As a university professor I often encounter developmental hitches in students that feel outside of my purview to comment upon. Yes, I’ll mention some of these things in my course syllabi. But, I usually don’t draw individuals’ attention to them as to do so would feel paternalistic and intrusive. So, I thought I’d pen an open letter to college students in this forum. As a parent, you may find value in sharing this content with your progeny, especially if you’re footing all or part of the bill.
Dear College Student:
As a strong letter of recommendation from at least one faculty member is usually helpful in order to get into a good graduate program, or to obtain a desirable job, I thought I’d offer some suggestions for accomplishing that and for getting the most out of your courses and professors.
• Be early to class and appointments. And, if you need to be late, don’t bring coffee or retail food with you, as stopping for such suggests you’re casual about being late.
• Give academic tasks your best effort. This may or may not result in an A grade. For most of we professors, a student who busted his or her tail to earn a B is more impressive than the student who dialed it in and got an A.
• Frequently raise your hand in class. In many classrooms it is much better to state the wrong answer to a question than to remain silent. We faculty also appreciate students who are willing to alleviate the extended silence than can descend after a question has been posed.
• Present yourself in a neat and clean manner. And, avoid chewing gum in class. If your piercings or tattoos could be considered garish by an older generation, consider whether it might be wise to suppress them.
• Always have with you your schedule and a way to take notes.
• Unless the matter at hand is urgent, or the professor encourages the use of such, never go online or text in class. If it’s urgent that you do so, ask the professor in advance if it’s okay.
• If the professor allows you to take notes with your laptop or portable device, don’t abuse that by using it for other things. (Believe it or not, we can usually tell when you’re making this kind of mistake…also keep in mind research indicating that notes taken by hand are more helpful for learning the material than notes typed on a device.)
• Make eye contact and take notes. Even if you have a superlative memory, taking notes suggests engagement.
• If you get sleepy, ask a question. Nodding in and out of consciousness, or looking like you are struggling to stay awake, may draw the professor’s attention to you in a negative way.
• Try to spend one-on-one time with your professors. This is most easily done by going to office hours. However, many faculty are willing to share a lunch or coffee, go for a walk and so forth. You can discuss class material, career aspirations, projects with which the professor is involved or anything that helps you to get to know each other better.
• Ask your professors what professional projects they are doing outside of class. If any sound interesting to you, ask if you can help, especially, if the faculty member works within your intended discipline.
• Try to prioritize your career above your extracurricular interests. For instance, I recently had a very talented student decline a great opportunity to get involved in a project that would have advanced his career. He politely turned it down because it conflicted with a social activity from which he could have been excused.
• Play devils advocate with faculty who demonstrate that they value that.
• If you come across a resource (e.g., YouTube video, article, cartoon) that overlaps with class content, send it to the professor as an FYI.
• Read the syllabus before asking questions about tests, grading, procedures in the class, and so forth. (Of course, if the syllabus is vague or incomplete, ask away.) We faculty tend to pour a lot of time and effort into our course syllabi. Asking a question that is addressed in the syllabus (albeit mildly and implicitly) disrespects the faculty member’s work and can make you look like someone who is either unmotivated or needs to be spoon fed.
• Be kind and respectful to other students. Few of us want to spend time with rude or cut-throat people.
• If you cross paths with the faculty member outside of class, flash a nice smile and say hello, calling the professor by name; avoid pretending that you haven’t noticed him or her. This helps you to exude confidence and suggests you are socially adroit, even if the faculty member has a dampened response.
• If you’ve been positively impacted by something the professor said or did, send a note about it once the course is over. Any form is nice, but handwritten notes tend to be more impactful.
• If you’re not going to attend a class email the professor about that and your reason. If the reason seems trite reconsider whether you should miss the class (i.e., none of us get really good at anything unless we consistently do it when we don’t feel like it).
• Speak the truth, as exclusively and as kindly as possible. If the academic enterprise is anything, it is the pursuit of truth (not the same as using “the truth” as a club to hurt or to control others). Lying, even if used to provide comfort, is a seductive coping strategy: the more you use it, the more you will be tempted to use it. And, the more you use it, the more you risk becoming known as someone who can’t be believed.
• Ask for favors face-to-face, and preferably outside of class (i.e., the professor may be distracted by competing demands in class). Requesting a favor through an email risks creating the (perhaps unfair) impression that you are shy or unmotivated.
• Avoid sending emails that solicit a lot of typing in response.
•If you’re writing about some way the professor can improve on a course evaluation, do so in a way that is kind and respectful, even if the professor did not treat you that way. This makes it much more likely that your message will carry weight and make a difference.
Keep in mind that most of we faculty recognize and appreciate that you are an adult. So, we won’t harp on you like (many) parents and high school teachers. We will let you be independent. This can create an impression that we don’t care about the points I’ve raised above. Not true. We care and form our opinion about you based on such things. So, when you come to us for letters of recommendation, or for requests to mentor a project, or to become involved in what we are doing, how you’ve performed on such accounts will usually impact the response you receive.
I’ll close with two thoughts. First, I realize that you are likely to encounter faculty who violate principles in this letter (e.g., they dial it in, are rude). However, interactions with such faculty afford you the opportunity to demonstrate (if only to yourself) that you can be a pro even when the other person is not. Second, I invite you to find at least one mentor while in college. To many faculty you are beautiful in your state of becoming. For this reason we enjoy, and find meaning in, mentoring. (I suspect that there would be a lot more mentoring going on were it not for WAIT.)
Good fortune to you during these precious and exciting years of opportunity, learning and growing. I hope you can get the most out of them in order to define and advance your vocational mission!