The Power of Good Advice for Students
Richard J. Light, Harvard University
|... good advising may be the
single most underestimated characteristic of a successful
Some years ago I attended a gathering of faculty and senior
administrators from more than 50 colleges and universities.
Each was invited to present a view from his or her campus
about the responsibilities of faculty, deans, and advisers for
shaping students' overall experience at college.
The first person to speak was a senior dean from a
distinguished university. He announced proudly that he and his
colleagues admit good students and then make a special effort
to get out of their way. Students learn mostly from one
another, he argued. We shouldn't muck up that process.
I was dismayed. I was hearing a senior official from a major
university describe an astonishing strategy: Find good
students and then neglect them. It got me to think hard about
what decisions administrators and faculty members, as well as
new students, can make to facilitate the best possible
Since that meeting I have participated in 10 years of
systematic research to explore that question. My colleagues
and I have interviewed 1,600 Harvard undergraduate students; I
myself have interviewed 400 students. I have also visited
almost 100 institutions of higher education. Some are highly
selective; others are open admissions; most are in between.
They include private and public institutions, large and small,
in all areas of the country.
And, of all the challenges that both faculty and students
choose to mention, providing or obtaining good academic
advising ranks number one. In fact, good advising may be the
single most underestimated characteristic of a successful
Although agreement is widespread that academic advising is
important, different campuses have widely different resources
for advising. A small, private liberal-arts college with 2,000
students almost always will design a different advising system
than a large, public state university with 20,000, simply
because of different financial constraints.
Yet despite those differences, several recommendations about
good advising have emerged from my own experience and student
interviews findings that may be helpful to advisers on many
campuses. Those recommendations don't cost a lot, and are
relatively easy for advisers to share with students and for
students to carry out.
For example, one remarkably simple suggestion builds on the
obvious idea that part of a great college education depends
upon human relationships. Each year I meet, one-on-one, with
several new students to discuss each student's goals at
college, his or her background, and a study plan what
courses the student will take in this first year, and how
those may lead to future courses. Then we come to the part of
our conversation that I look forward to most.
I ask, So, now that we have had this conversation, what do
you see as your job for this term? Just about all students
answer that their job is to work hard and to do well in
college. I ask what else they might set as a goal. Their
responses often emphasize participating in campus activities.
Again, I press them to say more about their goal for the
By now, most students look puzzled; they wonder what I am
getting at. And then I share with them the single most
important bit of advice I can possibly give to new advisees:
Your job is to get to know one faculty member reasonably well
this semester, and also to have that faculty member get to
know you reasonably well.
I point out that achieving that goal may require some effort
and planning. Yet think of the benefits, I remind each new
student. Even if you only succeed half the time, that means in
your eight semesters in college you will get to know four
professors. And they will get to know you. I tell each student
that I am convinced that they will be far better off, and will
have a far richer experience, if they follow that advice.
As my first-year advisees approach graduation, many tell me
that this advice was the single most helpful suggestion they
got in their freshman year. According to them, as well as many
other undergraduates, certain professors exert a profound
impact, influencing their development as young scholars, as
good citizens, as human beings.
I have identified several other equally simple and effective
recommendations about good advising:
Require students to keep time logs. I ask each student to
record exactly how his or her time is spent, half hour by half
hour, for several weeks. Then I sit and debrief each student,
one-to-one, about what their time log shows. A crucial focus
in the debriefing should be on how time in between scheduled
obligations is used. For example, a student with a class from
9 to 10 a.m., and then another class from noon to 1 p.m., has
two hours of in-between time.
How should the student use this time? He or she may choose to
chat with friends or go back to the room to study. He or she
may want to do a few errands or do some physical exercise.
There is no single correct thing to do. Rather, whatever he or
she chooses, the key point is that it should be done with some
Finally, I follow up a few weeks after the debriefing, to see
if each student is actually putting into place whatever
insights and suggestions emerged from going over the time
logs. A single follow-up call, with encouragement to persist
in efforts to make changes, has made a measurable difference
in the lives of some of our students.
It is critical to stress that encouraging students to track
their time systematically is just the first step. The
debriefing, and encouraging students to implement whatever
changes they want to make, is what leads to the payoff.
Consider what the debriefing session accomplishes. For a
student, the entire process is a rare chance to reflect
together with an adult about how he or she is now allocating
time and energy. Meanwhile, the adviser gets a running start
in helping a student. It is hard to imagine a better way for
an adviser to get to know a student than by sitting with that
student and discussing how he or she spends precious time,
hour by hour, day by day.
The debriefing offers each adviser an opportunity to get to
know his or her advisees at as personal a level as each
advisee chooses and feels comfortable with. It is a great
chance for an adviser to genuinely advise.
Encourage collegial work. When I arrived at Harvard as a Ph.D.
student in statistics, I felt young and nervous. I learned an
important lesson my first week, entirely outside of class,
that taught me about the meaning of collegiality.
