You’re not in high school anymore.
Well, juniors, you may have another year to go, but you’ll realize that you’re in college the first day you walk into a lecture hall that holds 50, 100 or 300 students. Your professors won’t necessarily greet you by name. They won’t ask how your last soccer game or debate tournament went. They may not even learn your name before the semester ends.
Most professors care about their students, and they want to be personally connected. But you may be one of 500 students they teach in a semester. How can you stand out as an individual without seeming like you’re just buttering ‘em up? Here are my suggestions, based on my 25 years in all kinds of universities.
Practice these tips your senior year, and you’ll get through college with no problems.
1. Be early
Being a little early allows you to get a seat near the front (a good way to show interest), and you also may have the opportunity to greet the professor. (Remember to introduce yourself!)
Maybe the room is in use until right before class, or maybe you have to make a mad dash across campus to arrive on time. But if you can’t be early, don’t be late! Most professors are disturbed by late entries to class, and if you do it more than once, that becomes the thing for which you are remembered.
If scheduling problems suggest that you may always arrive late or leave early, make an appointment with the professor to discuss the situation. She may suggest you consider taking the class another semester.
2. Make eye contact during class
I taught a large class once in which two students in the back row spent the entire class reading magazines. I never saw their eyes. Do you think I was positively disposed to round their grade averages up or down?
Remember: Your professor can see what you are doing out there. If you groan or put your head down, he doesn’t know it’s because you just remembered your mom’s birthday was yesterday. Be sensitive to how hard your professor worked to prepare this lecture, and show that you respect the effort.
3. Ask follow-up questions
Speak up! Professors enjoy knowing that they have provoked you to think.
If the professor remains in the classroom after class, you also can speak to him then—and introduce yourself. Try this: “Professor Smith? I’m Jane Doe. The discussion about ego defenses was interesting. You seemed to say that denial is not always bad. Did I misunderstand?” This suggestion assumes that you have been listening in class and that you have a valid question. Don’t try to fake it.
4. Take advantage of office hours
Yes, your professors are busy. But scheduling office hours indicates that they are available to you, and that your questions are important.
But don’t stop by office hours without an agenda. Bring specific questions. This will help keep you on track and demonstrate that you value her time and yours.
5. When you must miss a class, e-mail the professor
Yes, there are 300 students in the class, so your prof won’t miss you. But letting him know (in advance, if possible) that you must miss class for a funeral and will get the lecture notes from another student indicates that you are responsible and that you take the class seriously. He will remember your name.
I recommend e-mailing rather than speaking with the professor personally, because he is unlikely to remember a quick word in the hall, and an office appointment may be regarded as overkill.
6. Proofread your work
Nothing gets my attention more than a paper with typos, misspellings and other signs of sloppiness—and that is attention you do not want. Always proofread your work, whether it is a paper or a quiz.
And no matter what the professor says, neatness does count. Hand in the most legible, pleasant-to-read work you can every time. Do not use a huge font to meet the length requirements. (Believe me, your professors are wise to this one.) Type the paper even when it is not required. Do you want your professor marking that final grade in a state of crankiness due to eyestrain?
7. Thank the professor for a particularly interesting class
Don’t do this often, and don’t do it when you don’t mean it. But if you find a class particularly interesting, say something.
Most of us put a lot of work into our classes, and everyone likes to be appreciated.
8. Take advantage of optional study sessions, reading and other “extras”
Professors who offer such opportunities are letting you know that they care about your learning. Demonstrate your interest by taking advantage of every opportunity to learn.
9. Smile and greet your professors by name outside class
When you see your professor in the lounge or walking across campus or in the hall, greet her by name. If the class is a large one, also tell her who you are. She will appreciate the reminder and the opportunity for personal contact. You don’t need a lengthy conversation, just something like, “Hi, Dr. Smith. I’m John Doe in your physics class.”
10. Show how you feel by how you look
Professors are not supposed to notice your personal appearance, and most colleges and universities gave up dress codes long ago. Sometimes, though, your appearance does count.
One of the classes I teach requires one-hour group presentations that involve significant preparation. Most students take it very seriously. Every year, though, I notice tremendous variation in how they demonstrate their attitudes toward the assignment. One year, a group dressed in business clothes and had obviously taken great pains to be professional, while another group dressed in T-shirts and cut-offs. I couldn’t help comparing the two groups.
Remember: College is your professors’ job and yours. Demonstrate that you take your job seriously.
Terri Combs-Orme, Ph.D., is a professor in the College of Social Work at the University of Tennessee, where she teaches classes in human behavior and research. She has taught previously at The John Hopkins University, the University of Maryland, Louisiana State University and Northwestern University.
Professors speak out: When was the last time a student in a large class stood out to you? Why?
• “One student e-mailed before classes started and asked to pick up a syllabus early so she could start reading. When she entered my office, she looked me in the eye, introduced herself, and shook my hand. In class the first day, she sat in the front row and smiled, seeming to acknowledge how hard I was working to keep the class interested. This continued throughout the class. I later found a job for this student at one of the world’s largest advertising agencies and am glad to call her my friend today.” —Dr. Nancy Ridgway, associate professor of marketing at the University of Richmond
• “Any student who uses office hours to ask a question about course material (and not seeking to guess exam questions or to whine about a grade) stands out positively.” —Dr. Mark Harmon, associate professor of journalism at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville
• “I am more likely to notice students who sit in the front of the class and ask good questions, especially if they make eye contact and look like they are intensely interested in the class material. But the ones that come to office hours will also attract my notice, as well as students who do especially well on tests and assignments. And then there are those who cause disturbances, dress and act strangely; these are sure to get my attention—none of it favorable.”
—Dr. Clyde F. Herreid, Distinguished Teaching Professor, academic director of the University Honors Program and director of the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science at the University at Buffalo
• “One of the first days of class last spring, a young woman who sat in the front row each day came up to the lectern and said, “Hi, I’m Susan. I just wanted to introduce myself.” Subsequently, she arranged for an hour of office time to go over the results from each exam. This fall, I got an e-mail from her just ‘checking in’ to see how my summer was.
After chatting a bit, I asked her to keep in touch. We later had lunch together, and it was enjoyable.”
—Dr. Cheryl Buehler, professor of human development and family studies at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro