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How to Connect with Your Professors: Office Hours (series pt. i)

With so many things to do, people to meet, and fun to have in college, taking the time to get you know your professors can seem not as high on the priority list. Especially if you're in a huge program with hundreds of students, making a memorable impression can seem nearly impossible. So why bother?

Here's why: Recommendation letters! Internship and job connections! Academic support! More connection with your department!

Trust me. As someone who has been on both sides of the desk, doing the X things below will help you connect with your professor, get you more engaged with your classes and department, improve your grades, and set you up well to slingshot into the work force post graduation.

So in the series of how to connect with your professors, here's number 1.

Attend Office Hours

Basic, I know. You may sigh, "that's not a very secret hack, now is it?" Well, the reason this is number 1 on every list on the internet is because it works. It's important to understand what office hours are: each instructor of every college class is obligated to provide X amount of time of dedicated availability to assist students enrolled in their courses. As part of their actual contracts, they are required to provide a certain number of hours per week towards the goal of student accessibility. That's why the question "how accessible was your professor" appears on most classevals.

Here's what most professors are doing during office hours: sitting at their desk and getting their own work done because there's nothing else to do because students don't come in. One semester, I taught a total of 225 students. Over the course of the 16-week period, I had a total of 5 individual students come in. You bet I remember all 5 of those students.

What's in it for you: at the end of the semester when all the grades are being evaluated, if a student is teetering between rounding up and staying at their computed grade, the professor takes into account the student's extra effort like participation in class, anything memorable about the quality of their work throughout the semester, AND whether or not they attended office hours. This is not a quid-pro-quo situation, but more reflective of the fact that attending office hours leads to more positive attitudes towards a give course, and therefore improves the quality of their work in the class.

Now, you may be thinking "but I don't know what to talk about in office hours!"

Here's a list of things you can talk about, some baby scripts, if you will:

1. The most recent lecture topic: take a second to look over your notes from class for any gaps. If you're not a note-taker, flip through the powerpoint. Find 2 things you could revisit and build out your understanding of.

  • "Hi Dr./Prof. X, I'm (insert name here) and I'm in your (insert class name here). I was wondering if you had a moment to talk about what we covered in class on (insert day here). I don't have any specific question, but I'm not 100% confident with (insert concept or lecture point here). I've reviewed (insert what you did to try to find your answer first), but it's still not super clear."

Why this one works: Say you don't have a specific question, or maybe no questions at all, but you still want to connect through office hours before the test coming up. Professors cover oftentimes the most basic layer of the given topic. Unless you're in grad school, this is usually all you need. But more interesting information is more memorable, so the basic layer presentation usually is harder to learn. Asking your instructor to go over a concept again with you outside of the lecture give the prof the opportunity to really explain something in more detail that the 250 people in your lecture don't want to know and the prof doesn't have time to include in the 50 minute lecture.

2. One--subject--removed (my personal favorite): take a component of your class that you find interesting, take 5 minutes to google how it applies to another area of your major or areas of interest, and ask your prof what they know about it.

ways to get more involved with your department (think lab or research work, interdisciplinary work, study abroad).

  • "Hi Dr./Prof. X, I'm (insert name here) and I'm in your (insert class name here). I was wondering if you had a moment to talk about a question I had that related to what we covered in class the other day. We were talking about (insert topic here) and I came across this article/video/book/song/etc that made me think of the lecture. I was wondering what your thoughts would be on how these two connect based on what we've talked about in class.

Why this one works: Your professor sometimes doesn't get to pick what they're teaching, and certainly depending on the discipline, the level of creativity may be limited. However, your instructor should genuinely have an interest in the field, so bringing some real-world, separated context conversation up is always great. Hook, line, and sinker and you're on your way to an interesting conversation.

3. Ask about how to get more involved with the department: think research opportunities, summer internships, study abroad, etc. For these three specific examples, when it comes to selecting students for a position or opportunity, especially when there's an application process involved, it's most likely your professor will be the one picking and choosing who gets it. Attending office hours to inquire about opportunities like these is essentially like making multiple entries for a lottery. Even though there should be a level of merit-based selection, the more "entries" (i.e., interactions with the one making the decision), the higher chance you have of being selected.

  • "Hi Dr./Prof. X, I'm (insert name here) and I'm in your (insert class name here). I was wondering if you had a moment to talk about a research opportunities/summer internships/study abroad. I'm really interested in (inter topic here) and so I'd be really interested to learn about how I could work more with this topic beyond what we're doing in class. So, I was wondering if you'd have any suggestions for what to look for or where to start exploring?

Why this one works: Instructors usually have their fingers in multiple pies, and your lecture hour is only a small fraction of the work they're involved with. Finding students who are qualified, interested, and full of initiative are hard to find, and bringing up this kind go conversation with an instructor shows that you are already at least 2/3 of those things. So take it and run with it.

I hope these three tips help you connect with your professors! When I was in college and grad school, I made it a rule for myself that I would visit at least 1 professor's office hours per week. I'd even set a 15-minute timer that was a ringtone audio in case it wasn't going well once I got in there or I just wanted to leave. By the end of college and grad school, I enjoyed popping into professors' offices just to say hi, and I was able to gauge which professor would be best for each recommendation letter I needed when it came to program applications post-grad and job applications. Many of my favorite jobs and activities in school also came out of a random conversation with a professor during office hours.

Remember, your instructor should be happy to see you. After all, they chose to study their subject and teach it, so you're not going to be bringing up something they don't want to talk about. They also sit around during office hours at their desk, waiting for you to come ask questions. So, set your 15-minute timer, make a 1 prof/week quota for yourself, and be consistent for the first 6 weeks of the semester, and see what happens.

A final note: if you have a really negative experience with your instructor, just go find another instructor. If there are many sections of your class, look up the other professors' hours and attend those instead - they won't turn you away and you can most certainly go to their office hours even if you're not in their class. If your department is smaller and there aren't multiple sections but you still don't really click with your instructor, find another professor in the department that you like and attend their office hours instead. Smaller departments usually run on shifting teaching patterns, so depending on your department's size, a teacher who isn't teaching your class this particular semester has most likely taught it in the past or is at least familiar enough with the concepts to help you out.

à plus, Charlotte

I never had this professor in undergrad, but in grad school I TA'd for her during the regular semesters and the summers, she mentored me through several application processes, and ended up being on my thesis committee. Thank you, Dr. Call!


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