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Marcia Y. Cantarella, Ph.D Headshot

Choosing Your Professors and Keeping Those Ties

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Among the most important people who will influence your college life and, even life after, will be your professors. They will help you increase your grades if you know how to engage them. They may suggest you for scholarships or ask you to be part of their research, which looks great on resumes. They may write your references for graduate schools or even jobs. They may even, like many of my students, become friends for life.

The starting place is to choose them wisely. When thinking about what courses to take there are several things to consider. Clearly there will be some that are required either for graduation or your major. You will want to balance your time and not have too many classes in one day or you may know you will never make one at 8 a.m. But the next most important factor is choosing the right professors and then engaging with them.

If you are in your freshman year then absolutely talk to upperclassmen and even alumni. Find out who the most popular professors are. They may not always be those who give an easy A. They may be challenging but also really, really interesting, informative and fun. The professors with the highest evaluations (available on most campuses) are the ones you want. They often teach the courses that are hardest to get into because of their reputations. They are the ones that other students talk about enthusiastically. When you walk past their offices are students there? Are they accessible?

You also want to look at what their areas of expertise and interests are. Generally those will be on the college website along with a list of books or publications. Do their titles seem interesting to you? If so you have the basis for a relationship with that professor in a meeting of the minds. So even if it is not a professor that others would like you share a common passion or interest. A student I know is a map-geek and his favorite professor is too. Not everyone would love this guy but another map-geek. That is also one reason to not trust sites like ratemyprofessor.com. You don't know if ratings are based on bad chemistry or a bad grade. The professor you like may not suit someone else.

Then you want to build a rapport and assure that you are in their good graces. I was with a group of students recently talking about how they connected with their professors. One student with a GPA of 3.9 said he owed every A he earned to the conversations he had with his professors. His story runs counter to what most students do, but he has the grades to prove his point. He knew how to get his professors on his side.

Students become intimidated by professors and assume that asking questions of them will have one of two outcomes: The questions will prove to the professor that the student is a dummy. Or the questions will bother this supremely busy person. Neither sounds like a good idea and so students avoid questions and contact at all cost -- unless they are desperate.

But the reality for professors is that faculty's work begins with asking questions. They have things they want to know about their subject areas and so they live in inquiry mode. Asking questions is the best way to engage with them. You usually get way more than what you asked for. Students going to ask about a paper topic may walk away with more than one text on the subject and lots of ideas for a plan. Generally, professors want to help students improve and will spend time explaining things. They want to have you know what they know. By picking them wisely you will have a better chance to find those professors who are passionate about sharing what they know with interested and engaged students.

Follow directions for meeting or talking to your professors. They set up office hours for a reason. They have other things they have to do or places they need to be. Respect their time and respect them. They are not your best buds and should be addressed by the title Dr. or Professor unless they tell you otherwise.

Courteously go to them with questions about something you did not understand in class or ideas you have to further a conversation. Go when you want to get ideas for writing that big paper that will be 40 percent of your grade. Go to ask how to do better on the next test or quiz. Go when you are not sure of how to study properly for this class.

Your professors will be part of the growing network of people who will help you on your life path and goal to a career. Choosing them well and building strong ties can make all the difference in your college experience. A great many years later my college classmates and I still talk about the really special professors who both graced and changed our lives.

By Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD, Author, I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide. For more on Dr. Cantarella go to www.collegecountdown.com