Eight tips to help you make the most out of office hours

Illustration by Laura Baker

Illustration by Laura Baker

For university students, taking the time to visit a professor or teacher’s assistant during their office hours can be the key to better grades, improved communication skills and enhanced networking opportunities. However, many students shy away from one-on-one interaction with their instructors, worrying that their questions will seem inconsequential or it will be just a waste of time.

With the help of Mason faculty members, Fourth Estate has compiled a set of tips to debunk misconceptions and to address some common anxieties so students can make the most out of meetings with professors.

  1. Know the facts

In the numerous books and articles written within the last few decades about college success, experts repeatedly stress the importance of visiting professors during office hours. In a 2012 the New York Times College Tip Sheet written for high school seniors, two guidance counselors explain how going to office hours can help students “learn more, have a greater appreciation of [the] academic experience and have more ways to find mentors, professional and academic references, and employers for research projects.”

Dr. Kristin Samuelian, Mason English professor, knows this to be true from her own teaching experience.

“I have worked with students who were struggling with writing and I know that has made a difference not only in their grade but also in their appreciation of and engagement with the course,” Samuelian said. “And it has helped me to get to know students who might not feel as comfortable speaking up in class. That awareness–that your instructor knows that you are an interested, engaged, motivated student–can make a difference in a student’s performance both inside and outside the classroom.”

  1. Look beyond schoolwork

Many students think that professors hold office hours only to discuss essay prompts or offer studying strategies. However, your instructors are there to help you grow outside of the classroom as well.

If you find yourself engrossed in a particular class or learn that your professor’s research area reflects your personal interests, it might be a good idea to stop by their office hours to ask about research opportunities.

  1. Begin in the classroom

Whether you are approaching a professor about an assignment, career advice, or a letter of recommendation, it is helpful to start by making a good impression in the classroom.

“A professor is more likely to take you seriously and want to help you if you’ve proven yourself in advance,” Raechel Hester, associate director of Student Professional Development in Career Services, said. “Constantly skipping class or turning in assignments late makes it difficult for professors to offer extra help.”

Instead, Hester recommends that students attend class regularly, keep up with assignments, and participate in class discussions as frequently as possible.

  1. Visit early

If you are struggling in a course, do not wait until finals to talk to your professor.

“If you wait until the last minute to go to them for help, it could be challenging for them to address your concern,” Hester said.

Stopping by early on in the semester puts you at ease and gives your professor or TA more time to successfully meet your needs.

  1. Come prepared

To help ease some of the pre-office hour jitters and to keep the conversation focused, jot down a list of questions or talking points prior to your visit.

“Having a clear idea of what you want to say before meeting with your professor will help you get a lot more out of the meeting,” Hester said.

You might also find that bringing a pen and paper along to take notes during the meeting will help you retain important comments or suggestions your professor may offer.

  1. Don’t overdraw

Building a relationship with a faculty member outside of class can help you perform well academically, establish long-term professional connections, or win you a strong letter of recommendation, but it’s important to remember not to take unfair advantage of a professor’s generosity.

“Remember that networking is like a bank,” Hester said, “If you are constantly making withdrawals – like asking your professor to connect you with colleagues or to write a letter of recommendation for you – and not making deposits – like offering to help your professor outside of class – you will go bankrupt. It could be challenging for you to … maintain a positive relationship with your faculty member [after that].”

Hester outlines a number of ways students can give back to professors. She recommends working diligently in class, offering to help instructors outside of the classroom, or nominating them for the Career Connection Faculty Award.

  1. Don’t force it

If you are visiting a professor for the purpose of trying to get involved in their research or to obtain a letter of recommendation, remember that his or her decision is ultimately beyond your control. If a faculty member denies your request, do not take it personally. Perhaps he or she is short on time, does not feel that you would be a good fit for the research team, or does not believe that they know you well enough to write an effective letter of recommendation.

“Focus on the things that are within your control when you are trying to build a relationship with your faculty member outside of the classroom,” Hester said. “[Pay] attention to what their research interests are so you can talk about ways you could support that research [in the future], [show] up to class on time, and [contribute] to class discussions.”

Hester also recommends students ask professors for feedback when situations like this arise.

“If your faculty member is not able to assist you in the way you were hoping, ask them what you could do differently in the future so you can learn from the situation and get creative about other people you can connect with to reach your career goals,” Hester said.

  1. Relax! You’re doing the right thing.

Samuelian reminds students that office hours are there for a reason and that faculty members are ultimately impressed – not annoyed – by students who take the initiative to visit.

“Remember that your instructors, if they care about what they do, actually want you to seek them out and are pleased to see students during office hours,” Samuelian said, “We see it, always, as a sign of academic strength, not weakness. Too often students, especially bright, motivated students, identify seeking help as an admission of failure, when in fact it’s just the opposite. It invariably conveys to the instructor that you are a serious, thoughtful student who is more, not less, likely to be a success in college.”