Understand what to focus on for each course + know how to study better.
We go to college to learn from professors who are experts in their field, yet how many students speak with their professor? Or even email them directly? I don’t have an exact percentage, but I can tell you from my experience the percentage is low. Talking to your professor can be intimidating! I understand that from my experience being a student.
For those that don’t know me, I am a college professor. Hello! My tips below on how to email your professor are exactly what I love to see in my inbox so that we can both make the most of our time together. I want to help every one of my students and when the student is clear, they leave the appointment with what they need to keep going.
Why You May be Nervous about Speaking with your Professor
The biggest myth I hear from students is that their professor is too busy to work with them. You see a lot of other people in your course and assume your professor is too busy to spend time working with you. This is so wrong!
The best part of teaching is working with students. I love answering questions, talking about study strategies, and helping someone succeed. Please do not hesitate to tap into the knowledge of your professor. Also, keep in mind that a professor is just a regular person who went to go to school for a very long time.
How to Email Your Professor
How you contact your professor may vary. Different colleges have different rules. Even individual professors have different rules about their availability. The best place to start is with your syllabus. It should contain information about how to get in contact with your professor. Things like:
- Are there open office hours?
- Do you need to schedule an appt?
- Is it ok to email?
- Is it ok to call?
If contact information is provided on the syllabus, it should be OK for you to use it. If you are hesitant, email your professor and ask. You might send something like this:
Hi Professor! My name is _____(insert your name) and I am a student in your ______(insert course code/name) course. I have some questions about _______(include a very brief overview of what you wish to discuss) and would like to discuss them with you. What is the best way to schedule some time with you?
A few keys to writing an email like this:
- Introduce yourself. They may not recall your name and course, so help them out by providing your name and the course that you are working on.
- Use a professional tone. Be friendly, but ensure that you use appropriate language and check spelling.
- Keep it short. Save the full details of your question for your meeting, but do let them know the general topic you would like to discuss.
- Be direct in what you are asking for. This example asks for scheduled time to discuss questions. Make sure that your request is clearly stated so that they can provide a helpful response.
What to Ask your Professor
Now you have a basic outline to make contact, but you may not be sure exactly how to ask for help. The most important thing is to decide what you want to accomplish ahead of time. In other words, what outcome will make you feel like the time was worthwhile working with your professor?
If you email your professor and say “I’m having trouble with XYZ topic.”, you may or may not get a response that feels helpful. The problem is that “having trouble” is not specific. I don’t know how to best help.
You need to do the work to figure out what would help you. Get specific about what confuses you. Don’t allow yourself to stay in “I don’t know” town. It is a lie we tell ourselves to keep from doing real work or making real progress.
Instead, make a direct request:
- I’m having trouble with XYZ topic. Could I schedule some time to discuss it with you?
- I’m having trouble with XYZ topic. Do you have any additional resources that I can review?
- I’m having trouble with XYZ topic, specifically this aspect of the topic. What tips do you have for understanding this better?
These questions all relate to content that may not make sense. When you are not understanding the course material, you definitely want to reach out to your professor so that you can get a better understanding and move on. You may also want to get a good start in a course by reaching out proactively. Here are some other things you may ask your professor as you get started on a course:
Which part of the course is most challenging for students? Getting a heads-up on where to pay extra attention is really useful.
How should I focus my studies? Knowing if there are a lot of dates to memorize or concepts that you’ll need to apply on a test will shape what your studies look like.
What do successful students do in this course? You will get tips to help you maximize your study strategies and gear your efforts for the course in specific.
Here is an example of how you may email your professor at the start of a course:
Hi Professor! My name is _____(insert your name) and I am a student in your ______(insert course code/name) course. I’m excited to get started and wanted to ask a couple of questions (limit this to 2 or 3 questions):
How should I focus my studies to best understand the course material?
If I have questions about content later on, what is the best way to schedule time with you?
Thanks for your time!
Now it’s your turn. Take the 10-minute challenge and connect with at least one professor. Then get busy planning your studies for the day.
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Try It Yourself: 10-minute Challenge
- Identify one course that you are struggling with.
- Think about what is giving you the most trouble. Narrow it down to a chapter, a topic, or an assignment.
- Then decide what request you want to make in order to receive help in this area.
- Email your professor using the template above and ask for help!