09/26/2012 12:05 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2012

Hey Freshmen! This Is How to 'Win Friends and Influence' Professors

Aside from doing well in your classes, having good relationships with professors is one of the most important, yet often overlooked, aspects of a successful college experience. Many students don't realize that professors are often the gatekeepers to a multitude of opportunities in college, and even after college. Therefore, how to make a positive impression on professors is critically important.

Four Proactive Steps To Take

1. A positive impression cannot but help a student with the subjective part of a course grade. As one student said, "A friendly relationship is sometimes worth the difference between a C+ or B (or even an B or A) in a course. Add a great smile and a positive attitude and you're in cool territory."

2. Students frequently need recommendations from professors for certain selective campus activities and special programs, e.g., a study abroad or leadership experience, internship, research assistantship or honors programs. If you have made a good impression on a professor, he or she is more likely to write an effective recommendation or make a personal phone call on your behalf. If a professor thinks you're really special, he/she might hire you to be a TA or grader for an upcoming course.

3. College students also need excellent recommendations for graduate school and job applications. Effective recommendations entail people truly singing your praises. Having a professor who knows and likes you will make a big difference in what he or she says about you.

4. Many professors end up mentoring a handful of students they really like, often extending this to after they have graduated from college.

What are some good ways of making a good impression on professors?

One of the best ways of impressing a professor (and assuring yourself of doing well in a class) is to ace the first exam. There are a number of reasons why this is a good idea:

A. College courses are often like a pyramid, i.e., basic information is offered at the beginning and then other material builds upon that. If you learn the basics really well, then the rest of the class should fall into place.

B. By acing the first exam, you accomplish the following:

  • If you start out strongly, you are much more likely to do well in a class.
  • If you start out strongly, you will immediately distinguish yourself from your peers. By acing the first exam, the professor will have an immediate picture of you (or at least your name) as one of the class "stars."
  • And if for some reason you don't do as well on a subsequent exam, the professor is more likely to perceive this as a temporary lapse, rather than a permanent, negative measure of your ability.

C. Another way of making a good impression on a professor is to help him or her get to know who you are as a person. At the very first class, go up and introduce yourself. Sure, he or she might not remember your name, but at least your face will become familiar.

D. Early on, stop by the professor's office for open office hours. Before you do this, though, prepare yourself. Look up the professor in the online departmental listings to see what his or her research is on, what he/she has written and what her/his interests are. If your college offers teacher evaluations, check out what former students say about the professor. Before you arrive at the office, think about what you will say to the professor and write out some questions to ask. Let her or him know about particular interests you have in the different aspects of the course.

E. Finally, another way of making a good impression is to bring to a professor a problem you want help in solving, such as "I'm interested in (topic X), but I'm having difficulty finding recent, really good research. Or you might ask, "I'm fascinated by Y. Who do you consider to be the real authorities on this subject?" What are some of the best books?"

Stay tuned. Next week I'll write about how students make bad impressions on professors.

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