The “If Only Rule” in Advising College Students

How to make better decisions about college and about life.

Posted Jun 27, 2014

One of the things I like best when I advise psychology majors is when we get to questions beyond, “Will my developmental course from the junior college count as child psych?”  Those are important questions, but I love it when we get to broader discussions about college, careers, and life: how to be a college student, how to get into graduate school, how to find out about opportunities—stuff like that.

Some questions might or might not be important.  For example, there is controversy about whether the choice of a major is important.  I’ve heard on NPR that a major is quite important in terms of earnings:  Chemical engineering majors make a lot more than some others.  But most of my advisees do not have equal passion for engineering and psychology, and people like Tara Kuther have written that what students major in is less important than the skills they graduate with.

In my experience, some questions students ask, and some goals they have, are not as important as they think!  Because my department has both a BA and a BS psychology major, I get a lot of this:  “Which degree should I pursue?”  I often ask just one question in reply:  “How do you feel about biology and chemistry?”  If the student hesitates for more than a few seconds, we’re usually headed toward the BA.

The next question students usually ask is where the “If Only Rule” comes in:  “Which degree will be more impressive to graduate schools?”  That’s when I ask students to sit back, close their eyes, and imagine members of the admissions committee saying to themselves:

Well, this [your name here] applicant looks good.  Outstanding and specific letters of recommendation, good GPA, lots of research (or clinical) experience.  Her personal statement isn’t hand-written—that’s a plus.  Facebook page checks out.  Nice range of courses:  some biology and chemistry to demonstrate that she’s not afraid of science.  If only she had a BS rather than a BA, we’d take her!

Get the idea?


This applicant for the job has wonderful letters and skills, and in addition to his psychology major he has a few courses in communication [or physics, or math] which could be a plus for us.  If only it said “minor” on his transcript, we would hire him!

Sometimes students have goals that are not aligned, or downright inconsistent, with getting a good education.  One of these goals is graduating quickly, or by a certain age.  Just this week I spoke with a returning student who wanted to finish his BA and a master’s by the time he was 45.  Once again, timing is less important than skills.  Why take a shower if you’re going through so quickly that you’re not going to get wet?  You have wonderful skills and great life experience; if only you’d graduated before 46….

A variation of the “If Only Rule” is the “Lifetime Achievement Award Rule.”  For students who, for example, want to graduate in four years (without pressing financial or other reasons), I point out that their lifetime achievements awards will not be withheld, and will not have a special notation that says, “But they graduated a few months late.”  The award will be granted for a career filled with effort—just like the effort that goes into getting a degree.

I love to see students smile as some of the pressure of these “little” decisions fades away.  Then we can get to meatier matters….

BTW, a developmental course does count as child psych.


Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). He is also an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology  (American Psychological Association, 2012).

© 2014 Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved