Illustration by David Busby
Freshmen are assigned many things: a dorm room, a roommate, a residence hall, an adviser; the list goes on. Although a roommate can make or break your freshman year, an academic adviser can have a much more lasting effect on the rest of your college career and beyond.
A few pressing questions: How do you know when to meet with your adviser? Are you enrolled in the right classes? Can your parents get involved if necessary? Using the right resources and contacts within a university, as well as staying on top of your particular academic track, can help ensure an efficient and helpful advising experience.
Karen Watson, director of academic support for the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech, says that students are encouraged to meet with their advisers once a semester, a guideline at many colleges.
"We usually recommend that students meet with their advisers more at the start of their [academic] careers," says Watson. "They need to learn about the resources available to them on campus, student life, recreational activities — and get acclimated."
At Old Dominion University, students are assigned to a faculty adviser, a professional adviser and an advising center. The faculty adviser can help with choosing classes and answering questions about particular majors and minors. The professional adviser can answer career questions. Finally, the advising center is available for general questions and those that faculty and professional advisers are unable, or unavailable, to answer.
According to Sandy Waters, assistant dean of advising and transfer programs at ODU, having all three options helps to ensure students' success.
"At the advising centers, it is the employees' full-time job to be advisers," Waters says. "They can help with anything from academic advising to career planning with our students."
Old Dominion's system seems logical, as most academic advisers at universities are also professors. Because advisers also teach, it is sometimes difficult to coordinate meeting times around their office hours and students' class schedules.
Catherine Robey, a William & Mary graduate, appreciated her professors' open-door policy for that exact reason.
"I loved my advisers in the business school and in the pre-med department. Both had an open-door policy and, if they weren't available, would respond to emails within an hour or two to set up an appointment," Robey says.
Not only were Robey's advisers readily available, they provided much more than suggestions about what classes to take. Wanting to continue her education through one of William & Mary's graduate programs, Robey was in search of long-term advice.
"They understood the pressures of being a student and did their best to make it easy to get the classes I needed," says Robey. "They were always super motivating about grad school but without being unrealistic with regards to your current performance."
Alexi O'Hearn, who attended James Madison University from 2007 to 2009, was disappointed with the academic adviser assigned to him during his freshman year.
"My freshman adviser seemed to think that even though I had yet to take calculus or even pre-calc, I would best fit in an advanced calculus class while simultaneously taking chemistry and three general-education classes," O'Hearn says.
"She laughed at my initial disapproval [of the class schedule], which made me feel foolish for ever thinking that I was incapable," O'Hearn says. He was in over his head during his first semester at James Madison, and ended up performing poorly in some of his classes. He ended up transferring to Tidewater Community College at the end of his sophomore year.
These days, JMU has more options for its students, including freshman and major-subject advisers and an optional career and life-planning course, according to Chandra Lane, an academic and career adviser at the university. "Students can also have quick advising questions answered through the Madison Advising Peers program," she adds.
Charlie Nutt, executive director of the National Academic Advising Association based at Kansas State University, says colleges and universities that "have clearly defined academic advising — what it is and how it works — for their students and staff provide the most sufficient advising."
"Schools that have campus-wide mission statements, professional development plans for their staff, as well as assessment plans, are most successful in academic advising," he adds.
Many students, not unlike O'Hearn, are placed with advisers who do not seem to understand their academic needs.
Sam Taylor, a JMU graduate, found that taking action personally, as well as speaking with his professors, was more beneficial than meeting with his assigned adviser. "You really have to do a lot of polling of other students to figure out what they've done to get the classes you desire and make a point to seek out teachers whom you trust to guide you in the right direction," he says.
If necessary, students can switch academic advisers, although some schools make it easier to do than others. According to Mary Saunders, director of the Academic Career and Advising Center at Longwood University, "students can go directly to their department chair and request that they need to be switched." Students can also contact the undergraduate coordinator, or their new adviser of choice directly, depending on the school's policy.
ODU's Waters says advisers should talk to their students about a variety of topics: specifics of graduate school, their strengths and weaknesses as learners, and options for different careers.
"A student may want to major in business and concentrate in marketing, but might have no idea what other majors can fulfill marketing jobs, like communications," Waters says. An adviser should be able to help advisees understand the options available to them.
Some colleges, like Virginia Tech, are even beginning to offer first-year experience classes, which help students learn about different majors and minors, activities on campus and career resources.
Academic advising varies statewide, from campus to campus and sometimes from department to department. Most students are placed with an academic adviser based on their major or college within a university. However, for those students who have yet to declare, a general adviser may be assigned until the student chooses an academic track. Check out your school's website for an advising section, talk to professors, and make sure you are receiving efficient and helpful advising throughout your academic career.