How to Talk to Professors

Communicating with professors is a great opportunity. In the beginning, the subject matter or perhaps a grade may be the most important topic of discussion. To get past the purely academic/business topics requires a bit of preparation on your part.

Put yourself in the best position possible by doing the following:

Be diligent, honest, and attentive.

Sit up front, or as close to the front as possible, and be an active participant without being annoying or overeager. Ask questions because you don’t understand, not because you are trying to trip your professor up. Be respectful while other students are talking. Remember the following order: Listen. Think. Write. Think. Think…Think. Ask a question.

“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” – Abraham Lincoln

Just one stupid question can brand you forever, so think long and hard before asking it.

Use E-mail as an infrequent last resort.

Most professors, the older ones especially, still prefer to receive voice-mails or messages from departmental secretaries. An e-mail message screams “I am not important!” Think about how much junk e-mail you get and multiply that by ten or twenty times, and this is how much e-mail your professors have to check every day. Unless you have a teacher who expresses specifically that he or she prefers e-mail communication, try to avoid it.

When no other option is available, be as clear and concise as possible. Your subject should be a concise summary which shows that your message is not spam. In the body of the e-mail be sure to include your full contact information as well as your class period. (TIP: Use your university e-mail account! Your professor probably won’t be too keen to reply to [email protected].)

Make a nameplate for class.

As corny as this may sound, if you have not had the professor before or you are in a very large class, make yourself a tiny placard with your first name on it. It does not have to be anything fancy, just a simple folded piece of paper with your name written legible and large enough to see. You are only one of thousands of students whose name the professor must remember so anything helps. (NOTE: Save the “Hello my name is…” stickers for career day.)

Use office hours wisely.

Talk to your professors about the classroom material. Once every three weeks or so will do. Much more than that and you will just seem stupid or annoying, but less often and you will seem like you are trying to brown-nose. The days of office hours may seem long gone, but office hours are the most useful tool you have when it comes to communicating well with your professors. By talking to professors BEFORE you mess up on an exam or forget a homework assignment, you already have developed rapport with them. Keep in mind, a professor isn’t forced to pick the subject they teach. They are there because of years of personal research and interest. By showing that you like their classes, professors will also (at least subconsciously) feel that you like them.

Be thankful!

Write letters or send cards thanking your professors! A handwritten letter is absolutely necessary. For recommendation letters you absolutely MUST send some sentiment of gratitude. I recommend you wait until you get the results from whatever the recommendation is for. Send these through campus mail and it should not cost you a cent.

Professors are people, too. If you remember nothing but this fact, talking to them won’t ever be scary again. They used to be students just like you, and all they want is your attention, respect, and best effort.

Are you a professor? I would love to get opinions straight from the horse’s mouth, so send in your own tips.

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