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Danielle Tisinger and Julie Murphy, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

Colleges and universities nationwide report increasing numbers of students who arrive on campus with an abundance of college credits already earned (Resiberg, 1998; Barry, 2004). There are a variety of ways in which high school students accumulate college credit, but no matter how the credits were earned, our experience has taught us that these students will face a number of challenges as they acclimate to the academe. Advisors should know how they can help students overcome these challenges.

How Credits are Earned

  • Students may earn credit by passing Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams. In 2006, President Bush pledged to train 70,000 high school teachers to lead advanced-placement courses in math and science (Bush, 2006); institutions are likely to see an increase in the number of AP courses completed during high school.
  • Increasingly, students may complete college courses while in high school, as many states have developed pre-college, credit bearing programs. One example of such a program is Minnesota ’s Post-Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program, through which 7,000 high school juniors and seniors earned college credit in 2006. Students may register for full-time credit loads while in the program, giving some an excess of 60 college credits before they graduate from high school.

Challenges for Students

In our work with PSEO students, we have observed that many academically advanced students face developmental challenges:

  • Academically-advanced students often do not make intentional choices about coursework or potential majors, nor do they reflect upon their pre-college experiences in such a way to help them navigate developmental milestones in a healthy and purposeful way.
  • Students who fulfill general requirements with pre-college credits often choose advanced classes simply because they provide a challenging way to fulfill high school requirements or because they provide “free” college credit.
  • Academically-advanced students sometimes have trouble meeting same-age peers to whom they can relate, and many young students struggle with issues of anxiety and perfectionism as they attempt to compete with their older classmates before they are developmentally ready.
  • Many academically-advanced students have high ambitions of pursing graduate or professional degrees, but are denied admission immediately upon graduating college because they lack the maturity and life experience that admission boards value.
  • Students who have received many of their pre-college credits through an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate program may not be prepared for the actual college classroom experience.

How Advisors Can Help

Recognize and name the challenges. Administrators, faculty, advisors, parents and academically-advanced students themselves are often unaware that arriving at college with an abundance of credits can pose challenges. In fact, these students are also identified as high-achievers who do not need additional help, since they are academically successful. Identify these students early and understand that they may need help without realizing it. Advisors should become aware of the struggles such students may face in their institutions. Identification of potential challenges to these students and early referral can help these students cope with challenges.

Encourage intentional career exploration.Advisors can help students intentionally reflect on what they have learned about disciplines and about themselves in pre-college classes by asking open ended, probing questions. Encourage students to participate in career workshops and panels and to take career exploration courses.

Remind students that education is not a race.Encourage students to view their abundance of credits as a chance to “buy time” for career and personal exploration rather than putting them a “lap ahead” of their peers in race to the graduation finish line. Encourage studying abroad, joining a student group, or completing an internship to gain hands-on experience in non-academic settings while still working toward a degree.

Graduate school is the new undergrad.Some students believe that they can best explore their career options in graduate programs. These students can be disappointed that graduate programs are specialized; some struggle to find a good career fit post-graduation. Help students identify future plans before committing to more school out of fear of the “real world”.

Involve parents as allies. Parents of academically-advanced students are often very involved in students’ academic and personal lives beyond high school graduation. Involve parents in developmentally-appropriate ways; educate them about developmental milestones that their students will face in college and how they can be allies for their students.

Educate yourself about mental health issues and perfectionism. Many academically-advanced students face extreme pressure from their families and/or themselves to move through their education at an increased pace e.g., taking the maximum number of credits allowed each semester. Anxiety disorders, substance abuse, depression, and problems with perfectionism can develop in these students. Advisors should be aware of the basic indicators of mental health issues and be prepared to refer students to mental health services on campus when student issues are beyond their professional expertise.

Base your work in theory.Advisors should incorporate career development theories into their every day work with students. For example, in her model of career exploration, Molly Schaller (2005) explains that students move through four important stages of exploration, including random exploration, focused exploration, tentative choices, and commitment. Advisors should help academically advanced students progress through these stages at developmentally appropriate times and encourage them to return to focused exploration when they feel that their choice of major or career does not fit.

Collaborate with other campus services. Advisors should help others on campus understand the challenges facing academically-advanced students; collaborate with other student affairs professionals to better assist students. Advisors and other campus staff should continually evaluate college policies and requirements (e.g., when should students be required to declare a major).


The college experience plays a fundamental role in a student’s personal development. We believe that increased accessibility to pre-college, credit-bearing options indicates that the number of students who earn pre-college credits will continue to grow. This continued growth will challenge higher education institutions to find ways to meet the needs of these younger college students. The most successful students will be those whose college educations help them make intentional decisions about their classes, majors, and careers in conjunction with successful evolution through developmental stages.

Danielle Tisinger
Pre-College Programs
University of Minnesota-Twin Cities
[email protected] 

Julie Murphy
Pre-College Programs
University of Minnesota-Twin Cities
[email protected] 


Barry, T. (October 11, 2004). Credit to the future. StandardNET. Retrieved October 2, 2007 from www.schools.utah.gov/curr/concuren/Credit_to_the_future.pdf.

Bush, G.W. (2006). State of the union address by the president. Retrieved August 23, 2007 from www.whitehouse.gov/stateoftheunion/2006/.

Reisberg, L. (June 26, 1998). Some professors question programs that allow high-school students to earn college credits. The Chronicle of Higher Educatio n. Retrieved October 2, 2007 from http://chronicle.com/che-data/articles.dir/art-44.dir/issue-42.dir/42a03901.htm.

Helkowski, C. and Sheahan, M. (May-June 2004). Too sure too soon: When choosing should wait. About Campus, 9 (2): 19-23.

Schaller, M. A. (August 2005). Wandering and wondering: Traversing the uneven terrain of the second college year. About Campus, 8 (3).

Cite this article using APA style as: Tisinger,D. & Murphy, J. (2007, December). Academically advanced, developmentally ill-equipped: Helping young advanced students find their places. Academic Advising Today, 30(4). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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