Your Guide to Office Hours

Office hours seem so weird

I know a number of college students who feel uneasy about going to office hours. I felt the same way. I wasn’t sure about how the process worked, didn’t know what to say once I got there, and wasn’t clear on why I should go in the first place. As an undergrad, I only went to office hours for two of my classes, but those two professors ended up having an immense influence on my studies and my life.

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I’m certain I could have performed better academically and learned valuable life lessons had I gone to office hours for more of my classes.

Similar to your first-ever job interview, meetings like this are less intimidating when you have a good idea of what to expect, which is why I went behind the scenes with someone who hosts office hours; Professor David Gatchell at the McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University. Professor Gatchell offered his top recommendations for getting the most out of office hours while building strong professional relationships with professors.

 
 

Why go to office hours?

The primary reason to go to office hours, according to Professor Gatchell, is to establish a professional relationship with your professor that’s not solely based on academic help. Office hour meetings are a great opportunity to connect with your professor, explore your interests in the field, and uncover related campus and professional opportunities.

 
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Students often think they should only attend office hours if they have a question about the coursework or a problem in the class, but office hours are an opportunity to connect with your professor.
— Professor David Gatchell, McCormick School of Engineering, Northwestern University
 

You’ll also make yourself known to the professor so that you’re able to follow up for a recommendation letter down the line. It’s much easier to ask a professor for a recommendation, and easier for them to write one for you, when you have a long, established working relationship. Professor Gatchell says, “you want your name to stand out and put a smile of recognition on your professor’s face when they think of you.” Building this kind of rapport with your professor brings them into your network, which also makes it easier for them to make a job connection for you.

 
 

Office hours are just one part of the overall class

“Know that office hours are one component of your overall experience in the class,” says Professor Gatchell. “You can prepare for office hours by making sure you’re on top of your classroom presence. Show your professionalism by arriving to class in a timely manner and show your commitment to doing well in the course by being prepared for class sessions.” Be an active participant in the class. Contribute to the learning environment. While you don’t have to raise your hand all the time, don’t escape it all together. Further, be willing to approach your professors before or after class with a question. While some of these may seem like small, insignificant interactions, doing them will make visiting office hours more approachable for you and your professor.

 
 

Office hours can be professional without being stuffy:

  • Come with a plan and be ready to execute: Before going to office hours, ask yourself what you want out of the meeting and get prepared. Outline your questions and conversation points, review your course materials, and be ready to start the conversation right when you get there. The time with your professor is valuable and will be limited.

  • Verbal language: Remember that there is a level of formality involved when interacting with your professor. As university faculty, professors have obtained the highest level of education in their respective field. Professors are more like your boss or supervisor than a camp counselor. The best way you can showcase professionalism in your verbal language is to refer to your professor as “Professor [last name]” or “Dr. [last name],” depending on their qualifications. This applies for in-person meetings, class sessions, and email communications.

  • Body language: Dress like you’re going to a professional meeting. You don’t have to show up in a suit, but don’t dress like you’re going to the beach, nightclub, or gym either. In addition, make sure you’re respectful of personal space. You are, after all, visiting their office.

  • Show that you’re engaged: Let your professor know that you’re an active listener by taking notes, asking questions, and making appropriate eye contact. They’ll feel respected and you’ll get more out of the conversation. If you go to office hours with another student on your project team, show that you’re both engaged in the meeting, even if you’re not the one speaking.

  • Keep an eye on the clock: Respect your professor’s time. When you get to office hours, ask how much time they have and let them know how much time you have. Professors typically take 15-20 minutes per office hours meeting. If you reach that point and need more time, put the ball back in your professor’s court. Ask, “Do you have another five or ten minutes to talk about [subject here]?” If they have to run, ask, “Do you have another time when you can meet to talk about [subject here]?”

  • Say thank you!: As you leave office hours, express appreciation for your professor’s time by saying thank you. Let them know how valuable the conversation was to you. Good manners go a long way in building relationships.
 

Keep in mind

If your professor doesn’t write back right away regarding an office hours appointment...
...it doesn’t mean they don’t care. “Professors have many responsibilities outside of your class, in addition to their home life,” says Professor Gatchell. If they don’t get back to you via email or can’t meet right away, many times they have a good reason. On the other hand, if you haven’t heard back in a few days, send a follow up email. Some professors get hundreds of emails each day, so you might have to email them two or three times. Regardless, it doesn’t mean they’re ignoring you, so don’t take it personally.

 
 

Kori Crockett
CEO, Propeller Collective


Do you have other tips for going to office hours?
Share with the community in the comments below!