"...good advising may be the single most underestimated characteristic of a successful college experience.” – Richard Light, author of Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2001)
Most colleges spend time in the summer assigning incoming students to their corps of advisers. Some accomplish this task by feeding data about you and your classmates into a computer program, but some still do it by hand. Either way, there is no guarantee that a student will feel a real connection with the assigned adviser. Why? Because it is impossible to predict whether two people will have the spark that is needed to create a substantive and productive advising relationship. Many new college students feel terribly disappointed when they don’t like the adviser they have been so looking forward to meeting.
What can and should you do if you find yourself in this unenviable position?
1) Of course, what you want first and foremost is to ask for a new adviser. Don’t be surprised if the first time you ask to switch, most people at the college will suggest that you give the adviser another try. This is sound advice. After all, the adviser (or you!) may have been having an off day. Keep in mind that, in the first weeks of a semester, advisers are working from early in the morning to late at night in many cases, so schedule another appointment with the adviser and see how it goes.
2) If the second meeting doesn’t go any better from your perspective – and your perspective is the only important one at this point – then ask if there is a way to switch your adviser. Whom do you ask? Whomever at the college is in charge of the advising process. That person may be in Academic Affairs or Student Affairs. They may be called a director or a dean. Schools vary a lot. Google it on the college site or ask an R.A. or a student council member (their names should be easy to find on the college website). Once you find them, see if there is an FAQ that includes the answer to this question. At some schools, you will have to fill out a form to make the request. At others, you will have to meet with someone. The best advising systems will enable you meet with the head of advising so that s/he can learn enough about you that they can make a good match.
3) If there is no way to switch advisers, which is unfortunately quite commonly the case, don’t let it bother you. It’s time to get resourceful. You are about to start creating your own “board of advisers.” College advising is not a one-stop shopping experience. In that way, it resembles life. Throughout our lives, we build an ever-changing personal board of advisers, that is, people who serve as our confidantes and our sounding boards for umpteen different purposes. To offer a simplistic example, I have friends I turn to when I need advice on foreign films, and others to whom I turn when I have a legal question. The friend who has knowledge of foreign films is frankly useless when it comes to legal questions. And I would never ask my lawyer buddy about the foreign film festival. Just as in life, advisers are thick on the ground in every college community. Advisers of all sorts. Begin talking to older students about faculty, T.A.’s, and administrators who can be approached with questions about courses and majors to begin with. There are dozens if not hundreds of people on your new campus who are truly interested in you, your well-being and your academic and your non-academic life. Once you have a short list from older students, find out their office hours and begin to visit them. Explain to them that you are new to campus and are looking for some advice about some things, and see how they react. You will be surprised how many of them will be open to you and interested in you as a person. Cultivate your own board of advisers in this way throughout your time in college.
My next post will focus on why college advising is so important!
For many years, as a dean at three Ivy League colleges and now as an AVP at a university with an extraordinary mission, I have had a front row seat to the obstacles to success that college students and their parents confront every year. Even at so-called elite, highly selective colleges such as Princeton, Harvard, and Columbia, where I spent some of my career, students struggle on a daily basis to remain healthy, happy, grounded, and to stay in school. I am dedicated to helping them.