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How to Build Great Relationships with Your Professors – 9 Tips

Professor addressing students inside a college lecture hall.

Establishing a collegial relationship with your college professors has many benefits – beyond getting a good recommendation letter later on. Here are some tips for getting to know your professors that you can use inside and outside the classroom.

Research has shown that students who have a positive relationship with their instructors also make gains in their intellectual and professional development, academic achievement, motivation, and learning. But many college students don’t make the effort to get to know their professors. In a Student Voice Survey of undergraduate students, 28 percent said they never attended their professors’ office hours, and among those who did, 55 percent said they visit just once or twice a semester.

Even if you are an outgoing, friendly person by nature, it’s not always easy to start a conversation with a professor – let alone develop a rapport. Here are some tips that can help you begin to forge positive relationships with even the most intimidating profs.

1. Introduce Yourself

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Sometime during the first week of class, introduce yourself to your professor. You can do this before or after the class session, by stopping by during office hours, or in an email. Introducing yourself early on can show you are excited about the class and want to do well in it, and that you are a polite, mature adult who takes school seriously.

2. Participate meaningfully in class

It’s important to engage in class discussions. Answer and ask questions that show you are curious and prepared for class, such as having done the assigned reading or worked through the assigned problems. It can sometimes feel uncomfortable to ask questions in a big group setting, but professors expect students to speak up if they don’t understand something. Chances are, if you don’t understand it, other students don’t either. It’s okay to admit that you’re having trouble grasping a difficult concept — it shows you are trying and that you're willing to put yourself out there to learn.

If you don’t feel comfortable speaking up in a large lecture hall, try to approach the professor before or after class with questions or comments, or send an email. It may also help to sit in the first few rows of the class. The professor is more likely to see you, and it may feel easier to participate in discussions when you are sitting closer to the instructor.

3. Bring good questions to office hours

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Although you might be intimidated to visit a professor during office hours, talking to students and helping them learn is part of a professor’s job. Many professors enjoy providing this help and look favorably upon students who take the initiative to ask for it.     

"[Office hours is] time that I dedicate each week specifically to help students,” remarked one professor in an article from Weber State University. “It's so disheartening when no one shows up.”

Even so, it’s important to come prepared with good questions -- something you are truly curious about or that you don’t understand. Know what you want to get out of the meeting. If you need more time to go over an exam or paper you hoped to do better on, consider making an appointment instead of just dropping by.

Even if you aren’t struggling in the course, you can check in with the professor about their expectations for upcoming assignments and some of your ideas for approaching those assignments. You might also ask the professor about a current event affecting the field or something you saw or read that is relevant to the class. Asking professors about their research can also be a good idea -- but make sure that you’ve done your homework first (see below).

4. Show genuine interest in the course – and the professor’s work

Most professors like students who are passionate about the subject they teach and serious about learning more about it. Showing true intellectual curiosity about the topic or field your professor teaches may help you stand out. One way to do this is to do more work than is necessary to ace a test or get a good grade. This could mean doing additional readings, tackling extra problem sets, or completing an independent project. You might consider asking the professor about other information sources or experts to follow to increase your knowledge.

It is important to learn as much as you can about your professor’s research area, teaching specialties and background before you engage, so you can ask smart questions about their work and research and how it relates to what you’re learning in class.

5. Communicate respectfully and professionally

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While a professor isn’t your employer, your relationship is a professional one, and it’s important to communicate professionally – not only in person but in emails as well. Many college websites, such as UNC-Chapel Hill, post guidelines on how to communicate with professors by email to avoid making a bad impression.

As a rule, when emailing a professor, keep it formal, professional, courteous, and to the point. You are not emailing or texting a friend. It’s important to use the appropriate title for college faculty in emails and when addressing them in person. “Professor” is acceptable for assistant, associate or adjunct professors. Professors with Ph.Ds. may want to be addressed as “Doctor” or “Dr.” Do not address professors by their first name unless they tell you to do so.

Other communication no-nos include sending angry or complaint-filled emails, especially regarding grades (it’s better to discuss grade issues in person); emailing with questions the night before an exam or paper is due (and expecting the professor to immediately respond); and asking questions that are already in the syllabus (such as “What are your office hours?”).

Here are some good examples of how to formulate an email when asking a professor about research opportunities.

6. Attend review sessions

Some professors hold review sessions for upcoming exams. These can involve all or part of a class period, or even an extra class session. Attending the review session shows you care about doing well in the class and may give you more “face time” with the professor. More important, it can help you with your exam prep and provide insight into what the next exam will be focused on.

7. Share a cup of coffee

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At small colleges, students often have opportunities to meet with professors outside of class in a more informal setting – such as in the dining hall, at social events, or just walking across campus. These are great opportunities to learn more about your professors and become more comfortable talking to them.

At larger universities, this type of meeting may be less common but not impossible. At some universities, the career center or an academic department may facilitate dinners or coffees with professors. If that’s an option for you, try to take advantage of it.

8. Attend academic events

Attending talks, panels, conferences, or seminars hosted by your academic department can be another way to connect with your professors -- and demonstrate your initiative and interest in learning more about the subject of the class or field. If your professor is attending or presenting at these events, make a point to say hello. If nothing else, the event can be a topic of conversation between the two of you at some later time.

 

9. Take multiple classes with the same professor

 

It can be difficult for you and your professor to develop a rapport in one semester or quarter. Taking more than one class with the same instructor not only gives you more time to build a relationship, but it also gives the professor more background to write an effective letter of recommendation down the road. If you can’t take another class with the same professor, consider asking him/her/them to supervise or advise you on an independent project.

 

Developing good relationships with professors takes time — and not every professor you encounter will become a great friend or mentor. But in most cases, making the effort will be well worth it. Hopefully, some of these tips will inspire you to reach out and connect with your professors. Getting to know them – and letting them get to know you -- can enrich your college experience and open doors to new opportunities during and after college.

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