An Insider’s View of College Advising

Jennifer Stephan headshot - Magellan College Counseling
As seniors prepare to make their college decisions, we thought it would be useful to give you a deeper look at the resources college students have available to them. This post was written by Jennifer Stephan, who works part-time with select Magellan clients. At Wellesley, Jennifer has worn both of the advising “hats.” When she was a professor in the Computer Science department, she served as a faculty advisor. As class dean, she is now a professional advisor.

At many small and medium sized colleges and universities, students have an “advising team” to guide them.  This team typically includes a professional staff member and a member of the faculty, and may also include other staff members too (more on this below).  A professional advisor’s primary role is to help students navigate the institution to graduate on time.  Such advising is holistic and takes into consideration anything that impacts a student’s academics.  This may include course selection, major declaration, study abroad, internships, post-graduation planning, athletics, cross registration (some colleges allow students to take courses at other schools), transfer or AP credit, personal problems, health issues, disabilities, academic difficulty, academic dishonesty, and many more.  Professional advisors are not only experts in their institution’s rules and requirements for graduation, but also, importantly, student development.  They also are experts on the resources available to students at their institution and can connect students to others who can help them.  A faculty advisor’s primary role is to guide students to be successful in a given academic discipline.  Faculty advisors are experts in an academic discipline, such as Computer Science, English, or International Relations.

At Wellesley College, every first year student is assigned a faculty advisor based on her academic interests as she enters the College.  The first-year dean is a professional staff member who is available to all members of the first-year class.  At the end of the first year, the entire class is handed off to a class dean who works with all members of the class for their remaining three years at the College.  Students declare their majors during their sophomore year.  As part of the major declaration process, students ask a professor in their intended major department to serve as their faculty advisor.  Together, the class dean and the faculty advisor comprise a student’s advising team.  The faculty advisor provides expert guidance on the department’s major requirements and internships, jobs and graduate school in that field.  The class dean provides guidance on everything outside of a student’s major.

A similar model exists at Tufts University.  One distinction is that at Tufts the professional advisor, called an Academic Dean, works with a student for her entire time at the University – from the moment she arrives on campus until the day she graduates.

On many campuses, there are also other professional advisors who provide specialized advising to specific groups of students.  For instance, pre-professional (career) advising, pre-med advising, and cultural advising (to support students from specific identity or cultural groups) are all common.

When you explore a college or university, it is important to research the type of advising available to students.  Once you are a student at an institution, use your advisors!  I recommend that students see both their professional (dean) and faculty advisor at least a few times each semester.  Good times to do so are at the beginning of the semester (to check in and set your intentions about academic goals) and during the semester when you need to select courses for next term.  Other valuable times are when you need to make summer or study abroad plans and declare your major.

One very important time that every student should be in touch with her dean is if she is ill or struggling with something.  If you find yourself in this position – see your dean!  Let your dean know what is going on so she can support you.  And, let her know sooner rather than later – it is much easier for your dean to help you if you are in a “little” hole rather than a “big” one.  Most students also find it easier to reach out to their dean when they are struggling if they have already established a relationship with their dean otherwise – another good reason to routinely visit your dean.

Remember, your dean has chosen to dedicate her life to helping students achieve their academic and personal goals.  They want to help you – this is their job!  Also, remember that they are human – they have failed tests, lost loved ones, been ill, made mistakes (and learned from them) and wondered where their place is in the world, just like you.

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