Friday, September 4, 2009

College Advisors: Friend or Foe?

For the nontraditional student, college advisors can be your worst nightmare or your best advocate. Unfortunately, many colleges have started hiring advisors for the student body at large, instead of leaving this important task in the hands of those who are much more qualified--the instructors in the degree program. While there are some college advisors who make the effort to understand the degree programs they are advising, many do not. So, how do you ensure that your advisor doesn't hurt your college schedule?

When I first started my undergraduate courses, my advisor (an English professor) told me I did not have to take the required science/math elective. According to him, required courses in my degree program (computer information systems) would take care of that. In the middle of my last semester, I learned he was wrong. I had to decide whether to come back for another semester for one class, or CLEP out of a science class. Thankfully, due to home schooling my son through high school, I had enough background in Biology that with a little (oops, make that a LOT) of study, I was able to CLEP Biology and still graduate when I intended to.

While working as an instructor at a community college, I found that many students were being given bad advising, causing them to take four years to complete a two year degree. The advisors did not know the computer information degree program well enough to know which classes were offered only in even or odd years and in specific semesters (fall or spring). The instructors for the division quickly posted notes to the students to come discuss their schedules with division instructors before signing up for classes to help keep them on track.

How do you prevent this kind of situation? Follow these guidelines:
  • Study your college catalog. Know what classes you are required to take.

  • Read the course descriptions in the catalog, and note which have pre-requisites, and which are only taught at specific times, such as spring of odd years.

  • Create a chart that shows the order in which classes must be taken if they require pre-requisites and refer to it every time you register for classes.

  • Discuss your chart with your advisor AND one of your instructors. Or discuss it with the division chair or dean. Make sure that you understand the steps you need to take to get to graduation by the date you intend to graduate.

  • Get your general education courses out of the way as soon as possible, but also make sure that you are taking the first level of pre-requisite courses as early as you are allowed to do so. Some colleges are very strict about taking anything other than general education courses during your first two to four semesters. Others allow you to register for any classes you wish to as long as you have the pre-requisite classes behind you.

  • Keep your college catalog. This is your binding contract with the college. Even if the required courses change for your program, you should be able to graduate according to the requirements in effect when you start your first college class. You may have to substitute classes if required classes are dropped due to program changes. If that happens, be sure to discuss with the division chair or dean which classes will be appropriate substitutions. It is also your guide to when classes will be offered.

  • Occasionally, classes are cancelled due to low enrollment. If this happens to a required class you need for graduation, visit with the division chair or dean to find out what your options are. You may be able to complete an independent study for the course under the supervision of one of the instructors. Keep in mind that instructors are not paid for supervising independent studies, so they are doing this only to help you out. Be appreciative and do your work on time to ensure that the instructor in question does not regret taking on this extra work.

Nontraditional students sometimes have trouble identifying steps to succeed in their college careers, because they are unfamiliar with course pre-requisites and scheduling. Essentially, you must become your own advocate, and take responsibility for your own education. The more you know about how college planning works, the better able you are to get your courses in the right order, at the right time.


  1. That is great advice - - to really research your classes and schedule. Your great article brought back memories of being told I had to take 2 lower-level English classes after I had already clepped out of them.

    It meant another summer school session. That's because they did not accept the CLEP exam. (go figure!) I think the school does now, OR maybe the advisor didn't know what she was doing.

    I look back now and realize that I probably could have questionned that decision. Back then I just took what an advisor said as absolute law.

  2. Advisor advice should be dependable. Too often, it is not. Ultimately, it is the student's responsibility to make sure everything is going the way it should--after all, it is the student who winds up paying for it, in time and cash, when advisor advice is wrong.

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