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

Marion Schwartz.jpgWorking with high-achievers can be immensely satisfying: they are the students most likely to live out their advisors' ideals of the academic life. At the same time, these students present special challenges. Because they have such potential, it takes knowledge, research, and creativity to serve them well. Further, although they come to college with the same developmental needs as other students, those needs can be hidden behind their confident surface of accomplishment. Their abilities may set them up for perfectionism, social isolation, identity foreclosure or diffusion-problems that become evident only in crisis. Thus, advisors who work with high achievers need both a thorough knowledge of the opportunities open to these students and the sensitivity to support them through realization of these opportunities. How can advisors prepare for such challenges?

Know the institution. Advisors should know honors programs inside out. What must students do to maintain their status in honors? What privileges will they receive within the honors program? Is money available for research projects? Does a substitution rule make pursuit of a double major easier for honors students? Honors advisors must keep abreast of program information; they must reread the handbook and check with administrators at least once a year for updates on changes.

Advisors should think of the institution itself as a treasure trove of opportunities for high achieving students. Advisors can guide their most ambitious students towards the unique strengths of the institution. Which departments or special institutes offer exceptional opportunities? Who are the leading lights among the faculty? Prepare to help students by reading news releases, faculty-staff newsletters, department brochures and Web pages; scan the bookstore for faculty publications.

Know the students. Achterberg (2004) noted that it is difficult to generalize about honors students (p. 88), and Kem & Navan (in press) found that honors students were unhappy when they were judged solely on the basis of their accomplishments. Just as advisors work to avert stereotyping students by ethnicity, they must avoid prejudging their high achievers. Advisors should seek clues to the uniqueness of each student by reading folder materials before meeting with the student. Look beyond transcripts to documents such as admissions essays, teacher recommendations, resumes of volunteer or work experience, and portfolios submitted for special awards. Look at competitions, religious affiliations, community service, jobs (both menial and impressive), and travel -students are far more than the sum of their course work.

Broaden the network. Because high-achieving students pursue broad and more accelerated goals than other students, they can profit from a wider range of referrals. Therefore, advisors should cultivate special connections in a variety of areas.

  • Financial aid can include not only government aid and institutional scholarships, but also national and international competitions. If the institution does not have centralized information about such funding, consult the National Association of Fellowships Administrators.
  • Study abroad for high achievers is encouraged by national governments and corporations overseas. High-achievers may seek these out, not only because of the sponsorship, but also because they see the world broadly. Advisors should cultivate a colleague in the study abroad office with expertise in uncommon destinations and scholarships for foreign travel.
  • Library resources are necessary for research projects of all sorts. While academic advisors may not be supervising the projects, they should be able to refer students to appropriate librarians, especially if the student is still searching for a topic. On campuses without a designated honors librarian advisors can either get a list of staff subject specialists or develop contact with an experienced librarian to whom they can refer high-achieving students.
  • Study skills are often underdeveloped among high-achievers; this is especially true for those who not adequately challenged in high school. Advisors can either create a resource of their own or work with the college learning center to tailor study materials for successful students. In general, high achievers will operate near the top of the Bloom's (1956) taxonomy hierarchy; they will not relearn material as much as create new knowledge by making new connections. Also, advisors can find out which writing tutors work best with honors students; every writer needs an editor.
  • Relevant facult y are the advisor's link to the disciplines. They provide insights into their field and mentoring for ambitious students. Because high-achievers may start research early or may combine seemingly unrelated fields, it is important that their advisors have a broad network of specialists for referral. Consider the student who loves computer science, architectural engineering and theatre: he ends up designing a whole new approach to theatrical lighting, but only because his advisor knew whom to call and how to coordinate his various interests.

Review Development. While advisors know how typical developmental issues arise among students, they might review theories of identity that relate tohigh-achievers. Crises occur when students face failure for the first time, when they have had too little space for identity formation, when they have to adjust their relations to their parents, or when they have to set priorities among their many strengths. Dougherty, in a 2006 review of the literature on high-achieving students, noted that 'educators need a thorough comprehension of student development theory' if they are to advise high-ability students effectively. Recalling the literature can sensitize advisors to the type of problems their students are likely to incur.

IG.jpgIn the end, no advisor can fully prepare for meeting with their high-achieving students: they will always ask something that is just a little bit beyond us. The key is to have a strong information network, a wide view of the world, and the readiness to think all sorts of new thoughts.

Marion Schwartz
The Pennsylvania State University


Achterberg, Cheryl. (2004). 'Characteristics of Honors Students' in Student Characteristics Matter, Division of Undergraduate Studies, Penn State University.

Bloom B. S. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay Co Inc.

Dougherty, Sarah B. (2006). Academic and Career Advising for High-achieving College Students. Unpublished Master's Paper, The Pennsylvania State University.

Kem, L., & Navan, J. (in press). Gifted students in college: Suggestions for advisors and faculty members. NACADA Journal 26 (2).

Cite this article using APA style as: Schwartz, M. (2006, September). Preparing to advise high-achieving students . Academic Advising Today, 29(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]



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