Academic advisors are a critical resource for college students. As a former director of advising, I know how enriching advisors can be for students. I’ve also witnessed countless examples of students overlooking advising when it was needed the most. Too many students veer off track or make poor decisions because they aren’t seeking counsel and support from their advisors.
There are many reasons why students sometimes shrug off help. In my 16 years of advising experience, I’ve seen two reasons stand out from the rest.
While some college students may be reluctant to seek help, there are many reasons why they should try to develop relationships with their advisors. (Twenty20)
Many universities invest heavily in technologically advanced self-service platforms that handle almost every academic-related task — degree and major planning, course request optimization, and adding and dropping classes — without advisor intervention. Online, 24/7 availability is attractive to students and certainly has its benefits. But such impersonal modalities fall short of providing comprehensive care.
Like any human, students fall into cognitive and emotional traps that disrupt optimal decision-making. For example, the sting of a lousy grade might be papered over by an overconfidence bias. Or that mark might instead trigger shame, skewing the perceived fallout toward catastrophe. These errors shut down curiosity and squelch an opportunity to learn from mistakes. Students might reflexively avoid rather than approach help.
Academic advisors pick up where technology and fixed mindset leave off. And they do it by building relationships with students.
By getting to know students — their goals, strengths, and challenges — advisors contextualize dispassionate policies and curate static online resources.
An advisor can level the playing field for students who might be less technologically savvy or more anxious about choices.
Advisors can focus students’ attention on their unique aspirations and talents first, then seek the right tools to build individualized academic pathways.
Through appreciative inquiry, advisors discover students’ thought patterns and confront maladaptive beliefs with relevant information and human compassion. By “meeting the student where they’re at” cognitively and emotionally, advisors establish trust and become more influential in guiding students when needed.
Whenever I met with an advisee, I’d spend most of our time on relationship-building — asking questions, listening actively, sharing their excitement or anxiety, applauding their successes — and less time strictly giving advice. I found that if I stimulated the right line of thinking and created a space for authenticity, tactical advice often revealed itself spontaneously. Such “a-ha” moments can only occur by getting to know students personally.
In most cases, once per semester is ideal. Some programs require “sign-off” meetings to approve a schedule or major. Even if one-on-ones are not mandatory, students should calendar them like a dental check-up or car tune-up — think preventive maintenance. Don’t wait for an advisor to reach out, and don’t wait until there’s trouble brewing.
Do not video/phone it in. Necessary as it’s been in recent years to do things remotely, students should make an effort to meet their advisors face-to-face whenever possible. That might be in their office, but check if advisors are available over coffee, at extracurricular functions, or in group advising events. Any in-person encounter builds greater trust.
Meetings don’t have to be scripted, but it’s helpful to go in with a few topics to cover. The rule of “there are no stupid questions” applies here. Advisors are trained to handle matters both practical and existential. If nothing urgent presents itself, go meta — for example, ask what questions other students in the same year or program ask about or what issues they’re likely to face in the next semester or two.
Though tough to do when things aren’t going well, forthrightness is mission-critical to receiving helpful advice. Advisors abide by privacy laws (FERPA) that govern how much they share and with whom. Students can clarify with their advisors how they plan to handle sensitive information. Typically, advisors won’t call home about minor setbacks. Whatever the problematic situations, advisors are trained to handle the truth sensitively and effectively and help students navigate through.
Advisors want to know their students personally — hometown, travel experiences, favorite school subjects, sports, food, whatever. Likewise, students might find things in common with their advisor that stir conversation and open unexpected doors.
With one of my students, we discovered a mutual appreciation for music, which helped him disclose his burgeoning passion for studying performance instead of business. That line of inquiry validated his motivations and ultimately empowered us to have a challenging but fruitful conversation with his parents about transferring. The pivot might not have happened had he not felt comfortable sharing what was important to him.
Remember that academic advisors have different spheres of responsibility; some have authority over just a particular major, while others oversee entire degree programs. Some advisors are faculty; others are specialized professional staff. Whatever the case, all academic advisors can be essential in students’ lives. It’s worth the investment to tap their expertise and garner personalized support.
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