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5 Tips for Matching Incoming Students with Ideal Advisors

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5 Tips for Matching Incoming Students with Ideal Advisors

There is a big movement in higher education to surround incoming students with dedicated support the moment they enroll. In our experience, we haven’t partnered with a single university that hasn’t increased both attention and investment on freshman retention and summer melt.

Support can come in many forms, and similar with most incoming student success initiatives, touches many departments:

  • Academic advisors
  • Coaches (non-academic advising staff)
  • Peer mentorship
  • Alumni mentors

The classic model is to introduce a student to their academic advisor, based on their intended major, after stepping foot on campus. There are a few challenges with this logic:

  • Students are not always as confident in their major as they present. Matching an academic advisor to a student based on intended major — something highly subject to change — can present issues as your office attempts to re-match or reroute students to the correct advisor(s)
  • When students struggle academically, there are often personal factors affecting their performance in the classroom. These challenges are typically not on academic advisors’ radars
  • In a time of transition, students feel most comfortable receiving guidance from people similar to themselves. It’s great if the advisor also studied Computer Science and has connections to experienced programmers, but what if the advisor can’t connect to the student’s experiences? First generation and low-income students have difficulties in relating to others who guide them. A lack of diversity among academic advisors can act as a barrier to connection. Ultimately, students want an advisor that they can connect with on a personal level

The question then becomes: How do you structure supporting communities and create ideal advisor matches without tons of overhead? Here are five tips we’ve learned through helping leaders like you match incoming college students with ideal advisors:

Use Academic Curiosity Instead of Major as the Core Matching Criteria

It’s important to separate incoming students’ academic interests from their selected major. This might sound like a technicality, but it’s not. As Tom Matthews, Vice Provost for Student Success at Case Western Reserve University points out, “Students are not nearly as confident as they present.” Tying the advising support to the major as opposed to the incoming students’ academic pursuit (regardless of major) shifts the focus appropriately.

Wisr developed a series of survey questions alongside top research institutions to uncover academic interests independent of majors. One example: Would you prefer to debate the meaning of Nietzsche or discuss baseball statistics?

Improve the Two-Sided Matching Process Through Technology

If you are matching your incoming students with academic advisors in a spreadsheet, you are manually processing data from two sides — two constituent groups. Even if you have a robust set of survey responses from your student, you need the same survey responses from your advisors to create a match. This requires an incredibly thoughtful survey planning approach that takes both students and advisors needs in the advising relationship into consideration.

To optimize for the data collected from both constituent groups through surveys, not to mention make better use of your staff’s time, universities are looking to learn from matching masterminds, like Netflix, in the form of technology-powered matching algorithms.

Determine Weighting Criteria for High-Priority Fields

Matching algorithms can ingest massive amounts of data from both incoming students and advisors and create pairs based on criteria that would be near impossible in a manual matching process. One such example is weighing different data based on how heavily you weight or value that factor as an input in the match. For example, you may have data fields aligned with students’ interests, extracurricular activities, demographic information, career goals, and needs. You also have similar but not identical fields for the faculty or staff advisors, aimed at capturing their expertise and experiences, as well as how they’re best positioned to offer guidance to students.

When creating the matching algorithm, consider which fields you believe are most important in creating an ideal match and weight those fields to ensure priority is given to the data. Weighting your high-priority fields using an algorithm produces matches that are far better optimized with the time-intensive hand matching process.

Optimize the Advisor to Student Ratio

Most universities don’t have an unlimited number of advisors to allow for true 1:1 matchings. Matching one advisor to multiple incoming students is a more practical approach. After you’ve deployed an advising program for a few years, you’ll be able to gather feedback about the level of guidance advisors felt they had the bandwidth to offer and the level of investment students felt their advisor placed in them. This will help you determine your optimal advisor-to-student ratio, which is an important component of the matching algorithm. The industry standard for a general population advisor is 1:300.

Beyond faculty or staff advising, you may want to explore matching incoming students, especially those from low-income or first generation backgrounds, with student advisors to help them overcome unique challenges as they transition to college. This ratio is often much smaller, such as 1:30 or fewer students.

Personalize the Incoming Student Matching Experience

Incoming college students feel like VIPs after being accepted and enrolled to an institution. Your university should not deflate this “high” by making them feel like they’re just a number. Successfully introducing the student academic advisor match always involves communicating how the relationship will serve the student.

Personalization can go a long way in making students feel special and valued at your university. Just because your advisor may have a 1:300 ratio of advisors to students doesn’t mean that your students should feel that. After deploying Wisr software platforms at more than 20 institutions so far, our team has learned many lessons on delivering personalized content to engage students and alumni.

Successfully using personalization when matching students with advisors could look like this:

Hi John. I’m Tim, your freshman navigator. My role is to answer any questions you might have about the campus, registering for classes, or even the best coffee and lunch spots in the area.

I’m part of a network of navigators to ensure you are getting the most out of your experience at YourU. You and I were matched on the following characteristics:

  • We are both athletes
  • We are both first generation college students
  • We both have an interest in broadcasting and sports journalism

If you have any questions as you make the transition from high school to college, I’m your go-to person. Using my freshman navigator when I first decided to come to YourU made my transition so much smoother — I hope I can do the same for you!

Bonus Pro Move: Create Personal Advisory Boards

Incoming students are less likely to fall through the cracks if they are supported by a circle of advisors on varying parameters, with varying roles.

One size does not fit all. While we would like to believe there is the perfect algorithm for advisor matching, there are unique factors for every student, and limitations when sourcing volunteer advisors or relying on limited internal staff. Is it better to…

  • Give incoming students a peer mentor who has a high level of empathy?
  • Pair students with a faculty advisor who can stimulate a student’s intellectual curiosity?
  • Connect students with alumni who can help a student navigate their career search and land their dream job?

Thankfully, this is a non-zero sum rhetorical question! These roles all have a time and place. The best CEOs surround themselves with a small circle of trusted authorities who challenge them and serve different needs at different times. Surprisingly, these advisors are often unpaid, even at Fortune 500 companies.

Students can benefit from a personal “Board of Advisors” in the same way. Each advisor can serve a different need across the student’s journey before, during, and after their college experience. This is also an innovative way to build a culture of advising on your campus.

Wisr recently announced several initiatives to power peer, staff, and alumni support for both applying and recently enrolled students. To learn more about Wisr’s matching algorithm and project work, contact us

Co-founder & President

John Knific is co-founder and President of Wisr. An entrepreneur who is passionate about what education technology can do for students, John's on a mission to tackle the big challenge of getting students connected with jobs after college by engaging alumni.

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