A+ in Academic Advising

By Adela Penagos, PhD, President

I am fortunate to have led academic advising at Harvard College, served as an academic adviser at the University of Notre Dame, and most recently, overseen two academic advising summer sessions at Boston College.  While I have a great passion to help students strategize on their first semester schedule, I never cease to be amazed by how many students get overwhelmed by a process that should be fun.  Perhaps Harvard’s “shopping” period is one of the best ways of looking at selecting courses while in college.  As a student, you have the opportunity to explore courses that you have never taken before, learn in more depth about a subject matter that piqued your interest in high school, and start thinking of potential areas of study. 

While there is ample research showing that about 60% of students tend to change their minds in terms of major once they are in college, at the outset, students seem to have tremendous pressure to major in popular fields (pre-med; economics; and business).  So, how, as a student, can you ensure that you maximize your academic advising experience?

1.     Understand Your College’s Advising System.

Each academic advising system is unique.  Some systems have only faculty serving as advisers; others have professional advisers; yet others have an advising system composed by a team of advisers (academic deans, faculty, professional advisers, and peer advising fellows).  It is essential that you understand who is the person or persons in your college who you can work with to make sure your academic journey is as smooth as possible.  You do not want to go into your sophomore year without the pre-requisite to take an upper level course, miss the opportunity to study abroad, or not graduating after four years because your are missing a core requirement.

Wisely the Right College for You

2.     Get to Know Your Academic Adviser.

The more you invest into your relationship with your adviser, the easier it will be for you to turn to him or her for help.  Your adviser can be your best ally to get you into a course (depending on the registration system adopted by your college).  Furthermore, your adviser can recommend you for a leadership position at your college, an internship, or any other scholarly award.  He or she can also write strong letters of recommendation supporting various applications you are likely to complete during your time in college.

3.     Let Your Academic Adviser Get to Know You.

The more transparent and open you are with your adviser about your academic interests, goals, and hopes, the easier it is going to be for him or her to point you in the right direction.  Most effective academic advisers want to see students succeed in their college journey.  However, it is hard to help those who are aloof, think they “know it all,” or are secretive about what they want to get out of college.

4.     Ask Questions.

The more informed you are about the options in your college’s curricula, your college’s academic code, deadlines, and exceptions to a given academic rule, the better off you will be in reaching your goals.  Hence, before coming to see your academic adviser, make a list of all the questions you have.  The sooner you get information, the better your decisions will be.

Asking the Right Questions to Succeed

5.     Be Open to Advice.

Remember that most academic advisers have been advising students for a while and they want to help you.  If a particular academic background is needed to succeed in a course and you will need extra help, your adviser can point you in the right direction.  Furthermore, your adviser is going to encourage you avail yourself of your faculty’s office hours and, at times, might persuade you to get tutoring help from the outset in a particular course to smooth the ride along the way.

Be flexible in taking your adviser’s suggestions.  He or she wants the best for you.  This is not a time to let your pride get in the way; act humbly and listen to someone who has experience helping students achieve and succeed.