Academic Advising Resources



'Now What?'

Some thoughts on advising students in selective majors

from a faculty member with no training as a counselor


  • 'I really thought I could turn it around this semester.'
  • 'My profs are really hard; I haven't been able to learn a thing from them.'
  • 'I bombed the first test; guess that's the end of becoming a...'
  • 'I met the criteria for my major, but only 50 people were accepted, and I'm not one of them.'
  • 'People in my classes are so much quicker than I am, it's clear I'm not cut out to be..'
  • 'I had no idea this major required so much math/language/philosophy..   I'll never make it.'
  • 'Never have I worked so hard and gotten such poor grades.'

Maura M. Reynolds

Hope College

Holland, Michigan

No matter when in their college years these students sit in our offices, their situations are similar.   They've decided (or it's been decided for them) that they will not pursue an interest or major or program they'd been planning on.

Now what?

As advisors, our first inclination may be to offer a list of alternative fields or majors or programs, 'If you can't do X, why not think about Y or Z?' And there is good reason for this approach: finishing another major or program in a timely manner may be difficult if the student doesn't settle on another direction as quickly as possible.   Students who have been denied admission to a major or program may well be shell-shocked and be unable to decide on an alternate plan; advisors may feel that a jump-start is needed to get students back on track. Advisors may also encourage students to visit the Career Center or to take a career assessment test.

Good suggestions all.

I propose that advisors encourage students to take another step as well.

While circumstances vary, typically students experience a significant loss when they change academic direction. Some (perhaps most) have shared their plans for the future with friends and parents (who may have spread the word to neighbors, grandparents, and other relatives).  When their path is blocked or they decide on another path, students may need to recount fairly often what may be a painful situation. In some cases, they may create a version they can live with and share more easily, 'I decided not to be.' or 'I decided I like X much more.'  Even when students themselves have decided on a change of direction, they may well experience a sense of loss as they try to imagine themselves in new and different circumstances-or they may not be able to picture their futures at all.

Other students may have imagined their future possibilities-but not shared their ideas with others. For these students, the fact that a loss has occurred, that dreams have died (or been killed) will also be a secret. But their loss may be just as palpable and painful-perhaps more so because they may not able to share it.

In my experience, encouraging students to take time to acknowledge and deal with their very real loss and grief is an important step toward supporting them as they find a new academic direction. A few may find this a fairly painless process-they may not have made a firm commitment or have changed programs previously. For most, however, changing direction can be daunting. If advisors quickly dismiss students' voluntary or involuntary abandonment of their plans for the future and encourage students to move on, advisors trivialize the predicament most students confront. Perhaps in hindsight, students will see their loss as 'minor,' but for most it's anything but as they confront it. To suggest that students need time and encouragement to grieve is not to trivialize the grief we face in death, catastrophe, or serious illness; the distinction between grief with a big G and grief with a small g is not a useful one. 'For many persons, the loss occasioned by death is the only loss worthy of significant attention; but the losses to which (unlike the death of a loved one) we do not pay intentional heed may have a more profound impact on us in the long run' (Mitchell and Anderson, p. 35).

Addressing the reality of their loss can help students live without constant reference to it. Students will not wipe their slates completely clean, nor will they entirely blot out their pictures of 'what-might-have-been.' But students need to prevent this loss from being an 'if only' which affects future decisions and diminishes their ability to take joy in a new academic direction and in planning for a revised future.

So now academic advisors are supposed to be grief counselors too?? Not at all. Rather, we can act in the way caring human beings do-by noticing, rather than ignoring. By making a simple, honest statement, like, 'Making this change must be difficult,' we can provide an opportunity for students to reflect and self-assess. Such a statement acknowledges the reality of what has happened as well as the loss and grief our advisees may be experiencing; it communicates respect and concern; it does not pry or encourage more disclosure than we and the students may be comfortable with. Such a non-judgmental statement helps students see that the emotions they may be experiencing are normal. My experience suggests that students who acknowledge their disappointment can move on more confidently.

We may think that it may help if we share our own stories, 'That happened to me, too..' or assure students with, 'I've had other advisees who have had to change direction; here's what they did...and it worked out well for them.' Well meaning and honest as these approaches may be, they shift the focus from the student's particular situation. Each student's circumstances are unique and hearing how others successfully negotiated a difficult situation often serves only to increase anxiety ('They got over it; why can't I?' or 'It's not normal to feel so bad.') rather than manage it.

Advisors can, of course, help students avoid these situations by encouraging critical thinking about choice of major or program and by providing accurate information about expectations. Even with this knowledge, however, students may be blocked from pursuing their dream. When this happens, advisors can encourage students to grieve their loss and can help set them free to move in another direction.


Mitchell, K. R. and Anderson, H. (1983). All our Losses, All our Griefs: Resources for pastoral care. Louisville, KY: Westminister John Knox Press.


Breaking bad news: Delivery techniques that help students make good alternative choices, NACADA Youtube link

Breading the Bad News via Academic Advising Today

Breaking bad news blog posting via advisorbark

Cite the above resource using APA style as:

Reynolds, M. M. (2004). Now what? Some thoughts on advising students in selective majors from a faculty member with no training as a counselor.Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site:

Actions: E-mail | Permalink |
The contents of all material on this Internet site are copyrighted by the National Academic Advising Association, unless otherwise indicated. Copyright is not claimed as to any part of an original work prepared by a U.S. or state government officer or employee as part of that person's official duties. All rights are reserved by NACADA, and content may not be reproduced, downloaded, disseminated, published, or transferred in any form or by any means, except with the prior written permission of NACADA, or as indicated or as indicated in the 'Copyright Information for NACADA Materials' statement. Copyright infringement is a violation of federal law and is subject to criminal and civil penalties. NACADA and National Academic Advising Association are service marks of the National Academic Advising Association.

Index of Topics
Advising Resources

Do you have questions?  Do you need help with an advising topic? 
Email us.