Getting lost in <br />freshman advising

Different options are nice, but improvements are needed

As the fall semester approaches and MIT’s Class of 2014 arrives, I feel obligated to discuss an issue that affected my experience as a freshman. The Institute can boast of an exemplary faculty, course selection, and student body. However, MIT’s freshmen advising program has not been impressive. In contrast to most schools, MIT offers freshmen the ability to choose between group and individual advising. Residence-based Advising (RBA) and Freshmen Seminar Advising (FSA) place students with a group of their peers and MIT faculty members, while Traditional Advising focuses on individual meetings with a specific faculty adviser. Whereas most schools assign hundreds of students to a few specialized counselors, MIT advisers are largely drawn from the normal faculty.

The ability for freshmen to choose the advising method that best fits their preferences is beneficial, but currently that choice is not an easy one for the incoming class to make. While MIT provides information to aid freshmen in their advising decision, mainly through CPW and the advising website, neither source provides information about the potential downfalls of the different forms of advising.

After poring through the website information and attending CPW last year, I came to the conclusion that Traditional Advising was much better than RBA or FSA. Except for Next House, RBA bound students to their living group for all of freshman year, and emphasized interaction with one’s dorm mates — the people students already interact with on a daily basis. FSA had “homework assignments.” Both represented a commitment, requiring students to attend advising sessions on a scheduled basis. Traditional Advising, on the other hand, provided independence and flexibility; guidelines over requirements. Students could hold individualized advising sessions with a faculty member and interact with upper classmen associate advisers. And with only about ten advisees for every adviser, there was an opportunity for a much more personal experience.

But despite looking attractive on paper, Traditional Advising is messy in practice. Some students can talk to their advisers for hours, while others struggle to get responses to email. Since fewer students are assigned to each adviser, there is a high demand for advisers, while MIT only provides limited required training. This results in a multitude of well-meaning but untrained advisers, all of whom have their own research and teaching obligations.

MIT has essentially sacrificed quality for quantity in an effort to pair fewer students with an adviser. Whether a freshman is assigned a devoted and knowledgeable adviser or a confused and overwhelmed one is out of the student’s hands. Freshmen who are paired with a confused adviser are left to seek answers for themselves, floundering in the labyrinth MIT student support network. Since freshmen do not know the functions of the different student support offices (and their “trained” adviser does not either), finding an answer at MIT usually involves visits with a freshman adviser, the Registrar’s Office, and the Student Services Center all in one day. This situation can be even more frustrating if a freshman adviser is difficult to contact.

Although the Traditional Advising system results in a highly decentralized advising network for freshmen, MIT should not discard it. Freshmen who are paired with an excellent adviser receive helpful advice on career choices and other life questions. However, freshmen with unhelpful advisers should not have to feel lost in the MIT system. MIT should standardize the traditional advising experience by providing a more comprehensive training program to advisers. It should make the freshmen advising matching process more transparent by allowing freshmen to choose from a list of available advisers, similar to what is done for some in-major advisers. This system would give freshmen more control over their Traditional Advising experience. Freshmen should also be given the chance to provide feedback on their advisers, holding them accountable. Having more committed advisers would minimize the current information tag game, where freshmen make stops at every single MIT office just to find answers to simple questions.

Meanwhile, my classmates in RBA and FSA had very different experiences. In both programs, since advisers can bond with students through both group activities and individualized appointments, they are more likely to organize events for their student group. While I was having trouble finding my traditional adviser, my friend was enjoying lunch with her advising group at an Italian restaurant. While I met my adviser only twice throughout the entire year, my friend had individual meetings with her adviser at least twice a semester. By the end of the year, I would have gladly traded Traditional Advising independence for FSA commitment. After all, FSA develops a strong relationship between advisers and students that is much needed during the transitional freshmen year. Although the required events can get annoying, FSA and RBA provide more opportunities to bond with advisers and fellow advisees than Traditional Advising does; they’re certainly worthwhile alternatives.

Essentially, MIT’s freshman advising program is commendable. Traditional Advising is available for the students who don’t wish to be caught up in group events, while FSA and RBA are available for students who do. However, freshmen who have chosen the wrong advising method are stuck with their decision for the rest of the year. The only advice I offer these students is to develop a thick skin. Visit the Student Services Center often; the people there are almost always extremely helpful. Don’t be afraid to walk into random offices at MIT for information. For every slightly intimidating office occupant, there is an equal number of extremely helpful and caring staff. After traveling the length of the infinite corridor several times in search of information, comfort yourself with the fact that you are now attending one of the best colleges in the United States. Congratulations.

Diana Hsieh is a member of the Class of 2013.