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Jason Barkemeyer, University of Utah

Jason Barkemeyer.jpgCompetitive majors offer a lot of upsides: a bit of prestige, perhaps smaller classes, students are among the best of the best. But there is also a downside. There is always going to be a group of students who just don’t make it into the competitive major. It is seen in engineering, in nursing, and in my advising area, business.

While not as exclusive as some business schools across the country, the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah definitely has a high bar set, requiring a better than average student to be admitted to the school. As expected, it leads to students who have their sights set on business sometimes receiving bad news along the way.

It is always a struggle for these students to hear that they didn’t make it in. It is hard for those who barely miss making it into the major. It is hard for those who realize that they don’t have a shot at making it in…ever. And, it is hard for those with tunnel vision who can’t accept not getting into the school.

Due to a curriculum change last year, the School of Business was left with a defunct major status. The school had an intermediate level where students progressed after completing an initial set of classes and maintaining a 2.7 grade point average. Unfortunately, to fully enter the major, a student would need to eventually raise that GPA to a range of 3.1-3.4 to be admitted to the school. For most students this wasn’t too much of a problem as they were already above the GPA to get into the business school. However, there was definitely a set of students who hit that 2.7 GPA and were never able to improve on it, essentially blocking them from moving up.

When the curriculum changed, this mid-level status was eliminated, streamlining the path to becoming a full major. Due to policy, the school could not forcibly remove students from intermediate status. A sort of purgatory developed where students became stuck, unlikely to make it to the business school, but also not able to continue with business courses. Advisors began reaching out to their assigned caseloads, taking a look at each student individually and making contact to start a very difficult conversation: Namely, what are their current academic goals and what direction are they going?

There were a handful of students in this purgatory who actually were candidates to enter the school. Those were the easy conversations. However, the bulk of those in this population really had no shot at making it into the business school, having an unfortunate combination of low GPAs and a high number of credit hours. Herein lies the beginning of breaking the bad news.

Breaking bad news is never easy for advisors or their students. It is stressful and intense for both parties. Student reactions range from acceptance to rage and rarely can be predicted. So how does an advisor break bad news? What tools and tips does an advisor employ to minimize the negative effects of the news? Here some tips on how to approach these uncomfortable conversations.

The Decision Comes from the Student. We have no limits in the David Eccles School of Business with regard to how many times a student may repeat a course or how many times they may apply to the school. Pursuing a business degree is only limited by the student’s own time, money, and energy. It is not for the advisor to tell students they can’t pursue a business degree or they have to change their major; it is up to the student to decide if going down a particular road is the best use of his or her time, money, and energy. Hopefully in the end the student chooses what is best.

Know the Alternatives. Experience has shown that most students who don’t get into the business school wind up in economics and communications. It would have been easy to refer these students to academic advisors in those majors. However, the university has many more majors where students could achieve the same career goals. We have invited representatives of those majors into our staff meetings to better inform the staff of how business students fit into their majors and how advisors can better refer students to their majors. A handout was created that gives brief overviews of other majors and contact information, along with a suggestion of minors to complete the “business experience.”

Value What They Have Completed. Another positive alternative to a business major is a business minor that can absorb the work students have already completed. Even if students cannot quite make it into the business school, perhaps they can find an alternative major and complement it with a business minor. By including the minor with a new major they may not feel as though all their work was for naught. Instead, it validates their work to date, even if they have to change direction.

Be Empathetic.Breaking bad news is never easy. It is almost as if the student needs to go through the seven stages of grief before he or she can actually accept what is going on. Advisors need to be a positive presence in the room even as bad news is given. Advisors should avoid presenting false hope, but they do need to have concern for what the student is currently going through. Perhaps advisors can draw on their own past experience to create a bond and to show students how they are not alone in the situation in which they find themselves.

Be Honest. No matter how bad the news or how emotionally charged the conversation, an advisor must always be honest with the student. Even if they don’t agree with what they are being told, many students will respect the advisor’s honesty. Sometimes the facts are hard and cold, but they demonstrate to students why the situation has occurred. Creating false hope will only make the situation worse later on.

Be Firm and Consistent. When delivering bad news, academic advisors sometimes have to “just do it.” There will always be the stories that tug at heartstrings or the insistent student who keeps asking the same thing over and over hoping for a different answer. But the advisor is having a conversation for a reason. Don’t waver. Deliver the news and move on to the positive.

Be More Than Just a Face. Advisors have large caseloads, some much larger than others. Breaking bad news is always easier when there is a prior relationship with a student. As cliché as it may sound, advisors should try and get to know each student on a more personal level. While sometimes hard to avoid, the first, and perhaps only, conversation with a student should not be one in which an advisor is telling the student “no.”

Jason Barkemeyer
Academic Advising Coordinator
David Eccles School of Business
University of Utah

Cite this article using APA style as: Barkemeyer, J. (2012, June). Breaking the bad news. Academic Advising Today, 35(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]

Posted in: 2012 June 35:2


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