Many undergraduates don’t realize how important the student-professor relationship is until they need something from their instructor.
If you’re a college student, it might not have occurred to you that your professor can be much more to you than just the person who instructs you and grades your exams. If you have questions about the course material, they’re the best person to provide clarification. They can also provide first-hand information about what’s needed to thrive in your chosen field.
In many cases, professors are also a source of valuable networking contacts. Due to their prior experience and current industry involvement, many professors have connections to employers in your field. These connections often want to tap into your professor’s student network (this means you!) for interns or new hires.
10 tips for building a solid student-professor relationship
Building a professional relationship with your professor will set you up for success. In our experience as therapists for college students, we’ve uncovered ways to strengthen your relationship with your professor. If you want your instructor to be your ally—both now and in the future—please consider the following advice:
1. Get to know your professor
If you don’t show any interest in your professor, why should they take any particular interest in you? As a first step, learn a little about their professional interests and approach to teaching on their LinkedIn page. Most universities also post a bio for each professor online, so you may want to review that, as well.
This preliminary research can help you find common ground and identify whether this professor’s background matches your interests. If so, it may be worth your time to find any research papers or other publications of theirs and read them. Doing so will give you something to talk about when you express your excitement for their class (see tip No. 2).
2. Address them properly
A common question among freshmen and sophomores is, “Should I call my college teacher ‘professor’?” In the vast majority of cases, the answer is yes—at least at first. Unless told otherwise, you should default to “professor” when speaking to your instructor and emailing them.
Of course, some professors prefer to be addressed differently, perhaps as “Dr.”, “Mr.,” “Ms.,” or by their first name. Pay attention on the first day of class when they first introduce themselves. That will give you an important clue as to what to call them to show the proper respect.
3. Be memorable
Your professor will have many, many students to manage each semester. Help your professor put your face to your name by introducing yourself on the very first day of class. You don’t have to say anything other than your name and express your excitement for the upcoming class. If the professor specializes in your area of interest, that might be worth mentioning, too. The next few times you talk to them, state your full name again to help them commit it to memory.
Most schools require professors to hold regular office hours so students can speak with them one-on-one. We highly recommend you take advantage of this opportunity whenever the need arises. When you do, remind your instructor of your name and state which of their classes you are taking at the start of the conversation.
Later in the semester, once your instructor already recognizes you (and hopefully sees your potential as a student), you can remind them of your professional goals and ask them if they have any advice for you.
4. Show you care about the class
Actions speak louder than words. If you show up late, talk during class, turn in assignments late, or miss a lot of lectures, your professor will assume you don’t care (even if you do). It is much better to be remembered as a star student than as a slacker.
During class, participate as much as you’re comfortable with. Stay as engaged as you can, and ask questions whenever you have them (assuming they’re relevant to the lecture). Even if you’re a bit uncomfortable raising your hand at first, going outside of your comfort zone can help you gradually build confidence.
Tip for neurodivergent students: If you’re autistic or have ADHD, you might find it difficult to maintain eye contact, participate in class, or struggle to pay attention. If so, it might make sense to let your professor know this early on so they don’t get the wrong impression about you. Help them understand that you’re engaged and that you’re trying your best—despite any outside appearances to the contrary. Engaging with your professor one-on-one in office hours may be a preferable way to show them you care versus participating in class.
5. Keep it professional
Unless your professor brings up personal subjects during your conversations, keep them strictly professional. At the same time, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask questions about their professional background, interests, and goals. Most people love to talk about themselves, so most instructors will have no problem with questions like these.
Don’t contact your professor without a good reason, and don’t take up too much of their time. Never bother them during their personal time (e.g., when they are off-campus, engaging in non-professor activities). It is probably okay to stop by briefly and say hello if you find them prepping for their next class in the lecture hall, but you should respect their privacy if you see them eating lunch and reading a book, for example.
You should also respect their privacy online. Never send email to their personal account—always use their official university address. You should also avoid friend-requesting them on social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram (unless their accounts are obviously for professional purposes). If you still want to connect online, try inviting them to connect on LinkedIn—and don’t take it personally if they reject your invitation. There might be a university policy regarding professors handling social media requests from students.
6. Take responsibility for your academic performance
You may be wondering whether a college professor can change your grade if you point out flaws in their assignments or tests. On the contrary, it’s usually a bad idea to accuse your professor of making errors or being unfair (except in extreme cases). If you do, you might put them on the defensive and turn them into an enemy. They might even think you’re trying to manipulate your way through school instead of putting in hard work.
