Advising Underprepared Students

Craig M. McGill, Florida International University

The building blocks of most professions are theory and practice. Continual practice over the course of time can certainly help a professional become more adept in his or her work, but it almost certainly can be strengthened with a practice rooted in theory. Because academic advisers must accommodate students from all walks of life, one theory or even one set of theories cannot suffice. In fact, attempting to use one theory is not only inadequate but could be hazardous and irresponsible. Hagen and Jordan (2008) stated, “Advisers have license to draw upon a wide array of theoretical perspectives, because they have come to advising not from one field, but from many; they have the obligation to resist adopting only one theoretical perspective because the phenomenon of academic advising is so very complex” (p. 32).

This article presents a scenario focusing on potential issues when working with an underprepared student. Though the article will reference many theories, it will not include an overview of the theories themselves. Rather, the adviser is encouraged to use the information below as a starting point and explore the literature.


Joe is a 19-year-old, first-generation, underprepared, undecided student. He is from a small town in the western part of his state where the population is sparse. No one in his family has gone to college before, and they do not feel a college education is necessary. Joe’s parents were hoping he would marry a nice girl from the area and take over the family farm someday. Joe does not know what interests him, but he knows that he does not want to farm for the rest of his life. His folks let him go to college, and they try to be supportive; but because they feel they have been successful without a college degree, they do not really value a formal college education. Additionally, Joe realizes he has not been exposed to many different types of people or ideas in his small hometown of three hundred residents.

Joe is in his first semester of college. By all appearances, he seems kind, responsible, and intelligent, but he does not have the same strong, educational background that many of his peers do and, thus, he is entering college with many academic deficiencies. Consequently, he is insecure, nervous, and doubtful about his chances of succeeding. Joe’s adviser knows that he is an at-risk student who will need extra attention and therefore asks a lot of questions to get a good sense of Joe and, in the process, establishes a positive rapport with him. The adviser knows that this bond is important if Joe is to succeed in a world far different than anything he has ever known. After a few appointments with Joe and several rounds of questions, Joe’s adviser is trying understand out what brought him to a large college, so far away from home when he is underprepared (and only conditionally accepted into the college) with no developed educational or career goals. After Joe’s adviser asks the question very tactfully, Joe admits that the only reasons he chose to go to college were to get out of the town in which he grew up and to do something other than farming.

Theoretical Application

From a student development standpoint, most of Joe’s challenges come from his underpreparedness. Underprepared students generally display one or more of the following characteristics: “low academic self-concept, unrealistic grade and career expectations, unfocused career objectives, extrinsic motivation, external locus of control, low self efficacy, inadequate study skills for college success, a belief that learning is memorizing, and a history of passive learning” (Ender & Wilkie, 2000, pp. 134–135). Joe definitely has a low academic self-concept, and it is probable that his personal self-concept in general is fairly undeveloped. The only thing Joe knows at this point is that he is using college as an escape from the farm and farm life. Going to college to escape life is a typical trait of first-generation students (Sickles, 2004).

Joe’s underpreparedness likely contributes to his—considering what he might do for a living has never really occurred to him, as the family expectation was for him to take over the farm. Being a first-generation student also complicates Joe’s situation. According to Riehl (1994), “first-generation college students do not have the benefit of parental experience to guide them, either in preparing for college or in helping them understand what will be expected of them after they enroll” (p. 16). Because nobody in his family has been to college, they are unable to help Joe navigate the college system or even comprehend the struggles and challenges that he faces.

Thus, the adviser’s role becomes even more pivotal in the education of an underprepared student. Joe does not know how to “do” college, so even the little things that seem trivial for most students should be discussed with him. Joe’s adviser should emphasize “regular class attendance, ways to be an active learner, how expectations and requirements differ in high school and college, and ways in which the student may participate in class more actively” (Ender & Wilkie, 2000, p. 137). Joe’s adviser must take a developmental approach and teach him skills to succeed. As Miller and Murray (2005) pointed out, “academically underprepared students often have no idea how to go about earning a degree: They do not know what steps they must take or the particulars of what institutions expect of them. It is imperative that advisers outline both the institution’s expectations of students and what students can expect from advisers throughout their academic careers” (p. 2).

