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Navigating Academic Decisions

You will build many new relationships at Northwestern and some of the most important of these will be with your advisers and faculty.  Advisers and faculty are ready to support you in exploring the resources and opportunities at Northwestern.  As your interests evolve, you may decide to move to another undergraduate school or college, what is called an Inter-School Transfer or IST.

Connect with Your Academic Adviser
You have a dedicated academic adviser assigned to you by your school/college who will provide guidance on course selection, can direct you to resources and opportunities, and answer your questions.  Communicating regularly with your academic adviser is key to navigating your first year at Northwestern.  If you haven’t yet, check out the advice that upper-class students offer about engaging with academic advising.  A big part of their message is to engage early and often with your school/college adviser, especially in your first year. Following your first year, you may gain additional advisers through your major department.  As you move through your academic career, all of these advisers can help you connect with research opportunities, support services, and experts to help you move into post-graduation plans.

You can schedule an appointment with your school/college academic adviser through ConnectNU, Northwestern’s online advising platform, and through your school or college advising office

Connect with Your Faculty
Connecting with your faculty is one of the most significant actions you can take to maximize your Northwestern experience.  As a Northwestern undergrad, you have access to experts in all of the subjects you are studying: your professors.  Faculty office hours are a great opportunity to get to speak with your faculty one-on-one about the course material, the subject matter, and possible future opportunities to engage the discipline.

Faculty hold office hours as a way to connect with students. They want to help clarify concepts presented in class, hear about what might be confusing to other students, and engage in discussion about the material and their discipline.  It can feel intimidating at first to reach out to faculty, but the guidelines below can help you prepare.  The most important thing to keep in mind is that the faculty want to meet with you!

What can you utilize office hours for?

1.       You have a question about something specific in the class.
When you are struggling with a topic in the class—such as a reading, homework assignment, or concept—the best approach is to attend your professor’s scheduled office hours.  You’ll want to be able to help your professor understand exactly what your question is.  Before you meet with them, look back over the concepts or assignment in question, and write down what you understand and do not understand about the topic or reading.  Then you’ll be prepared to explain your question clearly.  Avoid simply telling your professor that you do not understand anything about the chapter or topic; it’s hard for professors to help you if they have no point of reference.

2.       You don't have a question, but are a bit confused about the material.
At various points in your Northwestern career, you will probably find yourself feeling like you just don’t get it — the lecture, the chapter, the assignment, or whatever it may be.  When you experience this, the best approach is to meet with your professor as soon as possible.  Get help early, and you’ll avoid struggling later in the quarter (and you're probably helping your classmates by pointing out a confusing element of the course to your professor).

When you meet with your instructor, explain that you are experiencing a lot of general confusion in the class: 

  • Give specific examples of topics and/or lessons you do not understand. 
  • Describe how you study the material and ask if they have suggestions for more effective approaches.
  • Explain what steps you have taken to try to understand—such as doing outside research, attending tutoring sessions, or rereading assigned materials.  This demonstrates that you are making an effort, and helps the professor provide more useful suggestions.

3.       You are excited about what you are learning and want to understand the discipline better.
Your enthusiasm for a course is a great indicator that can help you develop your personal undergraduate experience.  Being excited about course material can point you in the direction of future classes and possible careers.  Your instructors chose their discipline and specialty based on having the same experience of being excited about the content and research of their discipline and would be happy to help you think through what might be the next steps in your intellectual exploration. 

What if you have a conflict at the time of the instructor's office hours?  

Send a polite email (see examples here), and explain that you have a conflict with the instructor's regularly scheduled office hours, and offer a few times during the week that you are available to meet.  Include a brief description of what you would like to discuss, either that you have a specific question about the course material (#1 above), you are struggling to understand the material  (#2 above), or that you would like to explore the topic more (#3 above).