is about people who broke intellectual boundaries down through the centuries.

Wolterding and his classmates are analyzing the works of major philosophers, composers and mathematicians. They read, listen, write analytical papers, discuss and keep journals in which they write about their academic goals. Teachers return the journals with comments.

"Sometimes we write more than they write," said music professor James M. Dowcett, one of Wolterding's three teachers. The others are Randalyn F. Browning, head of the college's writing program, and Stephen G. Hinthorne, head of its mathematics department.

Among the three of them, they give the students a lot of personal attention. The teachers meet with the students individually and watch for any special problems.

This is the fifth year for Principia's freshman seminars, which add up to a series of three graded courses, required of all freshmen.

Almost three-fourths of colleges responding to a national survey two years ago said they offered a special course for first-year students. Most of the courses gave grades and credits; half were required. Courses such as SLU's about college survival were about twice as common as those with an academic slant, such as Webster's.

Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville gives entering students a choice of both types of courses. About one of every five students chooses to take one. Associate provost David Sill said the university wanted to develop more courses to give students more choices and to eventually require them to take one.

SIUE doesn't believe in a one-size-fits-all approach. "Students are different," Sill said. "They have different needs. They bring different backgrounds with them. There is no such thing as the average student. Every student is unique."