Even basic life skills likely fall within an academic adviser’s scope of teaching when working with underprepared students. An adviser must help students to “develop cognitive maturity, integrated identity, and mature relationships to become effective citizens” (Hunter & Kendall, 2008, pg. 143). If this is accomplished, students are more apt to become involved in the advising process and, thus, take control of and responsibility for their educational destinies. Hunter and Kendall (2008) stated, “The quality of education a student receives is directly related to the student’s involvement with his or her academic experience” (p. 143).

Establishing a rapport with academically underprepared students is critical to their success; therefore, Joe’s adviser should learn as much as possible about him during their introductory meetings. Because Joe does not have a clear sense of what he wants to do, what interests him, or, ultimately, what is even possible, Joe’s adviser must know what questions to ask. Getting to know the student and allowing him or her to gain a sense of you will help to establish this rapport. While the adviser-advisee relationship is important in ensuring that every student succeeds, it is especially true for the underprepared student. Steele and McDonald (2008) noted, “Spending time getting to know our students not only in terms of their academic and career interests but also in terms of their backgrounds and personal experiences is a key component to working with students as they move through the college experience” (p. 157). As unsure as these students are likely to be of themselves, they must acquire this important boost of self-esteem and the confidence of their academic advisers.

When working with Joe, it is very important to help him discover what he loves and what he might be interested in doing and cater to his talents and strengths. Miller and Murray (2005) suggested that a strengths-based approach can be very helpful in retaining underprepared students. In working with underprepared students Steele (1999) argued that the phrase “you need remedial work” should be replaced with “you may be somewhat behind at this time but you are a talented person. We can help you advance at an accelerated rate” (p. 23). Focusing on what Joe has to offer as opposed to what is missing can be crucial to his success.

Another approach that may help Joe explore what interests him is applying Appreciative Advising, the “intentional collaborative practice of asking positive, open-ended questions that help students optimize their educational experiences and achieve their dreams, goals, and potentials” (Amundsen, Bloom, & Hutson, 2006). Rooted in positive psychology, the advising model approaches life as a series of opportunities rather than a series of problems (Bloom, Hutson, & He, 2008). By working through the six stages of Appreciative Advising—disarm, discover, dream, design, deliver, and don’t settle—the adviser can help Joe choose courses that interest him and encourage him to journal about what excites him.

In the beginning, Joe might even turn to advisers for simple day-to-day matters. An effective adviser might encourage Joe to contact him or her much of what he may need in the beginning. But as time goes on, Joe should gain more self-reliance, and the advising relationship “… as it develops, encourages student independence as they achieve educational, career, and personal goals through the use of the full range of institutional and community resources” (Miller & Murray, 2005).

Joe is a person with sound, positive values and who simply needs a chance. Many of his professors will tend to view him the same way they view other students and not make themselves available for the extra support that he will need to succeed. The academic adviser can play a pivotal role in his success by establishing and maintaining a relationship that is “ongoing and purposeful, challenging for the student but also supportive, goal oriented, and intentional” (Ender & Wilkie, 2000, p. 141). Underprepared students can certainly succeed; they just need more guidance along the way.


In the practice of academic advising, it is important to remember that an adviser may be the most important campus contact for a student. Bultman, Vowell, Harney, Smarrelli, and Ames (2008) noted that advisers can help students make “sense out of the curriculum … to see its interconnections and the potential development of important skill sets that will serve students for an entire lifetime” (p. 418). The opportunities advising presents include engagement, developing critical thinking and reflection skills, forging connections so that coursework does not seem like an endless stream of unrelated classes, and discussion of vocation … and ultimately, helping students to figure out how they want to live their lives. Considering the spectrum of students that advisers see, it is important that they are equipped with theory to aid in the challenging but important work that they do. Theory should continue to be developed and incorporated into both academic advising literature and practice. In terms of discovering new ways of integrating theories from other disciplines into advising practice and devising others unique to the field, some of the most interesting work is yet to come.


