Academic Advising for Sophomore Students

In my previous blog post, I wrote about the value for undergraduate students to meet with their academic advisor and plan ahead for degree progress as a way to maximize the college experience. Advanced planning for course selection is important for three reasons: 1) to maintain a balance of appropriate level courses each term, 2) to be prepared at the assigned registration time (and to not be haphazard in course selection), and 3) to intermittently spread out particular degree requirements that may hold more challenge for a student, so they are not faced with a single term of all courses where they may feel some adversity toward those subjects. Regularly, students with whom I work seek quick answers for points 1 and 2. But only through extended conversation can I engage with a student to understand their situation and support their most appropriate course selection. Therefore, I want to I provided insight into my work with undergraduates, and my recommendations in how students can work with their advisor at any degree progress point.

In this article, I outline the most valuable topics I discuss with sophomore level students. My goal in this blog is to provide awareness to students (and their parents or other supporters of an undergraduate), on the types of questions that should be discussed in a meeting between an advisor and any student. While my focus here is on students at the sophomore level, near future blog posts will address students at various levels of undergraduate progress.

I must start with a disclaimer: My advice presented here is a gross generalization. My aim is to speak to the masses, but of course, no two student situations are ever the same. Total credits earned, cumulative GPA, declared major, feelings of adversity toward certain subjects, and above all else personal circumstances, will provide variance among all student cases. For all of these reasons and more, it takes intentional time by the student to build a relationships with their advisor. Only through planned meetings will an advisor have opportunity to get to know a student and their circumstances to assure the advice dispensed provides appropriate support.

At my 4-year traditional, large, flagship state university, my advising specialty is for declared majors and minors in certain humanities subjects. Every day in advising sessions I’m struck with the realities of students in unique circumstances, and I also see many commonalities among my student’s interests and intentions for their college education. Within the 45 minute sessions that I host for individual student appointments, I ask about what is going well and the challenge points of the term, as well as getting to know the student. Thereafter we review overall degree progress to date, and as much as possible we work through the following points. Below is each point I believe is important for sophomores and their advisors to discuss, as well as my description for each point.

  • Major progress: This is where I address the quantitative formula of what major and degree progress means. At my university, a minimum of 120 credits are required to meet degree completion. Over 4 years, in 2 traditional Fall/Spring terms per year, that breaks down to 15 credits per term. And, 15 credits for each student in each term is not always appropriate. If a student has feelings of adversity around a certain subject, say natural science for example, where a minimum of 13 science credits are required to complete the general ed core, we must plan ahead for what, when, and how those credits can be taken. As well, it could be totally appropriate for a student in this circumstance to take less than 15 credits in a term when they are also taking a science course. The goal is to balance what the student feels are courses that are both “easy” and “hard” (in quotes because those terms are subjective) in a single term, as the strategy to maintain their best GPA possible.

  • Sequenced courses: It is common for sequenced courses to be required, and there can be many forms of sequenced courses. Foreign language is a natural example; on my campus a student must meet the third level proficiency of a single language for the gen-ed core requirement. Typically a student must achieve a passing grade for both levels 1 and 2 prior to meeting eligibility for level 3. This means for 3 or more consecutive terms a student is enrolled in a language course of progressing difficulty. Similarly, the natural science gen-ed core requirement is for 13 total credits, which for most students this means 4, 3 credit courses, as well as 1 credit for a lab course (although science courses can vary significantly in their method and format and therefore credits per course, so this is a valuable point to clarify with an advisor). Additionally, a major can also require sequenced courses. In my current specialty department, there are 3, 3 credit, courses that must be taken sequentially. In a social science department where I previously served as an advising specialist, there was a 4-part math courses sequence (4, 3 or 4 credit courses, that must be taken in 4 sequential terms). In that social science discipline, many students were excited for the topics courses yet found challenge with the math requirements, and depending on circumstance could change their major upon realizing those math courses were not in their best interest. Finally, depending on a student’s interests and desired career path, certain elective credits could be most appropriate. Depending on whether those electives are upper division level topics course, and noting whether there are required pre-requisites for those courses (for example a popular upper division level Sociology topics course on Criminology requires a lower level pre-requisite course on Social Deviance), it could be necessary for a student to complete a pre-req prior to an upper division level elective.

