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Pro-Tips for Creating or Revamping a Peer Advising Program

Peer advising programs are crucial in enhancing the reach and effectiveness of career centers across different campuses. While the specific duties of peer advisors vary, it's essential to explore the best practices for creating and managing a peer advising program that enriches the student employment experience and caters to the evolving needs of students and career centers.

Research has shown that peer advising on university campuses is one of the most effective ways for students to achieve desired learning outcomes. Peer advising is considered a best practice by both NACE and NACADA.

Section 1: Clarifying the Role of Peer Advising

Acknowledging Diverse Models:

The roles and functions of peer advisors vary significantly across colleges and universities. Some institutions heavily rely on peer advisors as the primary service delivery team, while others are cautious about using peers for career exploration or interview prep.

Here is a sampling of popular models:

  • Peers deliver all advising in a career studio model; staff use their time to connect students to employers and experiences.

  • Peers deliver generalist advising, while staff deliver industry or major-specific advising.

  • Peers deliver drop-in or triage services; staff deliver scheduled advising.

  • Peers provide supplemental industry or major-specific advising in partnership with staff advisors.

  • Peers focus on tabling and outreach to student groups, class visits, and service overviews, as well as maintaining a career center presence at events.

Of course, many campuses use blended models. Identifying the type of program you have can help you assess its effectiveness and move towards a more intentional peer advising model.

In the following example, I'll discuss how the process of auditing our peer advising model led my former Career Center to move from the Triage Model to a Differentiated Peer Teams model (featuring Asynchronous Peer Advising), which led to a significant increase in our impact on students.

Challenging Assumptions:

Many unexamined assumptions hinder the development of a robust peer advising program. Here are a few I have encountered (some of which contradict each other 😂):

  • Students don't want to work with peers unless they are in a hurry.

  • Peers can't provide industry-specific advice or work with alums.

  • Students understand the difference between a drop-in and a scheduled appointment.

  • Students have the time and desire to meet with a staff person as a follow-up to a meeting with a peer.

  • Peers should focus on resumes and cover letters, not career exploration.

  • Peers cannot be trained to achieve the same advising outcomes as a staff person.

  • Peers should deliver class presentations so staff can make more time for one-on-one advising.

  • Only first and second-year students should work with peers.

  • Peers should be upperclassmen.

These unchecked assumptions create barriers to building a robust and enriching peer advising program that adds value to your career center services - rather than merely extending the availability of one-on-one advising.

Section 2: Examining the User Experience of Peer Advising Services

The assumptions above also fail to account for the user experience of engaging with a career center office and the relative opaqueness of career development for most students. Plus, they fail to utilize one of my favorite proclamations about seeking career clarity: there is no right or wrong place to start.

The User Experience:

Peer advising programs should examine the student (user) experience of career center services. At one of my previous institutions, where we relied on a triage model of peer advising, we discovered that:

  • Most of our drop-in appointments were seniors and alum, not the first and second-year students we imagined peer advising would appeal to.

  • The Net Promoter Score for these appointments was substantially lower than the score for scheduled appointments with staff advisors.

  • Front desk staff reported that most students wanted the "first available" advising session and were not equipped to self-select for a particular type of advising.

  • Drop-in peer advisors reported many students who wanted to schedule a follow-up appointment with them, not a different advisor.

  • Drop-in peer advisors also reported that, while their training was focused on resume review, many of their advising sessions touched on a wide range of career development questions.

By examining the user experience of students and alum, we made two decisions:

  1. Differentiating Peer and Staff Advising: We needed to differentiate peer drop-in appointments from staff advising. The lack of distinction incentivized students to choose drop-in services for quick answers.

  2. Customer Journey: We examined the pros and cons of drop-in advising, considering accessibility, user satisfaction, and resource utilization, and determined that drop-in advising, as currently structured, didn't meet all user needs.

Section 3: Our Solution to the Drop-In Problem

We shifted from a peer advising model that was in-person or virtual drop-in services to a peer advising program that was an entirely asynchronous resume and LinkedIn review service. This change increased accessibility and more effectively utilized our peer advisors' time. Shifting from an in-person or virtual drop-in service to a fully asynchronous service offered us the opportunity to:

  • more effectively offer accessible advising services to students with challenging schedules.

  • better leverage our peer advisors' time and the costs associated with paying for student employees.

  • manage expectations for users and more successfully differentiate peer services from staff advising.

This team operated independently and under the supervision of a senior peer, and they utilized an informal ticketing system to track requested reviews.

Differentiated Peer Teams

As I referenced before, we shifted the work of the drop-in team, and we organized our peer advisors into different teams, each specializing in specific areas.

One team offered asynchronous resume and LinkedIn review services. Another team provided career community advising and acted as extensions of career community advising hours. A third team of peer advisors catered to first-year students involved in early engagement programs.

Section 4: Establishing a Clear Learning Outcome and Robust Training

As a way to establish consistency across all of our advising services, we set out to adopt a single, flexible learning outcome for all of our advising types, including staff advising.

A Unified Learning Outcome:

After an advising session, the student/alum will be able to identify a possible next step to discern, explore, or gain experience in a career pathway of interest.

This learning outcome is flexible enough to capture our intended outcome for almost every type of advising appointment, whether with a professional staff member or a peer advisor. It also captures our goal to empower students to own the career planning process as something that can be incremental or swift.

Revamping Peer Training:

Moving to the "next steps" learning outcome meant that our peer training transformed by focusing on peers as expert navigators of our resources. Rather than expecting our peer advisors to absorb deep knowledge of constantly changing industries, the majority of the training of peers was done using our learning management system with asynchronous interactive learning experiences and knowledge checks. This online course walked peers through

  • the basic stages of career development

  • the philosophy, structure, and organization of our Career Center

  • and our rich library of career resources, which they utilized to provide advice across a wide range of topics, including resume feedback, interview pro-tips, networking best practices, job/internship search, and exploring career options.

It allowed for scaling our training of peers with a flexible schedule and consistency regardless of professional staff or peer advising turnover.

Section 4: The Takeaway:

While there are various ways to structure a peer advising program, it's crucial to acknowledge the versatility and potential of peer advisors. Continuously analyzing the user experience, scaling effectively, managing expectations, and innovating are essential for the success of any peer advising program. By following these structured guidelines, you can create or revamp a peer advising program that extends the reach of career centers and provides a rich and tailored experience for students.

Check out a couple of these stellar peer programs!

Margie McGee-Newton, Creative and Content Manager, Consultant

The Career Leadership Collective

Margie McGee-Newton has twenty years of experience in higher education. She has worked with a wide variety of institutions, including the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, the University of Minnesota, Wellesley College, and DePaul University.

She is passionate about bringing sensitivity and appreciation for a user experience lens to higher education and leveraging accessible and engaging learning experiences to connect learners to meaningful and actionable content.


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