10 Steps to Being Your Own Adviser at College

It's not that hard to map out your course load over four or five years, if you follow a few basics.

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It used to be you got a general adviser when you came into college, then an adviser in your major department after a couple of years. But with record enrollments (often without commensurate rises in funding), many colleges are having to cut back the amount of face-to-face academic advising they can provide. Because of these changes, now would be a good time to think about do-it-yourself advising. Luckily, it's not all that hard to become your own best adviser, especially if you follow our 10-step program

Step 1: Make a plan. If you want to graduate in a finite number of years, you need to plot out a path to graduation, in which you slot in the courses you need into the time you want to complete your program. Some schools have established "eight-semester plans"— normally available on the college web site—that provide a road map for how to graduate in four years. If your school is one of them, you might just want to follow one of these ready-made plans. If not, no problem. Just take the broad view: Figure out what you'll need over a four- or five-year period, and map out how you plan to do it.

Step 2: Do the math. Most colleges have requirements about the numbers of hours needed for graduation, about the number of AP or transfer credits allowed, about the number of advanced hours required, and about the number of hours that have to be taken in residence. Many students aren't all that familiar with these rules, but they should be. A few minutes with a calculator and the "requirements" tab on the college Web site, and you can forestall the consequences of being short on hours.

Step 3: Know your pre-reqs and co-reqs. Always attend to pre-requisites (classes that you need to take before taking a more advanced class) and co-requisites (classes that you need to take concurrently with another class). These aren't state secrets; they are openly disclosed in the course catalogue or time schedule. But a lot of students don't realize their significance until it's too late, when your plan is thwarted by missing something that something else depends on.

Step 4: Strive for equilibrium. As you make your plans, be aware that a good program includes a balance of courses each semester. Some for the general education or distribution requirements, some for the major, and some electives. Some courses that are harder, some easier. Some courses with lots of reading and papers, some with fewer. Try to avoid going overboard in one way or another.

4-Star Tip. Avoid the strategy of first taking only unpleasant, required courses just to "get them out of the way." This makes for a miserable semester and can sap college of any pleasure. Be sure you are taking at least a course or two in something that really interests you.

Step 5: Don't Overload. Many students get into trouble by being overly optimistic about how many courses they can take in a given semester. Be reasonable about how many courses you can handle in one semester. Don't fall into the trap of thinking you can manage a ridiculous overload simply because you want to finish up really quickly.

Step 6: Be pragmatic and flexible. Be sure you know when courses are being offered before you slot them into particular semesters. Your graduation plan won't be very practical if you plan on taking courses next fall that are only offered in the spring. (Check the online course catalogue or inquire at the department office to find the projected schedule.) And be willing to consider all your options. Your schedule will work a lot better if you are open to a less-than-ideal time schedule or to taking some courses during summer school. And be sure to consider all the possibilities available for satisfying a particular requirement; don't lock yourself into only the most popular choices.

Step 7: Always register as soon as you can. Some of the biggest problems students face in getting their schedules to work come when they register late, after lots of courses are full. Sometimes you're stuck, say when you are "wait-listed," and only admitted to college late in the game. If this happens, be patient and expect a somewhat flawed schedule. And then plan for the benefits of a more timely registration next time.

5-Star Tip. If the online registration system allows you to start picking courses at midnight, plan to be there no later than 12:01 a.m. First come, first served.

Step 8: Get and keep all the records. You should always maintain updated records of your academic progress, including all transcripts from college courses and any paperwork relating to admissions, transfer courses, and completion/substitution of requirements. Colleges still have a lot of problems keeping accurate records (and sometimes lose important paperwork), so you'll be safest—and best informed—if you keep copies of all your paperwork yourself.

Extra Pointer. It's a good idea to keep copies of returned papers and tests so that if ever you need a letter of recommendation (say, for a job or grad school), you'll be able to give the professor your work so that he or she can write you an informed letter.

Step 9: Take credit(s). Many students delay in getting credit for any transfer and/or AP classes they took. Time is never on your side with these matters. If you don't get the credits transferred, you could wind up taking courses you didn't really need (since the transfer credits would have fulfilled a requirement) or turning the transfer process into a first-class nightmare (for example, by forgetting information and/or losing paperwork about the courses you want to transfer). Many a graduation crisis—as in, "I thought I was going to graduate, but now I find out I'm missing credits"—is caused by errors and delays in getting courses transferred.

Step 10: Use all the resources. Most colleges have all sorts of advising resources online. In some cases, students can get access to their student records, and current transcripts at any time—and sometimes, even with outstanding requirements listed or specially marked. Learn the system with all its peculiarities and use it often. And if you're stuck or some question about the rules, or whether you've fulfilled some requirement, seek out a flesh-and-blood adviser. They still exist at college, though you might have to work to find them.

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