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Communicating Effectively with Faculty

As a Northwestern undergrad, you have access to experts in all of the subjects you are studying: your professors.

Connecting with faculty can help you understand course material better, and expand your learning in a variety of ways. Faculty can also point you toward research and other opportunities that create a gateway to your career. The benefits are many. In fact, studies show that students who engage with faculty do better academically, feel more confident, and are more satisfied overall in college.

Approaching faculty can be intimidating, though, and many students are unsure of what to say and how to say it. Don’t let intimidation hold you back. Use the guidelines below to help ensure smooth communication with your professors, whether you want to talk with them about class questions, letters of recommendation, or just to learn more about them:

Why do you want to contact your professor?

I have a question about something specific in my class.

When you are struggling with a topic in the class—such as a reading, homework assignment, or concept—the best approach is to attend your professor’s scheduled office hours. If you have a scheduling conflict with the office hours, however, many professors are willing to meet during the day on weekdays. Send a polite, short email (see examples here) to your professor briefly explaining who you are, which of the professor’s classes you are taking, and what aspect of the class you are struggling with. Explain that you have a conflict with your professor’s regularly scheduled office hours, and offer a few times during the week that you are available to meet.

You’ll want to be able to help your professor understand exactly what your question is. Before you meet with them, look back over the concepts or assignment in question, and write down what you understand and do not understand about the topic or reading. Then you’ll be prepared to explain your question clearly. Avoid simply telling your professor that you do not understand anything about the chapter or topic; it’s hard for professors to help you if they have no point of reference.

I don’t have a specific question; I’m just confused.

At various points in your Northwestern career, you will probably find yourself feeling like you just don’t get it — the lecture, the chapter, the assignment, or whatever it may be. When you experience this, the best approach is to meet with your professor as soon as possible. Get help early, and you’ll avoid struggling later in the quarter (and you're probably helping your classmates by pointing out a confusing element of the course to your professor).

If you can’t attend office hours, send a polite email explaining that you have a conflict with the office hour times and would like to meet. When you meet, explain that you are experiencing a lot of general confusion in the class, and try to point out specific examples of topics and/or lessons you do not understand. Tell the professor how you have been studying or approaching the work, and ask if they have suggestions for more effective approaches. Also explain what steps you have taken to try to understand—such as doing outside research, attending tutoring sessions, or rereading assigned materials. This demonstrates that you are making an effort, and helps the professor provide more useful suggestions.

I need a letter of recommendation.

Writing recommendation letters is part of what faculty members do, and they expect to be asked. That said, remember that they have busy lives and will need plenty of lead time to write a letter. Allow at least 3 weeks. The best way to ask for a recommendation letter is in person. If you can’t attend office hours, send a polite email explaining your request and asking if the professor could meet with you. In your request, remind them of when you had their course(s), and describe any memorable assignments or projects you completed.

Once they have agreed to write the letter, provide the faculty member with background information that will help them write a strong letter — for instance, a concise personal statement, a resume, etc. Explain exactly what they need to do: where to send the letter, by when, and so on. If you are not automatically notified that the letter has been submitted, send a courteous reminder email about a week before the deadline. Once the letter has been sent, follow up to thank them for their help.

If the professor isn't responding to your emails, don’t get discouraged. Faculty members are answering dozens of emails every day, and yours might have just gotten lost in the shuffle. Give them a few days and try again. You can also call their office phone, following the same etiquette as in email.

I want to learn more about my professor’s work

This is a perfectly legitimate reason for contacting a faculty member. You might want to get to know your professor to establish a mentoring relationship, for a potential letter of recommendation, or simply because you are interested in their work. Some faculty members may prefer to do this outside office hours, so it’s best to inquire first, either by email or in person before or after class. You can explain who you are and that you would like to speak to them about their research, career path, and/or any other topics that interest you. Ask if they are willing, and when might be a good time to meet.

Before you meet with your professor, prepare by writing down what you would like your professor to know about you (your academic and professional interests, your personal background, etc.). Try to keep this relatively short. Also, write down questions you have about the professor's research, academic interests, professional development, teaching experience, or anything else you would like to know. Feel free to ask for advice; most faculty members are happy to offer it, especially to students who show interest in their fields. You don’t need to read from these notes during your meeting, but they'll be helpful in establishing and remembering what you want to discuss.

When you meet, thank the professor for meeting with you. Explain why you wanted to meet, say a little bit about yourself, and ask questions. Allow the conversation to develop organically — it’s OK if you veer away from your previously established questions. The main objective is to establish a rapport.

After the meeting, send your professor a short thank-you email. Mention one or two topics you especially appreciated talking about, and express your interest in potentially meeting again to talk about them in more depth later in the quarter. If your professor offered you advice, briefly explain steps you are taking to follow that advice. For the rest of the quarter and after you have finished the class, continue developing the relationship by checking in with your professor occasionally.