Don't Forget the Details: A Call for Balance in Academic Advising

Susan D. Bates, Western Carolina University

Current buzzwords in academic advising include developmental advising and developing the whole person. These terms are often used to mean that academic advising should go beyond prescriptive advising, which focuses on academic requirements and policies, by assisting students in becoming well-rounded citizens (Hemwall & Trachte, 1999). While not everyone agrees on a definition of developmental advising, we can all agree that developing well-rounded individuals is a virtuous and important goal. However, sometimes we spend so much time looking at the big picture that we forget that the details are just as important.

The American Heritage College Dictionary (1997) defines detail as “particulars considered individually or in relation to a whole” (p. 378). In this paper, the word detail refers specifically to the policies or requirements that may affect students' graduation or academic status.

Many kind-hearted, well-intentioned individuals are drawn to professional academic advising because they want to help people. They see the role of an adviser as a friend in the sea of university faces. Many of these individuals are eager to meet with students, but they are less eager to thoroughly review the university catalog on a regular basis or read minutes from a policy meeting. This aversion to detail-oriented work is not surprising, considering the personality of most individuals who choose academic advising as a career.

Many people who enter counseling-related occupations such as professional advising have a Holland's Code of Social-Investigative-Artistic (Holland, 2000). Someone whose dominant personality type is Social “prefers activities that entail the manipulation of others to inform, train, develop, cure, or enlighten; this type has an aversion to explicit, ordered, systematic activities ...” (Herr & Cramer, 1996, p. 221).

Sometimes the type of advising model a college or university has selected also plays a role in the lack of detail orientation. Advising models in which students have first-year or pre-major advisers have many advantages; however, these advisers may fail to see the fruits of their work. Advisers who do not see their students throughout their entire educational experience may not see how students' decisions and assumptions affect their timely graduation.

Most colleges and universities have a disclaimer that places the ultimate accountability for all academic decisions on the student. In addition, many advisers espouse the belief that it is up to the student to take responsibility to read the catalog, be informed of academic policies, and be aware of graduation requirements. While all of these expectations remain valid, we must not forget that we are viewed as experts on all of these matters. If we explain an academic policy to a student, should we expect the student to go back to the catalog to make sure we explained it correctly? If we forget to advise a student to take a course that is a prerequisite for a class that he or she needs to take in the following semester, can we really expect the student to notice the mistake prior to registration for that semester?

Students see their academic advisers for many reasons, but one underlying goal brings all students to their advisers' offices: graduation. Because students have entrusted us with their graduation, we have a great responsibility. Frank (2000) states that, although it is not always possible, “one important goal of ethical thinking and the application of ethical problem solving is to do no harm” (p. 45). If we fail to do our part in helping students to understand their graduation requirements, we have done harm and have failed to act ethically. We must remember that students are naïve when it comes to navigating their way through the university en route to a degree.

As academic advisers, we need to strive for a balance. We need to be able to look at students' developmental needs while simultaneously making sure that we understand the details. If we find ourselves naturally leaning to the big-picture side of the equation, we need to force ourselves to cultivate our detail-oriented sides.

One suggestion for developing the detail-oriented side of our personalities is to regularly review academic policies. Even when we understand an academic policy, we must look at it analytically; we must consider scenarios that may make the policy ambiguous. In these ambiguous situations, we must find out how the situation would play out in the real world. We cannot assume or simply use what we think of as common sense to determine how these policies would affect a student's graduation. We must find out how the final decision would be made in real life and follow that route to get the information for our scenarios. This step will help us to truly understand the policies and will aid us in assisting students.

Another suggestion for developing our detail-oriented side lies in the development of our note-taking skills. The only way to develop this skill is to practice it. Writing thorough notes may not sound like a lot of fun to social types, but it can be invaluable to academic advisers. When policies are discussed at meetings, rough and specific notes may mean the difference between a correct understanding of a policy and a misinterpretation. Thorough and complete note taking in an advising meeting can save time preventing the duplication of work. In addition, note taking during advising sessions allows the person auditing graduation requirements to understand why certain decisions were made.

We need to make an effort to develop the sides of our personality that do not come naturally, such as strict attention to detail or big-picture developmental advising. Students need developmental nurturing as well as all of the appropriate information necessary to reach their goal of timely graduation. When we strive for balance in our performance of academic advising tasks, our students will truly benefit.


Costello, R. B. (Ed.). (1997). The American Heritage College Dictionary (3rd ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Frank, K. S. (2000). Ethical consideration and obligations. In Gordon, V. N., & Habley, W. R. (Eds.), Academic advising: A comprehensive handbook (pp. 44–57). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gordon, V. N., & Habley, W. R (Eds.). (2000). Academic advising: A comprehensive handbook. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hemwall, M. K., & Trachte, K.C. (1999). Learning at the core: Toward a new understanding of academic advising. NACADA Journal, 19(1), 5–11.

Herr, E. L., & Cramer, E. H. (1996). Career guidance and counseling through the life span: Systematic approaches (5th ed.). New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Holland, J. L. (2000). The occupations finder. SDS: Self-Directed Search, Form R (4th ed.). Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources, Inc.

About the Author

Susan D. Bates is an academic adviser at Western Carolina University. She can be reached at or 828-227-7170.

Published in The Mentor on August 1, 2003, by Penn State's Division of Undergraduate Studies
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