How to Talk to a Professor — Explained by a Professor

Semester after semester, I’m surprised by the number of students who don’t know how to communicate with me — or who go to great lengths to avoid it.

On the one hand, I understand — I’m a big, bad, scary professor (hardly). But on the other hand, I can’t count the number of times I’ve shaken my head and thought or said, “Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”

If you find yourself at a loss when it comes to approaching your professors, here are 10 tips I wish all of my students knew.

1. Remember, we’re people too.

Back in elementary school, I ran into one of my teachers at the grocery store. I was shocked to see her outside of school, as though she lived, ate, and slept there. Of course teachers and professors grocery-shop! They also watch TV, fart, and take walks. Many students seem afraid of talking to professors because, for whatever reason, they forget that their professors are human. Sure, we give you grades and bust you for improperly formatting your citations, but we’re also people who are trying to do a job as best we can — just like you are.

2. Talking to you is part of our job.

Students sometimes worry that showing up to office hours or sending an email is irritating to a professor. Remember, communicating with students is part of our job! It also helps us teach better. All students are different — some of them grasp material better during a one-on-one office-hours meeting. Some of them learn better via an email conversation. When students articulate what helps them learn best, professors are more effective, and the class is a better experience for everyone. We have email and office hours for a reason — don’t be hesitant or apologetic for using them!

Looking to get the most out of a one-on-one with your professor? Check out Squeeze the Most Out of Your Professor’s Office Hours.

3. Keep each professor's communication preferences in mind the first time you reach out.

Most professors write on the syllabus and/or state in class their preference for how students get in touch with them. Office hours are always a safe bet, especially if you have a question that will take some time to discuss or if you want to get to know your professor better. Most professors are happy to receive emails, as well, though my policy is if I can’t answer your question in roughly five minutes, it’s better to talk during office hours. If you’re not sure, just ask your professor whether email is OK for asking a question. Most professors don’t want phone calls, and we certainly don’t want text messages.

4. We’re not mindreaders.

A few years ago, one of my students wrote in his end-of-the-semester self-reflection essay: “I have a very introverted personality along with severe social anxiety that does not allow me to ask questions publicly, so I got very little from class periods. Couple this with office hours that conflicted with my schedule, and I was left with almost nowhere to look to for help.”

I had no idea this student felt this way. He had been getting B’s on his papers, and he never emailed me to ask a question or try to schedule an office hours appointment at a different time. Professors are not mindreaders. They can’t know something’s wrong unless you talk to them.

The above student could have avoided lots of frustration and angst if he had simply emailed or talked to me at any point throughout the semester. The same goes for students who are ill, have religious or athletic obligations, or are struggling for any reason. We may not have realized what’s going on because we’ve got 60 students, but that doesn’t mean we don’t care.

5. Don’t suffer in silence!

After you realize your professor isn’t a mindreader, the next step is to ask for help. This is really difficult for some students, perhaps because they want to seem like they’ve got everything under control. The vast majority of the time, problems can be resolved quickly and easily if the student speaks up. Here’s an excerpt from another student’s final essay that exemplifies this:

During an in-class meeting with my professor, I mentioned that I had absolutely no idea where I wanted to take my paper. As we talked through ideas, a lightbulb exploded in my skull. In one instant, the veil was lifted and the path was illuminated. A very important lesson was learned on that tremendous occasion, one that in all likelihood should have been learned much sooner: the resource potential of professors/teachers. It was the back-and-forth with someone who really understands the subject matter that allowed me to discover that I had actually already formed an opinion, I just wasn’t previously able to articulate it.

If you speak up, your professor can — or certainly will try to — help you.

6. Be proactive.

Don’t wait until the night before a paper is due to email your professor with questions. If you get a difficult assignment, ask questions as soon as you can. This will save you time and trouble down the road. If you know weeks in advance that you have three finals on the same day that your final paper is due, ask for an extension right away. Professors rarely grant extensions right before a deadline, unless there’s an extenuating circumstance.

Asking early demonstrates foresight and shows that you haven’t slacked off or procrastinated. The same goes for absences. If you know you’ll need to miss a class or two, email your professors ahead of time to tell them and to ask about how you can make up the material.

