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Marion Schwartz, Advising High Achieving Students Interest Group Co-Chair

MarionSchwartz.jpgSometimes the advisors of high-achieving students feel like hosts at a great party. They want to introduce their great old friends—cutting-edge, enthusiastic faculty—to their great new friends—eager, talented students. These students are just the kind to profit the most from engagement with a faculty mentor. But advisors may be tempted to over-identify with talented, energetic high-achievers, and to push them in a particular direction. The ethics of referring students requires a careful balance between taking the students’ articulated interests seriously and at the same time nudging them towards new ways to grow. Therefore, the referral process has to begin with a careful and sensitive assessment of what the students really want.

Students may seek a mentor for various reasons. They may want to meet a faculty member, or have a project they want to pursue. They might need support for a program requirement, like a thesis. They might not realize they want a mentor until the advisor suggests it. Whatever the circumstance, advisors can lay the foundation for a good match by asking some probing questions:

  • What academic disciplines and skills do they want to develop?
  • If they do have a particular topic they want to investigate, how do they want to study? Quantitatively? Experimentally? In the field? In the library?
  • What do they already know? Have they mastered some skills necessary for their goals? What will they need to learn?
  • What role do they expect a mentor to play in their lives? Teacher? Parent? Guide to the institution? Advocate?
  • What are their work habits? Will they need close supervision or can they work alone? Are they detail people? Do they want the big picture?
  • What is their temperament? Do they relish their independence? Will they be sensitive to criticism?
  • Can they talk the language of their discipline? Do they know how to articulate their goals?

Such questions ensure that the student and potential mentor share not only academic interests but also a similar understanding of professional expectations.

Once advisors know their students’ needs, they can look at the other side of the equation: who would be a stimulating but appropriately supportive mentor. Advisors at the Hot Topics session at the 2008 NACADA Annual Conference in Chicago shared that they found mentors by consulting departments, institutional Web sites, personal networks, and centralized offices of undergraduate research. Experienced advisors may have a pool of known mentors. For those they have yet to meet, it’s important to make personal contact before referring a student. Advisors found that some faculty are reluctant to take on the extra work of training a new researcher. However, if the advisor knows the potential protégée well enough to explain their relevant skills and interests, the faculty member may be more open to entertain the idea. There may also be incentives that new faculty haven’t heard about, such as release time for supervising undergraduate theses, or grants from inside or outside the institution. But the contact is not just to recruit a mentor. The advisor also wants to know about the faculty member’s expectations of students—work load, job description, period of commitment, and general attitudes. Such information helps avoid disappointments on either side.

While the advisor can suggest a promising mentor, the students themselves make the final choice, based on their own contact. By talking to a potential mentor in person, students can decide whether they will thrive in the relationship, not only intellectually but also personally. Together the advisor and student can develop a list of questions to ask, including, for example:

  • What is your big project, and what smaller tasks need to be done to achieve it?
  • Can you describe your ideal student mentee (or researcher)?
  • If you were my mentor, how often would we meet? What would I do to prepare for each meeting?
  • If you lead a research group, what is the group like? Would I be part of it?
  • What do you expect me to know before I start? How can I learn it?
  • What’s the worst mistake someone ever made while working with you? What did you do about it?
  • Do you give academic credit for this work? Is there a stipend? Can I go to a conference? Do you think I might publish something or present a poster?

Not every question will be relevant to every interview, but even discussing the kind of questions students might ask can educate them about the culture of the academic enterprise.

The same meeting where the questions are hammered out can include matters of business etiquette if necessary. Some students need to be reminded about making appointments, showing up on time, dressing decently, and speaking respectfully. They should know how to get to the meeting place. They might bring documentation of their previous projects. They should practice articulating what they want the mentor to help them accomplish.

Preparation is important, but so is follow up. Students may need to debrief. If they have more than one option, they may want to discuss the pros and cons of each. Or they may need new ideas because none of the first ones worked out. They may need to change their academic plans in light of their new project, rearranging their courses or staying for the summer. Advisors can support the mentor relationship by helping the student build an appropriate academic context for it.

This matching process takes a great deal of time. However, the intellectual maturing of students under their faculty mentors can be breathtaking. My colleague,Elizabeth Jenkins, helps place English department students in internships both within and beyond Penn State. She says that the success of her program depends on shaping an internship to suit the student rather than making the student fit the internship. This attitude of putting students first—understanding their interests, strengths, weaknesses, and eccentricities—seems particularly important to the unique gifts of high-achieving students. Knowing them well and placing them with appropriate mentors is an important contribution advisors can make towards fulfilling their great potential.

With thanks to Iona Black of the STARS program at Yale, and the members of the Hot Topics in Advising High Achieving Students discussion at the 2008 NACADA Annual Conference.

Marion Schwartz
Division of Undergraduate Studies Programs Coordinator
The Pennsylvania State University
[email protected]

Cite this article using APA style as: Schwartz, M. (2008, December). Matching mentors for high achieving students. Academic Advising Today, 31(4). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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