Extending Advising Benefits

The benefits of the sophomore advising system should be extended to freshmen

When it was announced, the new sophomore advising system appeared to be plagued by potential pitfalls. Our biggest worry was that resident tutors, who would be assigned to sophomores who have not yet declared their concentration choice, would not be good primary advisers if their expertise did not match the interests of their advisers. Yet the new system appears to be a qualified success. In particular, it provides readily available advising resources—resident tutors and knowledgeable upper-classmen—in a wide variety of fields to initiative-taking students.

That’s not to say that the new sophomore system has been perfect at roll out. Nevertheless, it seems that it can be easily refined to correct its one major weakness—ensuring that undecided students who are not particularly proactive about finding the right tutor or upperclassman to advise them do not fall through the gaps. But the average sophomore advising experience still looks to be strong and better than its ugly parent, first-year advising.

Fundamentally different—and fundamentally flawed—the first-year advising system pairs incoming freshmen with proctors and non-resident Harvard officers who, more often than not, know little about the undergraduate curriculum and are ill-matched to their interests. Building on the success of the sophomore advising program however, the first-year advising system can easily be retooled to take advantage of the House-based system’s benefits.

A major advantage of the sophomore advising system is that it exists within the context of the Houses. Resident tutors, each with their own academic interests, eat and live among students and are constantly available to them for advice, be it on a formal or casual basis. Even if a sophomore is assigned to a tutor who is a biology graduate student, he or she can easily ask a resident tutor in romance languages (or upperclassman, for that matter) for advice on which Spanish course to choose. The wealth of experience and knowledge readily available in each House is in marked contrast to the situation in Annenberg or the Yard.

To strengthen freshman advising, the sophomore advising program’s strengths should be emulated as closely as possible. While assigning freshman to House advisors would undoubtedly overburden the House tutors, recreating the ready access sophomores have to knowledgeable resident tutors and upperclassmen in a variety of fields would be a good start. For example, each freshman Yard might have a group of specialty advisors—proctors or graduate students in different fields—who would hold regular office hours in Annenberg that any first-year could attend.

Furthermore, the Peer Advising program might be focused around disciplines—each Peer Advising Fellow would be regularly available to advise first-year students (even those outside their assigned entryway) on his or her concentration. These specialty advisors would be far better positioned than a general academic advisor to answer questions about specific courses in the various fields of study a first-year student may be considering.

Harvard is a big and bewildering place. Over 3,000 courses are offered by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. There are over 40 concentrations. One can cross-register at other schools within Harvard and other universities in the area.

Asking anyone to be a general adviser to a freshman without support from specialists is asking far too much of a single person, no matter how much they know about Harvard. The best way to change this status quo—which is doomed to failure—is to start by emulating the sophomore advising program, which—by and large—seems to be working.

Recommended Articles