7. Communicate about anything that may affect your performance in the class.

There are many obstacles that may arise during the semester — difficulties with classes, too many extracurricular activities, too many shifts at work, homesickness, trouble making friends (or problems resulting from having too many friends!), a new environment and roommates, illness, stress … the list goes on and on. Sometimes, students think that if their problem isn’t academic in nature, they shouldn’t tell their professors. But students should tell their professors if something — anything — is going to negatively affect their classwork.

That doesn’t mean you have to disclose everything about the long and painful breakup you’re going through; students should share as much as they’re comfortable sharing. It’s enough to tell a professor that you’re going through a hard time, or that you have personal issues that make it difficult for you to study or sleep. The professor will check and make sure you’re OK and perhaps refer you to a helpful organization or office on campus. More importantly from an academic perspective, the professor will understand why you’re off your game. This doesn’t mean you’ll get a higher grade, but a professor will be more likely to grant an extension or take into consideration your personal circumstances.

8. Use proper etiquette and grammar.

Most students are polite in office hours, but etiquette goes out the window over email. I’ve gotten emails from students that simply say, “What did we do in class today? Let me know.” You can get in your professor’s (and later, your employer’s) good graces by politely and appropriately writing to that person. Here are some quick pointers:

  • Always start with a, “Hello/Dear Professor X.”

  • Request — don’t demand — whatever you need (“I can’t make your Thursday office hours and was wondering if you’d be available to meet another time.”)

  • Give options! (“I could come to office hours between 12–2 on Monday or between 1–3 on Tuesday. If that doesn’t work, I could send you an email with my questions.”)

  • Thank your professor at the end and sign off with your name.

  • Proofread! Even though it’s just an email, I still cringe if I see a typo or text speak (“tx, c u l8r!”). Proofreading email is a good habit in general.

Worried about making a mistake in your email to your professors? Read Tips from an English Teacher: 7 Most Common Grammar Mistakes.

9. Don’t ask questions if you can easily find the answers.

As much as I encourage students to ask questions, I inevitably get at least a dozen emails each semester asking me when my office hours are. This isn’t a content question — it’s basic information. So basic, in fact, that it’s on the first page of my syllabus. It’s also posted online.

Don’t ask professors about something they’ve already told you the answer to, especially if that means you obviously haven’t read the syllabus (a document that professors pour a lot of energy into). Similarly, check assignment instructions before asking a question about a paper or project that is due; the answer you’re looking for may already be in your possession.

If you have a question about content, it’s also good practice to demonstrate to the professor that you’ve already tried to figure out the answer on your own. For example, I get dozens of emails asking about citations. Citations are tricky, which is why we go over them in class numerous times, and I make handouts with tons of examples. Instead of emailing me asking, “How do I format a citation for a TED talk?” I wish my students would check the handouts, textbooks, or do a Google search. The best approach would be for the student to attempt the citation herself, and then email or show it to me after class to check. That way, I know she’s tried, rather than asking me first.

Email allows for more casual and frequent correspondence, which is both good and bad. Emailing a professor a question shouldn’t necessarily be your first step — trying to find an answer to the question yourself is (unless it’s a nuanced question about a source or something like that). A good guideline is this: Is the question one you would have asked the professor via office hours if you didn’t have email? If not, you may want to see if you already have (or are able to find) the answer to the question.

10. Accept responsibility.

Ultimately, you’re the one in charge of your education. Students often shift the burden onto their professors, whether they realize it or not. I get lots of emails that say, “Please look over my introduction and get back to me with comments as soon as you can.” I’m happy to look over the introduction, but especially during peak grading time, I may not be able to get back to you right away.

I always appreciate when a student comes to see me in person — it’s the most efficient way to communicate, and it indicates that the student is willing to spend the time to get the answer, rather than sitting back and waiting for the answer to arrive. You don’t want to put a professor in that position, and you don’t want to put yourself in the position of waiting for a response, either. If you missed class, it’s on you to approach your professor to get what you need. “Help me help you” is what I always tell my students.

Professors are there to help you succeed and guide you through the class. Remember that they are trying to help lots of people learn challenging content, so make it as easy as possible for them to understand what you are looking for, and respect their time. By keeping these ideas in mind, you’ll be able to communicate effectively and get the most out of your education.

Want more advice on how to work successfully with your college professors? Ask pressing questions or read Expert advice on our college professors page.