 For most students, given their need to graduate in a particular timeline, it would be required to layer these different sequences. So a student may be taking a math, and a language, and a science course in the same term; but balance is key so a student does not feel overwhelmed, but instead appropriately challenged, in any given term. Ideally, if a student does feel adversity in one or more of these subjects, they can spread out these courses, and take fewer number of full time credits each term or summer credits where they can focus on one course at a time.

  • Map out degree progress to meet grad timeline: I use a simple grid of 3 squares across (for each term in a year), and 4 squares down (for each year before a student meet graduation) to create a handwritten draft for a student’s plan. I have seen some students take this plan and transpose it to a google doc or excel spreadsheet for editing ease and access, which is ideal. After the student and I have determined what course sequences they will need, and their feelings around certain subjects, we can pick appropriate courses and spread them out across a student’s total academic plan. Upon deciding when sequenced courses should be taken, I will add required gen-ed core and major or minor courses to a student’s academic plan. This will fill the majority of a student’s plan, and then we can determine how many elective courses will still be required to meet the minimum degree needs of 120 credits.

  • Discuss double major, minor, certificate options: If it seems a student will have extra time in their degree plan to take more elective courses, I would suggest possible double major, minor, or certificate options as a way to focus those electives. On my campus, it is not required for a student to pursue a double major or minor, and it is a good way for students to feel like their time is focused on learning an added specialty, otherwise elective courses can be chosen at random.

  • Change of major possibilities: Once we consider an academic degree plan with their primary major of interest, it’s important for a student to reflect on whether that plan works for them. As I mentioned with my previous advising work in a social science disciple, once a student realized the required math components for that major’s curriculum, if they hold feelings of adversity toward math, certainly they should reconsider whether that major is the best fit for them.  My recommendation is to have these conversations early- sophomore year is ideal; while a change of major is totally appropriate it is best to make this realization early in a student’s degree progress or it might alter an intended graduation time.

  • Study abroad (if interested/eligible): The global cultural opportunities that come with a study abroad experience are invaluable. And it is imperative to planning ahead for an abroad program that will meet a student’s needs and interests. Certainly there can be GPA requirements as well as unique costs for certain programs, and many programs can be of a duration and location where major or gen-ed credits can be maximized and it can be more affordable to the student compared to a traditional term on their home campus. While it is not always the best option for every student, on my campus there are currently 400 different pre-approved study abroad programs and I encourage a student to consider whether it could be a possibility.

  • Extra curricular involvement: College is not about course work alone, as many co-curricular and extra-curricular activities hold social, leadership, and learning opportunities that are valuable on the job market. This is all a balance of time, and I encourage students to consider their options as a way to maximize their college experience.

In a nutshell, this is a lot of information to cover in a standard 45 minute individual advising appointment. Frequently, I know all of these topics must be covered at least by breath if not in depth, because a student may only make time to meet with me once per year if at all. Students: make time to meet with your academic advisor and be prepared to ask questions about any and all of the above points. Building a foundation of academic success is contingent upon planning ahead, and your advisor is there to step-by-step help you through it.

Katie Vahey Gaebler, M.A., Ph.D.

Katie Vahey Gaebler, M.A., Ph.D.

I am a professional Academic Adviser, having worked with undergraduates and graduate students since 2001. I specialize in providing personalize support for students experiencing transitions in their education. My goal is to help you consider what advanced educational options, and next steps in academic and career pursuits, are best for you.
Katie Vahey Gaebler, M.A., Ph.D.

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About the author: Katie Vahey Gaebler, M.A., Ph.D.
I am a professional Academic Adviser, having worked with undergraduates and graduate students since 2001. I specialize in providing personalize support for students experiencing transitions in their education. My goal is to help you consider what advanced educational options, and next steps in academic and career pursuits, are best for you.