There are countless academic differences between high school and college, like the rigor of your courses and a different scheduling style. But one of the changes that could take the most getting used to is your class size and dynamic, especially at a larger school.
In high school, your classes hovered between 20 and 35 students, but now you find yourself stepping into lecture halls that look more like athletic arenas and sitting in class next to 300 of your peers. The professor might lecture using a podium or microphone, and when you raise your hand to speak, you just get pointed at instead of named. You wonder how you’re ever going to get to know any of your professors, not to mention how you’re going to get to know one well enough to ask for a recommendation from them down the road—seniors in college, we’re talking to you!
Sound like you? You’re not completely out of luck. One of the big myths of college is that you’ll never get to know your professors in large classes. Though it may require more effort on your part, there are some ways you can get to know your professors, even in a class of hundreds of students, who will write you a killer recommendation down the road. Check out these tips from Desiree Griffin, lecturer in the Department of Psychology at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Don’t rush out the door after class ends
If you’re not in a hurry to make it to another class, those few minutes after your lecture is over are a great time to introduce yourself to your professor or chat with him or her briefly. “It is important for students to take the initiative and introduce themselves to their professor, preferably sooner rather than later,” Griffin says.
The lecture will be fresh in both of your minds, so you could easily ask him or her a question about something you didn’t understand or talk about your opinion on an issue he or she mentioned. This not only puts a face to your name for the professor, but it also shows her that you were actively paying attention to the lecture and that you cared enough about what she taught to talk about it even after class is over. Can someone say, “brownie points?”
“These interactions stood out to me because it demonstrated a genuine interest in what they were learning, which I found refreshing, and I wanted to reciprocate that interest by discussing topics with them before or after class,” Griffin says.
Go to office hours, even if you don’t need help
A common misconception about office hours is that they’re only there for students struggling in the class who need extra help. And while office hours are a great resource for getting your questions and concerns dealt with one-on-one, they’re also a great way to get to know your professor.
“By going to instructors’ office hours, you can take the time to tell them about yourself and your interests and also get the opportunity to get their insights into their respective fields (most instructors like to talk about what they do/study),” Griffin says. “Having this meeting will likely set you apart from most of your classmates and make you more memorable. You will also have established a working relationship with your instructors, which will make it easier to reach out to them during the semester if you are struggling with any of the material.”
Lucy Julian, a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill, says she tries to go to office hours at the beginning of each semester to get to know her professors. “At first it seemed weird to go to office hours with no real question or issue, but I realized quickly that my professors really appreciated me just introducing myself, and I usually had awesome conversations with them,” Lucy says. “They were great resources for everything from study abroad program recommendations to recommendations for future courses to take in the department.”
Take advantage of opportunities outside of the classroom
Many schools both large and small urge students to build relationships with their professors and are developing programs and events to facilitate these relationships. The University of Michigan, American University, Dartmouth College, UNC-Chapel Hill, Brandeis University and countless others have “Take Your Professor to Lunch” programs where students can sign up for free meal vouchers to treat their professors to on-campus meals. The idea of the program is to push students to spend time outside of class getting to know their professors, and with a free meal on the table, it’s no surprise that these programs are catching on with schools across the country.
Griffin says that another great way to get to know your professor is to ask whether he or she is accepting any students to research programs, especially if they’re a professor in the sciences. Private research is a great way to build a relationship with your professor, and it’s also a great way for your professor to get a closer look at your work and interest in the subject matter, which could turn into great material for a recommendation in the future.
Lots of professors either conduct school-sponsored research projects during the semester or conduct their own research privately in concentrations of their own interest. Many schools have listings for research opportunities online, but approaching your professor and just asking is an easy way to find out exactly what you want to know!
Stay in touch!
Even if you’re not currently enrolled in that professor’s class, it could still be beneficial to you in the long run to maintain your relationship with him or her and check back in every so often. Your professors will appreciate that you took the time to think about them and shoot them a quick email, which will not only keep you in their good graces if you ever need a recommendation, but it will also keep you fresh in their minds! A professor will have a hard time writing a thoughtful and accurate recommendation for a student they haven’t taught or even spoken to in a few semesters.
Isabel Elson, a junior at Harvard University, says she keeps up with her old professors via email and with quick coffee or lunch dates.
“It’s super easy to shoot your old teachers an email every once in a while—I do it and I can tell it really means a lot to them,” Isabel says. “I usually just tell them what I’ve been up to in or outside of school, or sometimes I’ll email them a link to an article or page that made me think of them. Your professors are a lot more interested in what you’re up to than you might think, and many of mine frequently say how happy they are when they see a message from me in their inbox.”
Isabel says keeping in touch with her professors also made it easier for her to ask for internship and job recommendations. “I didn’t feel like I was using my professors or only contacting them because I needed something, and the fact that I kept in touch made it easier for them to write a rec for me because they knew what I’ve been up to and what work I’ve recently done,” she says.
Other good ways to keep in touch with your professors are to attend a lecture, talk or presentation that they might be giving at school. The end of the program is a great chance to stop and talk to them—tell them how much you enjoyed their presentation and how you’d love to grab coffee sometime.
Another super easy tip? Take a class with them again! Professors love seeing students who come back for more of their teaching, and the fact that they’ve already taught you gives you a head start on material for a rec because they’ve already seen how you work!
With these tips, you’re bound to build great relationships with your professors. When you do ask for a recommendation, don’t forget to ask politely—in-person beats email any day, and be sure to give your teachers enough of a heads up on the deadline so that they’re not overwhelmed or scrambling to piece a recommendation together. And once you score that rec and land a killer job or internship, don’t forget to send a thank-you note!
How do you build strong relationships with your professors, collegiettes?