Amundsen, S. A., Bloom, J. L., & Hutson, B. L. (2006). Appreciative Advising Interest Group meeting. NACADA Annual Conference. Indianapolis, IN.

Bloom, J. L., Hutson, B. L., & He, D. Y. (2008). The appreciative advising revolution. Champaign, IL: Stipes.

Bultman, J. E., Vowell, F. N., Harney, J. Y., Smarrelli, J., & Ames, S. (2008). Campus administrator perspectives on advising. In V. N. Gordon, W. R. Habley, and T. J. Grites (Eds.) Academic advising: A comprehensive handbook (2nd ed.), (pp. 415–437). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Ender, S. C. & Wilkie, C. J. (2000). Advising students with special needs. In V. N. Gordon & W. R. Habley (Eds.), Academic advising: A comprehensive handbook (pp. 118–143). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Hagen, P. L., & Jordan, P. (2008). Theoretical foundations of academic advising. In V. N. Gordon, W. R. Habley, & T. J. Grites (Eds.), Academic advising: A comprehensive handbook (2nd ed.), (pp. 17–35). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Hunter, M. S., & Kendall, L. (2008). Moving into college. In V. N. Gordon, W. R. Habley, T. J. Grites, & Associates (Eds.), Academic advising: A comprehensive handbook (pp. 142–156). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Miller, M. A., & Murray, C. (2005). Advising academically underprepared students. NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources. Retrieved from

Riehl, R. J. (1994). The academic preparation, aspirations, and first-year performance of first-generation students. College and University, 70, pp.14–19.

Sickles, A. R. (2004). Advising first-generation students. NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources. Retrieved from

Steele, C. M. (1999). Race and the schooling of black Americans. In M. H. Davis (Ed.), Social Psychology: Annual Editions. Guilford, CT: Duskin/McGraw-Hill.

Steele, G. E., & McDonald, M. L. (2008). Moving through college. In V. N. Gordon, W. R. Habley, & T. J. Grites, (Eds.), Academic advising: A comprehensive handbook (2nd ed.) (pp. 157–177). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

About the Author(s)

Craig M. McGill, Florida International University

Craig M. McGill, M.M., M.S., is an academic adviser in the Department of English at Florida International University in Miami, Florida. He can be reached at

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Discuss This Article


  1. user gravatar
    Nicole Malinowski

    I think the most critical part of this article is establishing that the advisor is there, not only as an advisor, but as a mentor and a friendly correspondent. Feeling alone in college is possibly the most detrimental attribute to a student’s academic success aside from catastrophic events occurring within their personal lives. In this age, where accepted classes are diversified as possible, it’s hard for an individual, especially in Joe’s scenario, to fit in.

    Both of my parents went to college so I can feel sympathy for Joe’s situation. However, to find empathy in the situation, you must dig deeper, which is what the article describes. I really liked how McGill included, “When working with Joe, it is very important to help him discover what he loves and what he might be interested in doing and cater to his talents and strengths” because finding things to get involved him will lead Joe away from a state where he may not succeed. Also, by asking him about his personal life, aside from what his aspirations through college are, Joe is treated more like a person, rather than a student being advised, which can lead to that mentored and trusting relationship.

    Being a peer adviser, I find that unprepared students are shyer and unsure of what to ask- primarily because they have so many questions. However, I usually find success in treating each student that comes into me like a friend to develop a calmer tone while talking-instead of flat out asking “What help do you need.” Simple phrases such as “How are you?” or “How is the semester going?” “Do you like your classes” etc. can help a student open up, bringing their ideas to the forefront and allowing questions to come naturally.

