The Unreachable Student: Techniques and Strategies to Increase the Influence of Academic Advising

Matthew J. Nelson
Creighton University

Volume: 15
Article first published online: February 14, 2013
DOI: 10.26209/MJ1561290

Keywords: academic advising; influence; student; techniques; unreachable

As an undergraduate student, I rarely sought out my academic adviser. For a number of reasons, I really only interacted with an academic adviser when I was required or needed his or her signature. While enrolled in a recent seminar on academic advising, I began to reflect on these experiences. It is my belief that there is a particular group of unreachable students—those who do not seek out their advisers, rarely make appointments, and seldom utilize the expertise offered by academic advisers. In fact, one in ten college students do not interact with an adviser in a given academic year (Kuh, 2008). This is an important statistic to investigate, because it tells us that 10 percent of students are not utilizing advising resources and raises the question why are students not seeing their advisers? To answer this question, it is necessary to understand reasons why students should see their advisers and follow up with strategies that advisers and advising offices can implement to publicize what they offer to students.

Understanding “Unreachables”

It is important to understand why students choose not to visit their academic advisers. Although this article will identify three likely reasons for this phenomenon, student rationale will vary based on factors such as institutional type, mission, culture, and advising model. The goal of this section is to provide professionals a lens through which to view the student experience and hopefully provide meaning and context.

All-Knowing Students

Perhaps one of the more common reasons students would elect not to meet with their advisers is because they are “all-knowing” and perceive they are already familiar with everything an academic adviser would tell them. This same excuse is sometimes used to rationalize not visiting a physician. When ill, it seems many individuals will say they aren’t going to visit the doctor, because they already know the diagnosis. Likewise, there are students who believe a course catalog, degree audit report, or the institution’s website can act in place of an academic adviser. High-achieving students described by Harding (2008), as well as Gordon’s (2007) “expert” major changers, are good examples of students who typically do not seek help; however, they enter college with the same developmental challenges as any other student. Regardless, just like those who irregularly visit their doctor, all-knowing students have the perception that their adviser is not going to tell them anything he or she doesn’t already know.

Inconvenience of Sessions

Whether it is timing or location, there may be a notion going around our campuses that getting an appointment with an adviser and finding time to do so is another inconvenient hoop to jump through. In fact, for some students it may seem to be such a hurdle that they would rather simply avoid seeking the assistance of their adviser. Nontraditional and commuter students will often cite that getting to an academic advising appointment is difficult because of limited office hours held by advisers and inconvenience of location and parking.

Poor Previous Experiences

Lastly, students might avoid or choose not to interact with their advisers because of negative past experiences. Even the stories of poor experiences from others can have an impact on whether a student chooses to pursue a relationship with his or her academic adviser. Whether students perceive an adviser provided misinformation on degree requirements or insisted an advisee enroll in a particular set of classes, these perceptions lead students to believe an adviser was instrumental in extending their degree program and cost them more money in the long run.

The Adviser is In

Notwithstanding the possible student justifications for not interacting with academic advisers, we must investigate further before looking at solutions. Whether it is at the campus or departmental level, it is critical to investigate the reasons advisers and student affairs professionals believe students should see their advisers on a regular basis. In addition to academic planning, there are three main reasons students should visit their advisers.

Campus Connections

Academic advisers are keepers of a vast array of knowledge in regard to the university structure and opportunities on campus. Advisers can play an important role in assisting students and especially helping them to navigate the institution’s academic requirements as well as its many policies and expectations. As De Sousa (2005) described, advisers should seek to connect students with complementary learning opportunities outside the classroom—some of which students might not be familiar with unless speaking one-on-one with a university official. Advisers can truly connect students with campus resources they perhaps didn’t know existed.

Transition Assistance

As the transition into college begins, students need someone to answer questions, provide guidance, or lend a listening ear. Academic advisers are among the few university officials who can theoretically touch every student who enrolls at the institution. This is a privilege! Advisers assist new students with transitions into college and help create opportunities for those students to be engaged members of the institution’s community. By the same token, advisers ease additional transitions such as changes in majors and career paths, as well as aiding students in their transition out of the university as they inch toward graduation.

Mentor and Role Model

Some students receive campus resource information and transition assistance through other channels— perhaps through their on-campus jobs or their involvement with campus organizations. What can an adviser offer the engaged student tapped into administrative, staff, and faculty networks? Academic advisers can serve as mentors and role models to advisees. It is critical for advisers to recognize the differing relationships among their advisees. Some students will need more prescriptive information, whereas others, such as the engaged student, benefit more from an adviser-advisee relationship that is more of a collaborative friendship. The point is that an academic adviser can offer something to everyone if willing to be creative and try new things.

How to Reach the Unreachable

The million-dollar question remains to be explored: How can we promote and extend advising services to unreachable students? The good news is that by understanding what advisers offer and why students don’t visit their advisers, we can determine what advising offices can do to better assist their students. An institution, department, or individual adviser can implement an array of techniques and strategies to create more successful interactions with unreachable students. The use of short-term strategies, such as environmental and visibility tweaks, as well as long-term strategies, including an integrated marketing communications (IMC) model and the inclusion of tech-savvy tools, are small changes that can have a big impact and help increase the reach of academic advisers.

