Guide to Communicating
with Professors

Building a strong rapport with your college professor can do more than just bolster your class performance. It can also help you find the right academic path and launch your career. This guide provides information on how students can easily relate to their professors, including tips on how to email them and get the most out of office hours.

Meet the Experts

Benjamin Y. Clark Assistant Professor of Public Administration; University of Oregon’s School of Planning, Public Policy and Management
Andrew Selepak Director of MAMC Social Media, University of Florida

Best Communication Techniques for Talking to Professors

Whether in class, at office hours or through email, it can be easy to get off on the wrong foot with a college professor. But by following a few best practices, students can ensure good communication with professors in different settings.

Use the right terms

It can be confusing for students to figure out what to call their professors, but here’s a good rule of thumb:

  • If your professor has a doctorate, use “Doctor” or “Professor”

  • If your professor doesn’t have a doctorate, use “Professor”

However, the rules aren’t necessarily hard and fast. In some cases, professors aren’t strict about this standard, says Benjamin Y. Clark, Assistant Professor of Public Administration at the University of Oregon’s School of Planning, Public Policy and Management. The key is to find out the standards of a specific school or even an individual professor.

“The biggest problems I see are problems with boundaries between ‘friend’ communication and ‘professional’ communication,” says Clark. “I don’t need my students to refer to me as Sir or Dr. Clark, but to say ‘yo teach!’ as an introduction, which has happened, is not quite the best way to approach your professors.”

Try and figure out what the convention for your university is regarding how you address your professors. Some places expect you to refer to everyone as Dr. Smith and Dr. Jones. Other places you can call them Don and Judy. Follow the cues of other students and faculty.

“Also, if your professor says please call me Dr. Smith, respect that, even if they are the only one,” says Clark.

Office hour do’s & don’ts

College professors have office hours so students can more easily communicate with them. But it’s important to keep in mind a few best practices to ensure both you and your professor are getting the most out of that time.

  • Take advantage of them

    Communicating with professors is a necessary part of college success, but sometimes students feel intimidated by it. But according to Andrew Selepak, a professor in the telecommunication department at the University of Florida and Director of the graduate program in social media, students don’t need to feel that way because professors actually want to connect with them.

  • Come to office hours prepared

    Know exactly what information is needed and bring along the relevant textbooks for reference.

  • Ask about strengths and weaknesses

    Every student has different areas where they excel, and other areas where they need extra help. Use office hours to get information on what you’re doing both right and wrong.

  • Ask for more information

    Ask the professor to expand on information only briefly mentioned in class. If a professor mentions something in passing and doesn’t have time to expound on it, office hours can be used to get more details.

  • Ask for career advice

    Professors are experts in their fields and they may have insights that can help students make decisions about career paths. Ask for advice or why they chose the course subjects they teach. This will help build a connection and provide insight into the professors’ interests and experience.

  • Get clarification

    If you don’t understand something covered in class or in course materials, ask for additional help or information.

  • Get recommendations

    Ask for recommendations about additional resources that will increase understanding of course material. This shows a real interest in the class and subject matter.

  • Ask obvious questions

    Read the syllabus before attending office hours and make sure the answer needed isn’t already on there.

  • Get defensive about a bad grade

    Coming to office hours to discuss concerns about a test score is okay, but don’t come with a bad attitude.

  • Forget introductions

    Professors may have hundreds of students and may not always be able to remember a student’s name, or connect a name to a face.

  • Wait until finals week

    “Too often students only come to office hours at exam time or the end of the semester. But this is also when all students come to office hours and there is suddenly a big rush,” Selepak said. “Earlier in the semester when fewer students are coming to office hours is the best time because it’s when the professor can spend more individual time with the students and also get to know them.”

  • Just visit office hours once

    To get the most out of them and build a rapport with professors, go to office hours regularly.

How to Email a Professor

Email is a convenient way to communicate with professors, but that doesn’t mean students shouldn’t follow certain protocols when using it. The following are some best practices for communicating with professors via email.

Emailing Q&A

When should you email your professor?

Students should send emails to professors to get clarification on an assignment, request a meeting and ask for a letter of recommendation. Don’t send an email to ask questions that are answered on the syllabus or can be easily found in course materials.

Which email address should you use to contact professors?

Emails should always be sent from your school account. This ensures that messages won’t end up in professors’ spam filters. Also, this allows professors to immediately identify who is contacting them.

What should you include in your email?

Students should specify what class they’re in and thoroughly explain why they’re emailing.

What style should you use?

Emails should be formal. Avoid text speak and other slang terms, and skip using all caps. Students may think that using all caps in an email may emphasize a point, but it comes off as shouting, which is not going to endear them to their professors. Emoticons should also be avoided.

Also make sure to use paragraphs in an email. No one wants to read one long block of text.

Should you address problems with your professor or the class in an email?

No. Email is not the place for venting frustrations. When students have concerns about a class, they should only use email to make an appointment to discuss them. Email is not the place to try to hash out these problems. It’s best to do it in person.

Should you follow up if your professor doesn’t respond?

Give professors enough time to respond to emails. Remember they receive many emails a day, so give them at least 24 hours to respond before following up. Students who email their professors over the weekend or on holidays should wait until school is back in session.

Sample email to a college professor

Email checklist

Before you hit send on any email to a professor, go through the following checklist to avoid any embarrassing mistakes:

  • Review the subject line

    Make sure it’s relevant to the content of the email and sets the right tone. Avoid using demands like “immediate response needed.”

  • Use the correct address

    Make sure you address your professor in email the same way you would in class, using “Doctor” or “Professor,” if appropriate.

  • Check your salutation and signature

    Treat emails to professors the same way as other formal communications. Check that an opening salutation, such as “Dear Dr. Smith,” was used. Make sure you signed off with your full name so it’s clear who the email is from.

  • Review spelling, grammar and punctuation

    Use spell and grammar check. Make sure there are no embarrassing errors.

  • Show gratitude

    Thanking professors for their time and help can go a long way toward building a relationship with them.

  • Do one last proofread

    Professors will form opinions about students based on the emails they send, so it’s best to always put your best foot forward.

  • Hit send!

How to Build Rapport with Professors

Professors are people like everyone else. In order to make friends, students put effort into the relationship. When trying to build a rapport with professors, they should also make a concerted effort. The following are some ways to do it.

How Connecting with Professors Will Benefit You

Connecting with professors takes effort, but students can reap the benefits of a cordial relationship long after the semester is over. Here are some of the benefits you might experience:

One important benefit of maintaining a good relationship is getting a recommendation letter, which can bolster students’ graduate school or job applications.

“Many students will eventually need recommendation letters for grad school or law school. I get asked multiple times a semester to write a rec letter. But I don’t always agree to write one because if I don’t know the student or what they can do, I don’t have anything I can write other than to say they attended my class,” said Selepak.

“Students will also eventually need recommendations for jobs, and having a good relationship with a professor is a great way to secure a recommendation.”

In addition to providing recommendations that can help students launch their careers, nurturing a good relationship with professors can help students network. “We can be great professional resources for your career,” said Clark. “I make a real effort to get to know professionals in my field that are outside of academia so that I can do better research, and connect my students with people looking for new talent.”

Professors are experts in their chosen field, so they can be a great resource for information. Students can get a realistic look at what working in a specific profession is like by talking to their professors. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice in office hours. If your professor knows your interests and strengths, he or she can recommend different career avenues you might not have considered.

When professors are familiar with a student—and know that the student is dedicated to classwork—they are more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt. As a result, professors tend to be more understanding when students they know need an extension on an assignment or extra credit to make up for a bad grade.

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