I checked in at the statistics department a few days before
classes began to make an appointment with the man who the
admissions letter said would advise me. His name was Frederick
Mosteller. To my surprise he was immediately available in his
office and invited me in. After some pleasantries, we set a
time for later that week to discuss my course selection. Just
as I was getting up to leave, Mosteller asked me to wait a
moment. He picked up a small bundle of paper, put a paper clip
on it, and handed it to me. When I glanced down, I saw that
its title was Non-sampling Errors in Statistical Surveys: A
Chapter for the International Encyclopedia of the Social
Richard, asked Mosteller, could you please mark up this
draft for us to go over when we get together later this week?
I'd love to get your comments on this.
I was panicked. I hadn't even started my first course, and
already my adviser was asking for comments on his work.
The next two days were difficult. I read the chapter 10 times.
Finally I felt I understood it pretty well. When I returned
for our advising session, I handed him back his draft, told
him I had learned an enormous amount, and thanked him for
giving it to me. I told him I thought it was superb, and that
other readers would learn a lot too.
Mosteller smiled and told me kindly, but directly, that he had
hoped for something different: I treated you like a
colleague, and you didn't do that for me. He explained that
by sharing his first, rough draft, complete with occasional
typos and grammatical errors and imperfect organization, he
was assuming I would help him, as his professional colleague,
to improve it. So now, as a colleague, it was my job to dig in
and to make specific suggestions.
Mark it up with red ink, he told me the more, the better.
He wouldn't promise to take all my suggestions, but that
wasn't the important part. The important part, he said, was
that going through the process together was a key aspect of
becoming a professional.
I took Mosteller's admonition very seriously. I returned a few
days later carrying a document covered with red ink. I even
included suggestions about writing style, choice of tense,
choice of subheadings, and many other details. The payoff came
when we had our next session a week later. He put my marked-up
version on the desk between us, and, starting on the first
page, we went over every suggestion I had made. As promised,
he rejected many of my changes. But he took a few. And we had
good discussions about many others. Mostly, it was he who did
Finally I understood. I realized that what had at first seemed
like his request for my help was actually Mosteller's giving
me his help. He was doing his job. He was advising me.
Brilliantly. He modeled, with his own behavior, how working
and debating with another person about a work in process is a
way to pay them a great compliment.
For years I have asked my own new advisees to do exactly the
same thing. I stay in touch with many of my own former
students from the past 30 years. And that one act sharing a
rough draft of a document and asking my new, young advisee to
mark it up so we can sit together and discuss it is what
they remember and mention more than any other. They describe
it as the single best moment of advising they got. They say it
shaped their attitude toward writing and their view of
themselves as young professionals.
Urge students to get involved in group activities. For other
students, the single biggest contribution an adviser can make
is not about academics. It is to encourage them to join a
campus organization or group that will give them social and
In interviews, some students from minority groups stress this
point. So do students who are the first in their families to
go to college. And so do students who are leaving behind
crucial support networks they had in high school with
parents, supportive high-school teachers or advisers,
religious counselors, athletic coaches.
Such students may not integrate quickly or easily into their
new community. For many, their academic work as well as their
social life and sense of being grounded will suffer. When this
happens, it illustrates how strong the connections are between
academic performance and extracurricular activities.
What is the policy implication of this finding? That advisers
should encourage students from their very first days on campus
to find a group to join.
For example, one student arrived at Harvard from an island in
the South Pacific. She came from a low-income family, and
neither of her parents nor her older brother had attended
college. She had been at the very top of her high-school class
but, after her first few days at Harvard, she was on the verge
of packing up and going home. She felt simply overwhelmed by
everything: the activities, the pace, the course selection,
the big city nearby, even the other students.
Her adviser, whom she first met a few days before classes
began, quickly recognized that. And so he urged the student to
find an extracurricular activity that she would enjoy, ideally
one that would also help her get to know other students. He
suggested writing for one of the campus newspapers. The
student declined. How about joining the Glee Club? The student
didn't think her voice was good enough. Did she play a musical
instrument? No, she didn't.
The adviser took his job very seriously, however, and refused
to give up. He listened to her responses, and then made
another suggestion: He told her that when the Harvard Band
held tryouts the next week, she should show up and try out.
The student repeated to her adviser that she did not play any
instrument. No problem, he replied, just tell them you want
to hold the drum.
The adviser happened to know that one of the college band
drums is so big that a second person often helps the drummer
hold it. In fact the student did become a member of the
Harvard Band, and that single event was critical for keeping
her at Harvard. While her grades were good, the dramatic
success was her extraordinarily happy overall experience.
In an interview, when we pressed her to analyze that success,
she repeatedly mentioned the band. Because of the band, she
said, she got to know many other students well. Also, becoming
part of the band, with its performances at football games and
other campus activities, gave her a wonderful feeling of
She told us that all of those good things had happened because
of that conversation with her first-year adviser. The
adviser's one insight fundamentally changed the quality and
texture of her college experience, including her academic
engagement as well as her personal happiness. Without that
advice, she never would have thought of joining the band, and
certainly not just to hold a drum.
Reprinted with permission from the author.
Richard J. Light is a professor in the Graduate School of Education and the John
F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. This article first appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education on March 2, 2001. It is adapted from Dr. Light's book Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds, published by the Harvard University Press, March, 2001; available from amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.
Published in The Mentor on May 1, 2001, by Penn State's Division of Undergraduate Studies
Available online at dus.psu.edu/mentor
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