Colleges and universities have evolved to meet new educational needs and support an increasingly diverse student body. Especially as schools of higher education grow, students need help navigating these institutions. This is where the college academic advisor comes in: They can act as a guide, saving you expensive missteps and additional coursework that will lengthen your time in school.
In exchange for the high price of tuition, many colleges have augmented the college experience to benefit students with things like residential learning communities, honors programs, self-designed study, multidisciplinary fields of study, research opportunities, and internship programs. Sometimes these opportunities are buried on schools' webpages, impossible to find without an advisor who can point you to them directly.
Therefore, as a new student, it's imperative that you work closely with a college advisor to ensure you maximize the opportunities available to you. Below, I've answered some useful questions about meeting with an advisor based on my experiences with students.
General Advice: Courses, Majors, and Maintaining a Good GPA
Why is meeting with an academic advisor important?
Meeting early in your college career with your advisor can establish good rapport. This makes it easier for the advisor to match your interests to new opportunities. Discussing your strengths and weaknesses, your likes and dislikes, is helpful for establishing a personalized road map through your curriculum. Depending on your major, you may have choices about which courses you take and when. Advisors will spot weaknesses in your plan if there are any, or reinforce your academic ambitions.
What will my academic program look like? Are my plans realistic?
Each program will look different, so consulting with an advisor to determine the most feasible path is crucial. Early on, a good topic for discussion is your prospective major and other potential points of emphasis in your college program. If you are doing a pre-health concentration, for example, there are courses you must take immediately as prerequisites for later courses. STEM fields usually order their classes sequentially, thus requiring careful planning to ensure that students can progress through their major on time.
To what extent can I pursue my own interests in the form of electives and exploring the offerings of different departments?
First, establish how much time you need to devote to your major's required courses. Ask your advisor if these classes are offered every semester and, if you're interested in studying abroad, whether these requirements can be fulfilled while abroad. Students often consider expanding their list of accomplishments to include double majors, with one or more minors added for good measure. Once these obligations have been satisfied, students can explore elective courses that speak to their other interests. Some classes can even be used to fulfill multiple requirements (for a general education course and a minor, for example), but this usually needs an advisor's approval.
What special opportunities do you have that I can take advantage of?
In the last 10 years, there has been a rise in colleges and universities offering smaller classes for new first-year students. These classes are often taught seminar-style with roundtable discussions led by faculty with specialized knowledge. As an advisor, I encourage students to take these courses for networking, as they allow students to quickly connect with professors. These connections are helpful when the time comes for a faculty letter of recommendation for internships or graduate school.
What are the stumble courses in my major?
Stumble courses are courses that have earned a reputation for being difficult. Sometimes even with the necessary preparation, a student may stumble on an important required course. If this occurs late senior year, the result could be summer school and delayed graduation. By asking your advisor about potential stumble courses, you can better prepare yourself: Choose a semester where you can fully dedicate yourself to completing the class and leave yourself room in case you need to repeat that course at a later date due to an unsatisfactory grade.
If I am struggling in a course and did very poorly on the midterm. How can my advisor help salvage my grade and not harm my GPA?
If you struggle academically, an advisor can be an ally. They can review your options at any point in the semester and may direct you to processes that can help you salvage your performance. Some courses can be graded on a pass/fail basis, which doesn't affect GPA; in other cases, it's advisable for students to withdraw. Because these actions are deadline-driven, see your advisor at the first sign of trouble to discuss these scenarios. While not ideal, they can remedy situations where you have no hope of raising a low grade.
Academic Planning for College Seniors
Can you review my degree requirements and go over with me what I have left to complete during senior year in order to graduate on time?
Seniors should meet with their advisors early in their senior year to determine if all requirements for the degree are being met, including minimum number of total credits and mandatory number of credits earned at that institution (especially relevant for transfer students). There may also be times where you repeated courses, withdrew, or have unresolved incomplete grades. These could all impact your credit totals as you enter senior year. Ask your advisor if the courses you are taking, or will take during senior year, are sufficient to graduate.
Can I graduate early?
Students who take heavy course loads or bring significant AP/IB credits from high school maybe able to graduate in fewer than four years.
Are there accelerated programs leading to a master's degree that I qualify for?
Academically driven undergraduates should consider accelerated programs, which allow you to begin a master's degree in your senior year as you complete your bachelor's. Academic advisors often have information about admissions requirements, if any, as well as tips for how to schedule these courses alongside the classes you need to finish your bachelor's degree.
Are there courses I should take senior year to enhance my profile to prospective employers?
Advisors can help you prepare for specific careers, including explaining the process for pursuing and obtaining internships. Internships come in many forms: for-credit, non-credit, and paid. Often this is determined by the employer. In addition to helping you with job-related activity, the advisor can steer you towards academic opportunities that help you stand out. At many colleges, there are opportunities for undergrads to conduct research, apply for grants, have work published and present at conferences. These opportunities enhance your education and give you additional resume experience.
Advice for Transfer Students
How will my transfer credits be counted in my new school?
At my college, advisors hold academic orientation sessions with transfer students where we explain all of the academic requirements and how transfer credit works. At that point, students should follow up with advisors to familiarize themselves with remaining requirements. Each school has different policies for transfer credit, so they can map completed credits to requirements at your new institution.
What is the maximum amount of credits I can transfer, how will the credits be allocated, and will I be able to complete my major and other pursuits on time?
The answers to all these questions will depend on the school you transfer to. Tell your advisor when you expect to graduate. Together, you can look at a worksheet and determine if all of the remaining courses fit into your timeline. If not, adjustments can be made by overloading (taking more than the standard maximum of credits in a semester) or taking summer courses. Your advisor will tell you exactly how many credits you need to graduate, complete your major, and establish residency. If in doubt, a rule of thumb is to avoid taking a course at the new school with content that duplicates a course you already have taken. Sometimes there can be a mismatch in sequences where one school's course covers more than the other. This can be resolved through testing and discussion with faculty. Ask the advisor which exams you can take to help you determine with certainty where you stand in a given course sequence.
What will it be like at my new school?
An easy conversation to have with your advisor is engaging in a chat about what you can expect the school to be like. Is it highly competitive? Are the classes large? Advisors speak with hundreds of students every semester and can give you some feedback on the culture of the college and ways students find success there.
Advisors are on hand to support students and help them meet their academic goals. Academic advisors know what the college has to offer; students shouldn't be shy about having a meeting to discuss their academic interests, goals, or course planning. When times are tough, a student should not feel guilty about a low grade or poor performance to the point where they avoid their advisor. As an advisor, the most enduring message I can send is this: come on in. Let's begin the conversation about how you can get the most out of your college education.