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I have a fun fact. According to Penn InTouch, the University is offering over 5,000 courses this spring. And even if half of those courses are exclusively available to graduate students, that still leaves, well, you do the math. For undergraduates, the plethora of courses embodies both a gift and a curse: ample opportunities to learn, explore and succeed — and plenty of chances to veer off course, get overwhelmed and fail.

For many of us, the most essential figure in our academic guidance during freshman and sophomore years is our pre-major adviser, if for no reason other than the title alone. For underclassmen in the College of Arts and Sciences in particular, the importance of the pre-major adviser is magnified because there are a large number of majors for students to choose from. According to Janet Tighe, dean of freshmen and director of academic advising for the College, the role of the pre-major adviser is “to help students transition from high school, learn how to navigate the learning environment of a research university and achieve their educational goals.”

I’m not calling for some sort of radical “No Freshman Left Behind” reform to first-year academics and advising. I admire and appreciate the degree of academic freedom that the College has afforded its students. And the pre-major advising framework that Tighe laid out is more than adequate. But the system could use some improvements.

A more structured relationship between advisor and student would help students adjust to the customs and rigors of college curricula. In addition to the ceremonial pre-registration meetings at the beginning of each semester, the College should encourage pre-major advisors to have informal sit-downs with advisees before the end of the add or drop periods or withdrawal deadline. Increased dialogue between students and advisers can ascertain that students finds firm footing in a new and challenging environment and avoid potential stumbling blocks.

One College sophomore and Health and Societies major, speaking anonymously because she did not want to affect her relationship with her adviser, shared her frustrations about a particular course selection that beleaguered her academic transition. “I was really good at math in high school so I took Math 104 my first semester here. But it was a real struggle, and if I had known that I didn’t have to take it, things would’ve been a lot easier,” she noted. The thing is, she should’ve known. Her adviser should’ve informed her at some point.

Pre-major advisers should also be equipped and willing to teach students a thing or two about how to navigate the learning environment of a research university. Yet College senior and English major Kristin Myers recalled not discovering her academic worksheet on the Penn InTouch web site — which some might consider a pretty vital navigation tool around here — until the second semester of her sophomore year. Tighe informed me that pre-major advisers are in fact trained with knowledge of worksheets, requirements and support resources for students. But there needs to be more structure in place to ensure that knowledge gets passed on. Maybe pre-major advisers could hold workshops where they teach their students about the basics of registration, tracking academic progress and useful contacts within the College.

“After all is said and done, the actual decisions are made by the student and no one else. Advisers are not guidance counselors who can prescribe the best curriculum for a student,” reads a little nugget of wisdom on the College’s pre-major advising web page. Truer words may have never been written. Ultimately, the responsibility for our education rests with us from the moment we arrive. But more should be done to ensure we’re making informed decisions before we’re forced to learn from our failures. And in our first couple years when we’re attempting to really figure this college thing out, I don’t think any of us would turn down a little more guidance.

Jonathan Wright is a College senior from Memphis, Tenn. His e-mail address is Wright-ing On The Wall appears on alternate Mondays.

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