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Your fear of office hours is about to end: a guide to meeting with professors

Student and professor laughing and talking together outside

By now you’ve probably been told that you should be using office hours. If you haven’t then let’s start there. You should definitely be taking advantage of office hours. Meeting with your professors during their office hours is one of the easiest ways to improve your learning, grades and future career opportunities while in college. But a lot of students don’t use office hours because they are afraid of meeting with their professors one-on-one.

It might sound something like: "What if I say something silly, and my professor realizes I’m not a magical being who knows everything, and then I get kicked out of college, and my life is over?"

While this is definitely extreme, it might not be that far off from what your "fear voice" sounds like. We’re not here to poke fun — there are plenty of aspects of college that can be intimidating when you first approach them. If this sounds like you, we’ve got you covered. At the end of the day, professors are just people. People who are interested in your success. Here is your guide to making it easy to meet with professors one-on-one.

Get to know your professor as a person

Your professor is more than just a guide to the answers on a test. When you get to know them as real people, professors can become mentors and advocates for your career and continued growth. If you’re uncertain or shy, here are three easy ways you can begin creating a meaningful, person-to-person connection with your professor:

  1. Ask about your professor’s specialty, interests, side projects or ongoing research they’re involved with. This is a big source of passion for many professors. It’s a great way to see what they care about most, and start to know them as real people. If your professor has an opportunity to involve students in their work, you could end up on the list of people considered.

  2. Ask for general input, especially if you are still "figuring things out.” Try this: “I’m still exploring what I want to do after college. I was excited about this class because I thought it might help me understand _____. What would you do if you were in my position? How do you go about making decisions like these?”

  3. Ask for career advice. If your instructor is connected to the field or industry you’re working toward, see if they have advice for someone like you. Ask if they recommend any experiences that can help you further determine your career path or see if you’re on the right one.

Indulge your curiosity

College should be about becoming a master learner. In other words, now is the time to learn about how you learn. If you follow your curiosity without fear and see where that takes you, you’ll be surprised at what opportunities can open up as a result. Here are three ways to demonstrate your curiosity to professors and take your learning to the next level:

  1. Tell your professor why you took their class. Explain what you’re hoping to learn or share any questions you have about the topic. Most professors are genuinely interested in the reasons students take their courses. If you’re in a required course, try thinking about why the course is required and share your thoughts — this can be a good jumping off point for a conversation too.

  2. Tell your professor what your big takeaways are so far. If you had misconceptions about the topic prior to taking the course, share how your perception has changed. Share the impact these takeaways have had on your life. Have you changed your approach to something practical? Have you started seeing the world in a new way? If you’re having a #mindblown moment, share it.

  3. Try to examine the course content in a new way. For example, if the class is outside your area of study, you can talk to your professor about any connections you’re starting to see between the two fields. Ask if they know of any research that explores the overlap between the two fields.

Face your problems head-on

Professors genuinely appreciate students who decide to confront their challenges and work to overcome them. So if you find yourself struggling to keep up in class or complete coursework, definitely consider office hours as a potential resource for getting back on track. Sometimes you really need a partner to help you determine the best way to overcome your unique challenges. Here are three signs it could be time to ask your professor for help:

  1. If you’re falling behind or your grades are suffering. There are a number of reasons this could be happening, but the important point is that your professor or TA can help pinpoint what the issue is, and suggest possible paths for improving.

  2. If you’re confused about something covered previously. Don’t be afraid to be the novice. Just like in the movies, sometimes a small misunderstanding can snowball later on as ideas are built on again and again. What’s the remedy? Ask basic questions, ask the same question in different ways — this is actually a skill you’ll use for most of your life. Think of it this way; it’s much better to ask the sometimes embarrassing basic questions than make a lifelong habit of not seeking answers.

  3. If you’re experiencing personal difficulties. Sometimes life can throw you a curveball, so if you find your academics suffering because of life circumstances, a faculty member can point you to the right resources for help.

Don’t stay on the sidelines

Remember, just 20 or 30 minutes with your professor could be the key to unlocking a huge opportunity for your future success. If the standard office hours don't work for your schedule, ask to make an appointment. If office hours feel too formal, try an invite for coffee (professors love coffee!). No matter what, you’ll stand out — and you might just get a mentor, a professional connection or even a friend out of it.



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