Instead of taking an adversarial tone with your professor, you can improve your grades by taking ownership and asking for help. You could say something like, “My grade on this test made me realize that I need to put some more work into understanding (the topic you’re struggling with). Would you please spend a few minutes reviewing my answers with me to help me see where I went wrong?” This approach will cast you in a much more favorable light. Plus, if it turns out you were indeed graded unfairly/incorrectly, your professor will still be able to see that without your saying it directly.
Tip for neurodivergent students: If you struggle to organize your thoughts or get nervous in social situations, bring a notepad or folder with you when you talk to your professor outside of class. Holding the folder will give you something to do with your hands, and you can reference questions and talking points you’ve written down in advance.
7. Learn how to email your college professor politely
Reference the class syllabus for your instructor’s preferred contact information. Learn and follow basic email etiquette: Be polite, clear, and concise. Sum up your email in the subject line. End each message by thanking them and providing your full name and contact information.
The other advice we give students wondering how to email their college professor is to assume a formal tone (e.g., Dear Professor X). Over time, as you develop a closer relationship, your professor may relax their tone. If so, you can follow their lead and get a bit more casual. Nevertheless, you should still strive for correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar in all of your messages.
There is a fine line between too much contact and too little. If the answers to your emailed questions can easily be found in the course materials, it might irritate your professor to be contacted too frequently. At the same time, they might forget who you are if you wait too long between contacts. To stay in touch with professors from prior semesters, email them every 3-6 months with something interesting: “I just noticed that the book you were working on came out this year. Congratulations!” or “I saw this relevant study and thought of you.”
If your professor is not responding to your emails immediately, give them a bit more time before following up again (unless your request is time-sensitive). They may be looking into your question or intend to respond but haven’t found the time yet. It’s also possible that your instructor prefers in-person contact. After a week or two, politely follow up. If your professor is still not responding to your emails, catch them during office hours.
8. Be considerate of your professor’s time
Complete all assigned readings on time and study your notes before class so you’re not asking questions about things that have already been covered. Of course, your instructor will not expect you to retain 100% of what’s been covered, so it’s okay if you forget things occasionally. Just keep up with all of your assigned work to ensure your questions are appropriate.
Recognize that your professor may not be available directly after class. If they seem eager to leave after class every day, they may be teaching another class across campus or have other scheduled engagements. If so, save your question for a future email, the next class, or their office hours.
Tip for neurodivergent students: You might worry that you’ll forget to ask your question if you don’t ask it immediately. To avoid this problem, jot it down on your to-do list so you remember to ask your professor at a later time.
9. Avoid buying gifts for a college professor
Sometimes we’re asked whether it’s okay to buy gifts for a college professor. While it’s a very thoughtful and generous idea, there are a few potential problems with it. If your gift is expensive, it could make your professor feel awkward or upset other students who cannot afford to buy expensive gifts.
Even if your gift is something small, it could create the appearance of bribery or favoritism. That said, cards and other small token gifts such as unique (but inexpensive) office supplies are probably okay for a college professor. Just be sure to give them after you’ve already received your final grades, so it doesn’t seem like you’re trying to ingratiate yourself for personal benefit.
10. Ask for a recommendation letter before the semester ends
You might not need a letter of recommendation until you start applying for internships/jobs, but don’t wait! If you have earned decent grades in the class so far and have built a relationship with your professor, you should ask for one while you’re still a student in their class. The longer you wait, the more likely they will have forgotten who you are!
Another problem we often see is that students don’t know how to ask their professor for a recommendation letter. So, they put off asking for one. There are many great resources and templates online that can show you how to ask a college professor for a letter of recommendation. You can also work with a career coach, academic advisor, or therapist for college students for personalized help.
Keep in mind that it may be harder to reach your professor after the class has ended. Pay attention to your instructor’s office hours so you don’t miss your final chance to ask for a letter. You can also save a copy of their professional email address to the contacts list on your home computer (since, after you graduate, you may be locked out of your university’s email system).
Support for College Success
As therapists for college students and specialists in neurodiversity, we understand how to best support our neurotypical and neurodivergent clients for college success. Send us a message or book a free 20 minute consultation call with one of us to see how we can help: Dr. Lee, Dr. Barajas, or Dr. Goldman.