Your friends are probably wrong

For serious academic issues or advice, go somewhere reliable

I’ve seen students in a wide variety of bad situations.  In a very large proportion of them, some way or other, their friends seem to factor into the equation. A student buys an essay online or otherwise blatantly plagiarizes and the first words out of his mouth are about how his friend did it once and was never caught. Or a student misses the deadline to drop a course or defer an exam and again she seems to think her friends’ ideas on the subject are relevant. Or it’s something as simple as a really bad or failing grade in a course – for a student who is often in academic trouble to begin with – and he’s all upset because his friend said it would be easy. I’ve heard almost every variation on the theme and one thing remains constant. The friend is always wrong.

There are so many misconceptions out there, and academic urban legends to debunk, that it’s pretty much pointless to even try. My favorite is the claim that if your housemate dies while you are in school you get an automatic A in every course. I’ve heard that one from multiple people at multiple institutions. Do I even need to clarify it isn’t true? But usually it’s something more insidious than that. Academic rules and policies are pretty complex and they vary from place to place. Most students really don’t know much about them, other than the rumors traded in the hallways and among friends. I don’t mean to fault anyone for this. In a complex institution it’s natural to be fuzzy on a lot of the details and to fill in what you don’t know based on rumor and guesswork. Everyone does it.

Sooner or later, however, those rules do matter. I don’t wish serious problems on anyone but four years is a long time and the odds are strong that you’ll need some real advice at some stage. So please, if that day should come, don’t rely on what your friends tell you or on the rumors and “common knowledge” facts circulated among your classmates. Read the academic calendar for yourself. Read your school’s website. Go to your Academic Advising center and ask someone. Go to your Registrar’s office. E-mail your program supervisor. If something important is going on, it’s worth a little time and effort to be sure of your situation.

Sometimes even the people who are supposed to know how things work can be wrong. Believe me, I know that, which is one of the reasons students sometimes think it makes just as much sense to listen to their friends. But if a university figure steers you wrong (and you’re actually listening to the person you’re supposed to be listening to) then you may have some recourse. I’ve won several academic appeals on that basis. So if the advice seems shaky or questionable get it in writing. And you can always get a second opinion too. There’s nothing to stop you from seeking advice from multiple sources.

Look, I know your friends aren’t always wrong. On more subjective topics (like which professors you may enjoy) it may be perfectly reasonable to follow their advice. Some examples of bad advice from friends have more to do with asking the wrong questions than with getting the wrong answers. The classic “what course is easy?” is really a disaster just waiting to happen. But when it comes to the really substantial questions about how things work and your rights and entitlements as a student – please do seek out informed advice. It’s almost impossible to overstate the range of potential problems this may avoid for you in the future.

I’ll add one final warning. For all the times I’ve ever heard a student attempt to explain their actions with reference to “but my friend said…” I’ve never once known it to do the slightest bit of good.

Questions are welcome at [email protected]. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.