Short-term Strategies

Join the Student Environment

Rightfully or not, many students believe that academic advisers sit in their offices, wait for appointments, and wonder why students don’t come and visit. To change student perceptions, advisers should seek to create a more inclusive, rewarding advising atmosphere that students will want to frequent. Aiken-Wisniewski and Allen (2005) discussed trends from institutions across the nation in which advisers actively meet advisees in their student environment. For example, the “Adviser on Board” program allows academic advisers to engage students in the advising process while riding the campus shuttle. Other creative ideas include walking around campus during peak registration times, hosting small-group sessions in residence hall suites, offering to meet over lunch or dinner, or even having designated office hours at the campus coffee shop or dining center (Aiken-Wisniewski & Allen, 2005; De Sousa, 2005).

Change the Office Atmosphere

If we go out to meet students in their environment, it is only fitting that when they come to visit us in ours, it be welcoming and presentable. Simple changes can be made to an office or advising center to enhance its appearance and  welcoming nature. The furniture and layout plays a big part. A study conducted by Eckerty (2011) found that placement of an adviser’s desk in relation to student seating had an impact on first impressions related to ease of communication. Although no particular office arrangement was preferred by surveyed students, it became clear that advisees need a place to physically see documents related to the session, have a clear path to their seat in the adviser’s office, and are less distracted in a clutter-free space (Eckerty, 2011). These are quick changes that can assist students in the learning and advising process.

In addition, simply the location of the office or center plays a big part as well. Is the building on the outskirts of campus or near the quad? On what floor is the office or center located? Within the office, who is present to answer questions? It is also helpful to have someone besides the administrative assistant field students’ quick questions. For example, student mentors or even professional advisers on a rotating duty could provide this function. In so doing, students might be more inclined to stop by the advising office if they have quick questions and develop an ongoing relationship with their adviser.

Lastly, an innovative idea suggested by Aiken-Wisniewski and Allen (2005) is called the tip jar, which is a small, fun bowl of “advice” from advisers. It is intended to be something for students to investigate as they wait for their appointments. Career information, school news, and fidget toys would also be appropriate items to have in the waiting area of an advising office.

Long-term Strategies

Develop an IMC Model

Effective marketing to any audience requires careful planning and execution. On the modern college campus with information continually bombarding students, this is even more appropriate. Creveling and Edelman (2009) introduced a business-marketing concept to the realm of academic advising. Known as integrated marketing communications (IMC), this model seeks to increase the reach of, in this case, advising services. IMC includes identifying a target audience, selecting a unified theme, placing material in high-traffic areas, and creating a media schedule (Creveling & Edelman, 2009). Developing IMC for an advising office would require a more long-term vision and commitment to outreach than the short-term strategies mentioned above. In particular, intentional strategies such as selecting a theme and creating and following a media schedule require more dedication than some of the short-term changes that an adviser or advising center could implement. Technology likely would likely play a large role in messaging and marketing on campus. Videos, Facebook, Twitter, and other marketing outlets are great methods to attract the attention of students across campus, including those who might otherwise not engage with an adviser.

Using an IMC model can be a great way to incorporate and promote the many reasons students should see an adviser. As detailed earlier, advisers play a vital role in linking students with various campus resources, serving as mentors and role models, and assisting with transition and course selection. An advising-focused IMC might include serial Facebook updates with “Top Reasons to Visit Your Adviser” or perhaps videos with tips and tricks for students as they begin the registration process for the following semester’s courses. The point is to find creative methods to reach out and market to students, while acknowledging that true engagement with an advisee must ultimately be the decision of the student.

Utilize Technology

To reach out to today’s millennial students, it is imperative that advisers utilize the same technology as their advisees. Many institutions are utilizing online synchronous chat features, as well as texting for immediate student assistance. On many campuses, security, information technology, and the library already use these strategies, and students will continue to expect texting and online chatting as communications options until something newer and better is released. Until then, advisers should strive to incorporate these technology pieces into their daily routine in order to increase availability to students. Similarly, social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter have truly become a way of life for students today. If advisers and advising offices tap into this market, new communication dimensions and connections with students open up and should be handled both strategically and professionally.


Dedicated advising practitioners should continually investigate new and innovative methods to engage with their student advisees. At times, it can be difficult to contact and relate to students who are not currently seeking academic advising—the so-called unreachable students. However, advisers can draw students into the advising process through the use of creative short-term and long-term marketing strategies, including meeting students in their environment, creating a welcoming office climate, developing an integrated marketing communications model, and utilizing technology. It is imperative for academic advisers to reach out to all students, for it is likely that these unreachable students are in need of a helping hand or a listening ear.


Aiken-Wisniewski, S., & Allen, C. D. (2005). Did Einstein know the date to withdraw? Techniques and activities to educate your campus community about academic advising. NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources. Retrieved from

Creveling, K., & Edleman, J. (2009, August 19). Utilizing integrated marketing communications with the Academic Centers for Excellence. The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal. Retrieved from

De Sousa, D. J. (2005). Promoting student success: What advisers can do (Occasional Paper No. 11). Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research.

Eckerty, J. (2011). "Approachable” “Intimidating” “Unprofessional” “Credible": What do our offices say about us? NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources. Retrieved from

Gordon, V. N. (2007). The undecided college student: An academic and career advising challenge (3rd ed.). Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.

Harding, B. (2008). Students with specific advising needs. In V. N. Gordon, W. R. Habley, T. J. Grites (Eds.), Academic advising: A comprehensive handbook (2nd ed.; pp. 189–203). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kuh, G. (2008). Advising for student success. In V. N. Gordon,   W. R. Habley, T. J. Grites (Eds.), Academic advising: A comprehensive handbook (2nd ed.; pp. 68–84). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Matthew J. Nelson is a resident director at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. He will graduate from Indiana University’s Higher Education and Student Affairs program in May 2013. Matt can be reached at