Some people think that when you go to office hours, it’s like going to the principal’s office was in grade school. A lot of students are intimidated by their professors, so this isn’t surprising. But if you don’t go to office hours, you’re cheating yourself out of an amazing resource that can really help you learn and excel in college.
1. Talk about areas of confusion
You know that list of “student learning outcomes” in the syllabus? Those are things that you should know when you finish the class, not before you start it. If you find yourself struggling with a class concept, and you’ve read the book and gone through your lecture notes, but it’s still not making sense to you, getting some feedback about it might be what helps you turn the corner. Come prepared – don’t just walk in and say “I can’t understand Chapter 4!” – but trust that one of your professor’s jobs is to help you through this confusing moment. You won’t be the first student they’ve seen with this problem!
How to make it easier: Write down what confuses you before you go to office hours, and make notes of what you have learned and found out, and from where. For example: “This idea of anomie just doesn’t make any sense to me. I’ve read the book’s definition, and in lecture you said it means ‘normlessness,’ but I am not sure what that would look like. Do you have an example that I can use to make sense of it?”
2. Talk about an assignment that you need help breaking down into doable pieces
If you haven’t written a research paper before, you may not really know how much work it is, or how much time it will take. You might not understand the steps involved in that big art project, or the business proposal for your economics class. But there are people who do know these things, and they’re waiting for you in office hours.
Just like when you’re struggling with a concept in the class, you want to show the professor what work you’ve already done and the steps you’ve already taken. Show them your planner, or the list of tasks you’ve made, and ask them for their feedback. Be ready to take notes – they will probably have suggestions for you that you haven’t considered, and you’ll want to write them down so you have them later.
How to make it easier: Explain how you’ve approached similar projects and ask for help figuring out how this one is different. “In high school I learned how to write a five-paragraph essay, but this is a longer paper and I want to make sure I’m not just filling in a lot of words to meet a word count. What do you expect to see in each section?”
3. Talk about something in class that you found interesting or thought-provoking
Professors are people too. They love it when a student says “I thought the lesson on legal responses to issues of habeas corpus was really interesting! I’d never known about _____ before.” This tells them that you’re paying attention, and that their work matters to you – which can be vital if you are going to ask them for a favor later in your career (like a letter of recommendation). If you have a similar interest to the professor’s, drop by and chat about it! They’ll remember you, and that can only benefit you both now and later on.
How to make it easier: Make sure you’re actually interested in the thing you bring up. Don’t bring up something you’re really not interested in just because the professor enthused about it – professors can tell when you’re brown-nosing, and that’s not the impression you want to give them!
4. Talk about your plans for after college
Professors know people. If you’re looking for a letter of recommendation for a job or for graduate school, and you did well in a professor’s course, it’s a valid reason to go to office hours and ask for one. Make it easy for them – give them a list of your accomplishments: your grade in their class (and on any big projects or papers); any extracurricular activities you’ve done that are relevant to the letter you’re requesting; any community service or jobs that are related to what you need from them. Give them resources to remind them of what you did in their class.
If you need advice for your after-college plans, this is also a good time to go to office hours. Ask them about graduate school, medical school, law school – whatever you’re planning on. Professors will have connections to people at other schools, and can often recommend good ways to determine whether a school would be a good fit for you or not. Similarly, if you’re in a major that connects with the career you want (for example, social work, criminal justice, or business), professors can be really important people in your social network and job searches.
How to make it easier: Make your professor’s life easier if you’re asking for a letter of any kind, and give them that resource list. Remember, they see hundreds of students every semester. Giving them a way to remember you will go a long way toward a great letter or personalized advice.
5. Talk about an issue in your personal life that is interfering with your progress
If you’ve just lost your job, or if you’re having a family emergency (like a parent in the hospital), talk to your professors about it. Many schools offer help with these kinds of problems – incompletes, extensions, and allowing make-ups are just three possibilities. But your professor can’t help you in this area unless you ask them for help. If you’re facing a life crisis that is making learning harder than it should be, talk to your professor and explain what’s going on. If they can’t help you directly, they can probably refer you to the department on your campus that can. Don’t suffer in silence – ask for help.
The same goes for if you have a disability. If you do, you are legally entitled to accommodations. You don’t have to tell your professor about your disability, but if you go through the campus disability center, you can talk to the professor about the accommodations you might need.
How to make it easier: Remember that your professor is a human being and has probably faced something similar to your situation themselves. You’re not making excuses; you’re identifying an issue that is getting in the way of your learning, so that the professor can help you navigate it.
Tying it all together
When you go to office hours, it can be scary at first. But remembering that your professor is a human being, just like you, can go a long way towards making them approachable. Whether you’re stuck, scared, or swamped, your professor can offer help with your situation – but they can only do that if you ask!