Use them, meet with them, listen to them, but do not trust them.
If your college was like mine, you can hear dire warnings against self-advising. Rather than figure out your own college plan, you needed to go to advisers, powerful people in offices with inconvenient meeting hours, who would tell you what classes to sign up for the next semester. At the end of the meeting, you would leave with a little piece of paper and a promise and hope that this would keep you on track for graduation. Sometimes it works out perfectly, however my experience and that of my peers was far from perfect. My program took most people 5 years or more to complete. I finished in exactly 4, only because I trusted myself more than my advisers.
Problems with advisers are more common at large universities. They had a steady stream of incoming students so there is always demand. They have generic advice about what an incoming student should study and make recommendations for specific classes based more the needs of the university than the student’s individual interest. They cannot have all freshmen put into Psychology 102 and they have to make sure the classes remain at a fairly balanced enrollment. However, advisers and public universities are not necessarily motivated by having students walk out the door. They are served better by keeping students within the system than producing graduates. Therefore, you cannot expect to get the advice for the most efficient and concise track for graduation.
Example of a Common Problem:
You may need 3 credit class to fulfill a science portion of a general Bachelor’s requirement, while also needing to take a specific Geography class as part of a special program’s requirement you might happen to be in. Your adviser may (knowingly or unknowingly) suggest you take a Chemistry (or some other science) class first to fulfill your “gen eds” and then advise you later on requirements for the special program. Problem is, that perhaps that Geography class could have fulfilled both the special program’s and Bachelor’s requirements at the same time. You might not find that out until you are a sophomore or junior, that you could have saved yourself that time and money.
Why to Go to an Adviser – I do not want to say to never go to an adviser. I met with one every semester before registration, just to be sure. Here are things you will need to go to them for:
• Declaring major/minor
• Getting the permits to get into certain classes
• Applying for special programs and classes
• Double-checking your self-advised degree plan
How to Self-Advise
Course Catalog – A course catalog should include all of the courses offered by the college and the degree requirements for each major. Degree requirements can change from year to year. If you declare your major in 2010, you may have different requirements than 2011. In my case, they were changing the requirements for the major’s capstone project. If I had declared my major a year later I would have had to take an extra class. Look at the complete requirements for your major and degree. Are you on track to take all of the prerequisites necessary? Do you see any extra classes you have taken that are not required? Note the difference between MAJOR requirements (usually dictated by the department) and DEGREE requirements (dictated by the college).
Degree Audit Report – if you are already in college or transferred in with credits, you should be able to obtain a Degree Audit Report (DARS). This is tailored to your course accomplishments and is necessary to see if you have truly completed your degree requirements. This should match up pretty evenly with the course catalog. However, the DARS report will not usually include what classes you need to take in the future, only what you have taken, what you are currently enrolled in, and what area you earned that credit for.
Future Course Plan - Make a chart with the Fall and Spring semester from now till graduation. Fill in the classes you will need to and want to take. It might be useful to work backwards from your intended graduation date. This is exactly what your adviser will do with you, so why not try it on your own first and then Are you on track? Can you save any time by taking classes in the summer? Can you complete an additional minor without delaying graduation too much?
Before You Go to an Adviser – walk in armed with information. Self-advise before you meet with them. Bring the course catalog and degree audit report with you if you can (however sometimes special programs do not have their requirements listed in the catalog). If there are an unclear requirements, get a hard-copy list of requirements for a specialty or certification program.
Note: If an adviser ever refuses to help you plan out your course plan for more than the upcoming semester, simply refuse to leave their office. I only stayed on track because as a second semester freshmen, I sat in my adviser office and insisted she lay out a course plan for the next three years with me to be sure I would be absolutely every requirement within four years. I was able to take a lot of my gen eds in the summer (cheap at a local community college) and focus on my major classes during the traditional year.
Bottom line: No one cares more about your college career than you. It costs your money, your time, and your effort. You want the best deal possible. So you should take a vested interest in your plan to the finish line.