How to Work with Your Student Advisor Effectively

By Corban Sanchez

Working with your college advisor is a lot like working with your high school guidance counselor. A big difference is that, like the rest of the college experience, you’re expected to be more independent and take the initiative to seek the guidance and support you need. Colleges want to graduate competent people who, among other things, can maintain employment…and later donate back to the university! This means that communicating effectively and working well with others, making and keeping appointments, keeping track of requirements, and reading the material you’re given are all an important part of the college experience and your development. Taking ownership of your college experience and degree requirements will help you to develop the level of independence and competence necessary to become a highly sought-after employee. 

Who is my advisor?

Advisor type: Part of developing your general competence also involves learning how to navigate bureaucracy (whom to go to for what). The larger the college, the more complex (and typically siloed) they tend to be with available services. Employees in smaller schools tend to wear multiple hats/perform multiple functions. In larger schools, similar to larger hospitals, federal government offices, etc., employees work specifically within their designated area/specialty. With this in mind, when reaching out to an advisor, pay attention to the advisor’s title and office name. Unlike high school, where you likely only had one “counselor” type title, there are MANY different types of “advisors” in college (financial aid advisor, study abroad advisor, accounts payable advisor, student success counselor/coach, peer advisor, honors program advisor, career advisor, international student services advisor, athletic advisor, college/staff advisor, etc.) If you pay attention to the title and/or advisor’s office/department (undergraduate college office vs financial aid office), you’re more apt to direct the appropriate question to the appropriate advisor. (e.g., financial aid questions go to financial aid advisors, study abroad questions go to study abroad advisors, career questions go to career advisors) You’ll likely feel less frustrated, too, because you’ll avoid the “run around” of being transferred to different offices when you go to the appropriate person the first time.

Advisor role: In addition to noting the type of advisor with whom you are working, research whether you’re working with faculty or staff advisors (or both) and the advising structure at your college. (research: internet search of college name, major/department, advising – e.g., “Duke University biology advising”) Do they assign advisors by major (ideally keeping you with the same advisor all four years), or do they assign advisors by year in college? Is your college advisor faculty or staff? 

  • Faculty advisors are full-time professors and they advise on the side. Their primary role is teaching and research in their discipline. Thus, they’re your go-to for class/curriculum-specific questions. They likely teach or work regularly with the people who teach, the courses in your major that you’ll be taking. You’ll yield more useful responses if you direct class content-related questions to faculty advisors. (e.g., When will ABC 101 next be available? What type of assignments could I expect for ABC 200-level courses in your department? What do we cover in ABC 102?) Advisors with any of the following titles would be a faculty advisor: “Professor,” “Associate Professor,” or “Assistant Professor.”
  • Staff advisors are full-time staff who typically work directly with students every business day (and who may teach a class or two here and there on the side). Their primary role is advising students on their caseload (again, research how this is managed at your school). They are like your primary care physician and serve as generalists. They have a general knowledge of available resources, academic policies, where to find/go for whatever you need, etc. If you don’t know where to begin or what to do, a staff advisor is a great starting point and s/he can point you in the right direction. Advisors without a “professor” title would generally mean s/he is a staff advisor.

Advisor Management Tips

  • You will likely receive a TON of emails from your advisor(s). Create email folders specific to each advisor type you have (e.g., study abroad, financial aid, general advising) so that you may save the emails and stay organized for easy reference.
  • Think through your needs, identify goals, and be prepared with questions. A general, “just making sure I’m on track to graduate” advising appointment may yield just that, but advising can provide you with so much more! The more you help your advisor understand who you are, what you hope to accomplish, and what you hope to experience, the more your advisor can help you achieve those goals and share the type of information that would be useful to you. What you communicate to them prompts what they communicate to you. Sharing very little about yourself with your advisor is like sharing very little with your doctor and expecting him/her to diagnose you without pertinent details (e.g., what hurts, what have you been eating, where have you traveled, how long has this been a problem, etc.) They can be more helpful to you if you help them to better understand you.
  • Have a paper and pen – take notes during an advising appointment. You will be held accountable for your degree requirements and you’re the one who suffers if you don’t keep track of them.
  • Most colleges provide a one-page sheet that outlines all of your degree requirements. Print and tape this to your bedroom wall so that you become more familiar with what you need to complete.