How to Talk to Professors: A Quick Guide for College Students

student and professor speaking and reviewing papers

Many college students find it difficult to talk to their professors, yet many professors are highly approachable, friendly and accessible people. If they weren’t, they likely wouldn’t have opted to become college professors. Never hesitate to reach out to your professors, as most of them genuinely do enjoy interacting with students and helping them grasp the course material better. Although all college students should try to establish a good working relationship with their professors, there are some dos and don’ts to follow.

Why You Should Make an Effort to Speak With Your Professors

Some students, particularly freshmen, may be unsure of why they need to reach out to their professors. There are plenty of reasons why you should. You should proactively ask your professor for help if you’re struggling with the course material. You can also ask for guidance on how to approach an assignment. For example, you may find it useful to bounce ideas around with your professor regarding your thesis for a paper. Other reasons to reach out include the following:

  • If you’re experiencing personal problems that affect your academics
  • If you’re struggling to adapt to life on campus and the demands of collegiate academics
  • If you're an adult student who is working full-time and you're having trouble balancing work, academics and your personal life
  • If you want to discuss potential careers with your degree
  • If you’re thinking about doing an independent study
  • If something discussed in class captured your interest and you want to learn more about it
  • To discuss your graduate degree aspirations

Furthermore, it’s entirely likely that you’ll need to ask your professors for a written, personal reference later down the road. Establishing a working relationship with your professors will allow them to better accommodate your request. (It’s tough to write a letter of reference for a student from five years ago who never spoke to his or her professor outside of class.)

How to Talk to Professors During Class

Some students are naturally more reserved than others, and they may be hesitant to speak up during class. This is understandable, although you should try to break out of your comfort zone and participate in each class. Part of your grade depends on it. Furthermore, it’s important to work on your communication skills during college as you’ll need them in your future career.

When you do speak up in class, it’s important to address your professor properly. You can never go wrong by calling them “professor.” If you know that your professor has a doctorate degree, you should call them “doctor.” Some professors will state their preferences at the beginning of the semester. You might come across some faculty who prefer to be called by their first name. However, if you’re unsure, simply go with “professor.”

How to Talk to Professors During Office Hours

Every professor establishes office hours each semester. Office hours are a period of time during which your professor can be found in their office. Professors make themselves available to speak with students during these times.

Typically, the student sets the agenda for a visit during office hours. Decide what you would like to get out of the visit. Do you need clarification on an assignment? Help refining your ideas for a term paper? It’s best to arrive at the office with a specific idea of what would help you excel in the class or in your whole academic career. That way, your professor will be better able to help you.

Prior to visiting your professor’s office, be sure to grab any relevant course materials that you need to discuss. You should also have a notebook and pen with you so you can take notes. If you have more than one question, it’s a good idea to write them down in advance.

When you first arrive at a professor’s office, you should knock on the door to announce your presence, even if it’s ajar. You may need to quickly introduce yourself. For example, say, “Hi, Professor Jones, I’m Sally and I’m taking your course on the history of the Sonoran Desert.” An introduction may be necessary if it’s the beginning of a semester and your professor doesn’t yet know you or if the class takes place in a large lecture hall with a hundred or more students.

After introducing yourself, if necessary, explain the purpose of your visit. Always strive to phrase questions and requests in polite language. For example, instead of saying, “You need to help me with assignment XYZ,” instead say something like, “I’m having trouble with this assignment. Is now a good time to talk about it?” Again, office hours are always a good time to talk about assignments, but it’s still polite to ask.

Lastly, know that professors appreciate it when students are proactive. If you’re having trouble with something, such as an essay, don’t wait until the day before the assignment is due to visit office hours.

How to Set Up a Meeting With a Professor via Email

You might not always be able to take advantage of office hours. For example, you might have other classes or activities scheduled during those times. In this situation, you can email your professor to ask if you can make an appointment for another time. You might also ask to set up an appointment if you anticipate needing a long, in-depth discussion that would be difficult to have if other students arrive during office hours.

Email is usually a good way to get in touch with your professors, and you should find the email address listed on the course syllabus. Do strive for a degree of formality. Open the email with a proper greeting, such as "Hi, Professor Barrows” and then proceed to politely request an appointment outside of office hours. Include a few notes about what you need to discuss and offer a few different dates and times that would work for you. Remember to thank the professor and sign off with your first and last name.

Always proofread your emails to your professors; they should be free of typos and such. Similarly, avoid using slang or text message-style abbreviations. Commonly accepted academic abbreviations are fine. An example would be:

“Hi Mr. Jones,

This is Sally and I’m taking your course on the history of the Sonoran Desert. I was wondering if you had time to set up an appointment outside office hours. Thank you for your time.

Best Wishes, Sally Smith”

When to Email Professors for Other Issues

Although professors are usually easily accessible via email, know that they do tend to get bombarded by emails from students, other faculty members and administrative staff. It’s always good practice to try to answer your own question before emailing your professor. For example, let’s say you’re unsure which method of citing resources you should use for a paper. Check the syllabus to see if it’s listed there before sending an email.

At Grand Canyon University, our students are delighted to find that their professors are approachable, well-respected experts in their fields who are committed to helping their students grow. Our Christian learning community looks forward to welcoming new students to our campus and our online learning platform. Click on Request Info above to explore a specific college or degree program, or browse the website to learn about our student support resources.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.