A Quick Guide to Communicating With College Professors
Do you want to succeed in college? Get to know your professors and communicate with them. I wish someone had told me this my freshman year. Like many new students, I was so wrapped up in getting used to living away from home and just trying to find my way around campus that I never even considered stopping by to chat with any of my professors. I always thought it was best to keep my head down, take copious notes and not draw attention to myself. As my mother was fond of reminding me, sometimes it’s better to be seen and not heard. Unfortunately, this is not the best advice when it comes to dealing with your professors. Believe it or not, your professors are one of the best resources on campus. Forging a relationship with them can enrich your college experience and even open doors after graduation. If you need assistance or just want to get to know your college professors a bit more, consider these guidelines when communicating with them.
1. Know Their Preferred Method of Contact
Not all professors are the same, so check your syllabus to determine which type of contact method is best. Many professors prefer email over phone, but some may want you to schedule a time to meet them in their office. Don’t forget to ask if they prefer you to make an appointment or if they have an open door policy, as some may not appreciate you just showing up unannounced. I once had a communications professor who would head to a campus hot spot after class and invite us to hang out with him. At first, I thought it was strange to grab dinner and drinks with my teacher, but he had some great insights and even offered advice on which professors I should consider for my future classes.
2. Be Honest
Forget excuses when it comes to dealing with your professors; they have heard them all. One of my professors even joked that so many of his students had a grandmother who died that he felt he should add a disclaimer that his course may be hazardous to grandparents. If you know you are having issues with an assignment, contact your professor before the due date, not after it has passed. The same is true for missing classes. If you are truly sick (not faking it), shoot him/her an email as soon as you know you’ll be skipping a class, but be sure to assure him/her that you will make up the work and get notes from another student as soon as you are feeling better. Your professors will appreciate that you are being proactive and not slacking off.
3. Alert Them to Potential Problems
Your professors aren’t psychic, so don’t expect them to know when you are having problems outside the classroom that may be affecting your performance in the classroom. If you are dealing with family issues, such as an extended hospitalization or a death, let them know right away that you may have to leave unexpectedly or will be missing some upcoming classes. If you have a disability or health issues that may not be visible, consider sharing this with them so they can make accommodations or be prepared for any potential problems. In my junior year, I attended a class where a student fell from her chair and had a violent seizure. Thankfully, she had shared her health issue with the professor, so he was able to act immediately and knew who to contact for help.
4. Don’t be Rude
It’s important to remember that you are not the only student your professors are communicating with during the semester, so don’t expect an immediate response to emails or phone messages. It may take up to a day or two for them to respond. If you still have not heard from them after a few days, follow up with another email or call, but do not confront them in class. They may have been tied up with another emergency or even have their hands full with classes, but they will eventually respond. It also helps to be very specific when contacting them, so you don’t trade emails back and forth. This not only wastes their time, but also can be very frustrating. Above all else, do not attack your professors by starting an email or conversation with statements that put them on the defensive. Avoid phrases such as, ‘Why am I getting a D?’ or ‘This doesn’t make sense!’ Always open with a salutation and stay positive. For example, instead of demanding to know why your grades are so bad, consider saying this: ‘I have been disappointed in my performance in class so far. What can I do to improve my grades?’ or ‘I’ve read the assignment, but I am still unclear on a few points. Do you have a few moments to discuss it with me?’
Of course, you don’t have to wait until you have a problem or your grades are slipping before you stop by and talk to your professors. Many of them are happy to spend some time getting to know you as a person and not just as their student. I often popped by my English professor’s office because I enjoyed the books we read in class and knew he could steer me toward other novels that might interest me. It is because of him that I developed a taste for British literature, especially anything written by Sarah Waters or Angela Carter. You never know what or who your professors might know, so it doesn’t hurt to make a connection with them. They can help guide you toward a better career path, introduce you to untapped campus resources, or even provide letters of recommendation that can help you win scholarships or land a coveted internship. Do yourself a favor and get to know many of them before you graduate.