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In a 2014 Senior Survey, 44 percent of respondents indicated that they were “very dissatisfied” or “generally dissatisfied” with pre-major advising.

Credit: Courtesy of Creative Commons

In the fall, College freshmen arriving on campus may turn to their pre-major advisors for guidance — but some students say Penn’s pre-major advising program simply is not cutting it.

Students in the College of Arts and Sciences are assigned advisors who will, in theory, guide them through their first year of higher academics and help them in the process leading up to major declaration. Pre-freshmen make first contact with these advisors in the summer when they register for courses.

“Pre-major advising is a developmental approach to advising,” College of Arts and Sciences Director of Academic Advising Janet Tighe said. “So your goals when you’re talking to the student, fresh out of high school, is to make sure that they feel there’s one person at Penn — grown-up, authority, whatever — who knows them.”

Despite these measures, some students are not getting what they need from pre-major advising. In a 2014 Senior Survey administered by Penn’s Office of Institutional Research and Analysis, 44 percent of respondents indicated that they were “very dissatisfied” or “generally dissatisfied” with pre-major advising. In contrast, only 31 percent of respondents reported any type of dissatisfaction with the advisors they were matched with after declaring their majors.

In order to investigate the roots of this discontent, the College Office teamed up with the Dean’s Advisory Board to create a new survey to gauge what is and isn’t working in pre-major advising. They ran a pilot version of the survey earlier this semester and plan to administer the full version next semester.

“I guess what motivated us to initiate the project in the first place is that we feel that there exists a gap of communication between pre-major advisors and advisees, which may partially lead to some of the dissatisfaction experienced by some students,” DAB committee chair and College junior Shuhao Fan said.

“For example, it is hard for advisees to express to advisors where they mostly need help. Or for advisors, they don’t necessarily know what advisees are really thinking in order to adjust,” he said. “We hope that the survey serves to fill up this gap, by bridging two sides, meanwhile providing valuable information about the current pre-major advising as a whole.”

For College freshman Elena Varela, miscommunication with her pre-major advisor had major drawbacks. Varela’s advisor recommended that she rank a freshman seminar over Chemistry 101 when listing course preferences during pre-registration. When she didn’t get into Chemistry 101 — which was closed throughout the regular registration period — she had to wait until the spring semester to take the class and found herself behind in the 11-credit pre-major track for Chemistry.

“I didn’t know how much that was going to affect me down the line. I wasn’t made aware of it,” Varela said. “Especially now, in order to stay on track, I have to take a summer course. Obviously that’s not ideal.”

Varela did appreciate some aspects of advising, however — she said her advisor taught her how to use Penn InTouch and encouraged her to try new things.

Despite instances like these, Penn’s pre-major advising program does aim to help students fulfill necessary requirements. Faculty advisors go through mandatory training every year where they review Penn’s academic and course structure, and full-time academic advisors in the College Office offer a support network for any questions or concerns on the part of students or other advisors.

“I think our office does a good job of anticipating what’s happening. We’re sort of on the ground, so we’re meeting with students all the time and talking to each other and collaborating,” Assistant Dean for Advising Nadine Gabbadon said.

Beyond the issue of helpfulness, some students say that interpersonal issues made their pre-major advising experiences less than ideal.

One student, who requested to remain anonymous because of her position as a peer advisor, described an incident in which her advisor greeted her with, “You only have fifteen minutes.” The student said that her advisor went on to say things like, “The last person who I met with had a four-year plan and everything they wanted to say to me written down, it would have been better if you did that,” and “I get paid to approve your classes — you can refer to Career Services for further help,” throughout the course of their meeting.

“Perhaps I do have to improve my communication and professional meeting skills, but instead of destructively tearing me apart in an overwhelming five minutes, I would have appreciated constructive advice,” the student said. “I didn’t know I had to prepare a PowerPoint presentation to get the most out of a meeting.”

But some students say their advisors go above and beyond. College freshman Jenna Harowitz said her pre-major advisor has not only given useful guidance when it comes to course selection but has helped her succeed in other pursuits.

“He definitely has my best interests at heart. For instance, he is honest with me when he thinks a certain course load will be too much for one semester,” Harowitz said. “Outside of class registration, he has also been a huge help in getting involved in research. Not only did he offer me a position in his lab, but he also helped me make a list of other faculty members and professors to contact about working in their labs.”

To facilitate the advisor-advisee relationship, the College Office attempts to match students with advisors who share their interests. With the help of an algorithm and admissions data, students are paired with faculty members within the areas they list as interests in their applications.

These matches aren’t always perfect, but Tighe said there’s no problem with that — it’s expected that a student’s interests may change, and undergraduates are welcome to request a new advisor.

“These are not matches made in heaven. Why is that? Because you all, when you wrote that stuff for admissions, were 17 or younger,” Tighe said. “You were trying to get into Penn — you had other things on your mind. And some of you come in still thinking those things, but some of you begin to change your mind, so it’s hard.”

For cases when the issue goes beyond mismatched interests, Tighe also emphasized that students should feel free to switch their pre-major advisors.

“This office has no vested interest in putting two people in a room who can’t talk to teach other,” Tighe said. “It’s a wasted opportunity.”

But freshmen, who often aren’t aware of that option, say these “wasted opportunities” happen far too often, and can negatively impact their Penn experience.

“Many students, including myself, seem to want a lot out of their advisor-advisee relationship, but it can be frustrating when the advisor is unhelpful, unsupportive and uncaring,” the anonymous student said. “Especially in a place that is fairly large like Penn, it is important to have strong advising and mentoring to get the most out of the academic experience. Otherwise, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and like a deer in headlights.”

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