A First-year Advising Plan

Harvard should not wait to overhaul first-year advising- when it can be done now

“A brand new athletics center! No Lit and Arts B Requirement! Maybe even a student center! Wow! I can’t wait to go to Harvard!” Those might be the words of a future member of the Class of 2012. And the kid would be right. The light at the end of the tunnel looks quite bright from here. The problem is: I’m getting off after two more stops. I’m never going to see that light. It’s the remainder of my ride that concerns me most. At the end of the day, not much has changed for me, despite all of these tantalizing tentative plans. But not for lack of opportunity.

One common complaint here concerns the lack of helpful advising, especially for first-years. Most advisors seem to be graduate students, administrators or out-of-touch professors-—nice people on the whole, but with no more knowledge of the options available to a Harvard undergraduate than anyone could get by flipping through the student handbook for an hour. Meanwhile, the best sources of advice, older undergraduate students, go unutilized.

I often wondered as a first-year if there were juniors or seniors out there who once struggled with the same questions I was facing. Two years later, I can say that the answer for almost every first-year in my position is: “Yes.” Yet, two years later, I still see no real attempt to remedy the problem. There hasn’t even been a trial run at a solution.

A wise fortune cookie once told me that “Never a wise step was made by standing still.” I propose that Harvard starts walking in the following direction.

Create a peer advising program that operates in a manner similar to that of our current User Assistant (UA) program. In the same way that Houses have paid UA’s, concentrations will have paid PA’s. To become a PA, a rising junior or senior would interview with the head tutor, assistant head tutor or other faculty member within her own concentration. These people are in the best position to evaluate whether a student knows enough about the program to be helpful to others.


Once there is an approved staff of PA’s, a website should be created with bios of each PA, listed by concentration. Each PA will have a weekly schedule with possible appointments, just like those of current UA’s. Students looking for advice about anything, from choosing concentrations and classes to accepting Advanced Standing or entering the Mind, Brain, Behavior program, will be able to meet with older students who once were facing the same questions.

These appointments wouldn’t have to be long-—perhaps 20-30 minutes per session. And meetings could take place anywhere: in Houses and dorms, in Loker or Annenberg, etc. Putting something like this together would be practical and easy.

Yes, a project of this sort would require resources. It would require a financial investment, albeit a relatively small one by Harvard standards; it would require that members of each department select advisors; and it would require FAS computer services to get the system up and running. For the potential benefits of such a program, these sacrifices are pretty minor.

Every first-year will have access to a wealth of knowledge that at this point is completely untapped. Additionally, since upperclassmen tend to know about the academic choices, struggles and successes of many of their fellow upperclass students, PA’s will be much more effective than current academic advisors in guiding students to the correct sources of information.

And upperclass students aren’t without benefits from the program. Students with nothing to do for 60 or 90 minutes between classes will be able to help the undergraduate community and get paid at the same time, a great employment opportunity for busy students who are unable to dedicate four straight hours during the week to a job.

A program like this would really help Harvard follow through on its promise to help students make the most of their four years as an undergraduate. As witnessed by the size and growth of the endowment, Harvard surely knows that you have to spend money to make money. Sometimes, planning just isn’t enough. The time to start spending is now. The returns could be just as impressive.

Gregory B. Michnikov ’06, a Crimson editor, is an economics concentrator in Dunster House.