  2. user gravatar

    Coming into College, I had no idea what my academic interests were or what I wanted to do with my life. However, both my parents and my siblings went to college, so I have the privilege of their support and guidance as I grow throughout college. This is the complete opposite of Joe. He is the first in his family to ever attend college and he is feeling lost and confused right now. This student is in crucial need of academic advising if he wants to achieve in college and beyond. The article states that, “first-generation college students do not have the benefit of parental experience to guide them, either in preparing for college or in helping them understand what will be expected of them after they enroll.” Unlike myself, Joe does not have an adult figure to turn to when he is facing troubles in college. In my opinion, the most important figure that he needs in his life right now is his academic advisor. It is crucial that the advisor instructs him to go to class, study, do homework, and work hard. I completely agree with the quote that, “establishing a rapport with academically underprepared students is critical to their success.” This advisor is critical in helping this student grow. Asking them questions, meeting with them regularly, and gaining a close relationship with them is very important.
    It is also important to note that Joe is wants to learn and has positive values; he just needs a push in the right direction. Advisors are extremely important for every student, however I think they are a bit more crucial for these first generation students, like Joe. It would be wrong for an advisor to not contact first generation college students because they are the ones who could be the most confused about the future. When meeting with and underprepared student you must be more wary and aware that you may be the only mentor/ aide that they have. I wish I had gained more contact with my advisor freshman year, but it was not as critical for me because I had my parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and sisters (who all went to college) to turn to.

  3. user gravatar
    Steven Doerfler

    The quote “Advisers have license to draw upon a wide array of theoretical perspectives, because they have come to advising not from one field, but from many; they have the obligation to resist adopting only one theoretical perspective because the phenomenon of advising is so very complex” is very powerful are true. From my experience, I have had to alter my individual approach to advising for each individual case that has been brought to me. Some of the time it is the same basic information that I need to pass off, while other times it is all contingent on what the student is asking for in his or her specific scenario. This is especially relevant with underprepared students, as some may be a little concerned with what is going on around them while another may be extremely concerned with what is happening in their academic or even social life. As a peer mentor, I am here as a reference not only for academics but also if students have questions on anything they would like to talk with me about. As each question is different from each individual student, my approach to helping that student can be significantly different than another student, and it would be a disservice to him or her if I were to use the same approach for everyone who came in to talk to me or any other peer advisor.
    Another aspect of the article that stood out to me was the part where it stressed establishing a rapport with academically underprepared students is critical to the student’s success. It is then necessary to get to know the student on a more personal level to create and maintain the relationship where they feel comfortable talking with a peer advisor in the future as well as the first time they come in. this is vital for getting the student to be more at ease and also to instill confidence in him or her. If a peer advisor puts effort into getting to know an underprepared student, the student becomes more comfortable and can truly open up and let us know if there is anything more serious going on contributing to being underprepared. This can be a critical aspect of being a peer advisor while also seeing immediate results in how effective the advising is. While I haven’t had many cases where a student has come in to peer advising having a serious problem, this has shed light onto a subject that I am hopeful to apply in the future if this scenario comes up for me.

  4. user gravatar
    Maggie Curran

    I have come to UMass-Amherst as a first generation student. Differing from the example, my parents have taken some college courses. My parents had influenced me to attend college and stressed the importance of higher education even though in their lives they have been successful without attaining a degree. So while I was reading this article I was preparing a rebuttal, as the character in the example seemed to me as an over-simplification of the problems first gen students face. However, similar to the character Joe’s admission to his councilor, I came to UMass to get out of my small hometown in Virginia without a real direction. At home my father brought up the Navy in multiple instances as a perfectly suitable plan to follow after college. More and more often I feel like my education in high school had not prepared me with effective note-taking and study habits.
    The article brings up a lot of questions about me that I had ignored before, such as if I am an active learner, or how involved I am with my academic experience. UMass however has worked very well with me at identifying my strengths and encouraging me to work in those fields. These preemptive steps came through my integration process as a member of athletics, but often athletes are first gen students and these courses/seminars/workshops are necessary for shaping an academic plan. However the guidance from the courses I took in my freshman year did stop, so that cut off a big support system. I believe that consistent meetings with a skilled advisor could keep me on track toward my goals. The positive interaction between Joe and his advisor builds self-confidence and I can say in my personal experience, that is the most important.


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