With the single-minded intensity of a laser, you hold your breath as the second hand of the clock traces its agonizingly steady path towards freedom. And eventually, blissfully, your patience is rewarded—the last class of the day is finally over! After an exhausting day at school, the only thing you want to do is dump your backpack on the ground, kick off those shoes, and squirrel away for a nap. But before you book it for your bed, take a moment to consider—have you gone to Office Hours yet?
"Office Hours" refers to select times that teachers (normally at the college level) reserve every week to meet with any of their students. Most will have some sort of sign-up sheet that you can use to reserve a slot of time. These Office Hours are meant to facilitate personal connections between busy professors and busy students. If you want to get help on homework, grow your network, or simply get to know your teachers, you should make going to Office Hours a priority. But this resource can go vastly underused—the thought of seeking out an instructor to talk about academics one-on-one is pretty intimidating. High school teachers who offer Office Hours might have waves of students cycling in and out of their room every day. Other teachers don't explicitly leave time to meet with their students at all!
At schools like Harvard, where more often than not your professor has casually written your textbook or revolutionized the major you’re trying to earn, the task grows more daunting. How do you “hit up” a Nobel Peace Prize laureate or “drop in” on someone tapped to run the Treasury of the US?
Never fear! I have compiled a list of strategies and tips for approaching your teachers. Follow our advice and get into the habit of seeking out these adults so that you can be a pro by the time you get to college!
Reach out to your teacher first and ask them if they will be available to meet with you after a certain class or during a free period. Don’t get stumped by this first step--many teachers are in this position because they love working with students. When sending your email, briefly mention how passionate you are about the course to garner a more positive response! Pro tip: schedule a meeting during the first week of classes to introduce yourself and make a good impression. You can follow up with a few more Office Hours every few weeks, but definitely meet them again towards the end of the semester in preparation for final exams.
Make a note of your Office Hours slot in your calendar. You definitely don’t want to be late—or miss it completely!—after reserving time out of your teacher's hectic schedule. In fact, go ahead and make sure you have enough time to arrive a couple minutes early for the meeting. Bring whatever materials or assignments you want to ask questions about, as well as a list of the topics you want to broach during the meeting.
Know your content
If you’re nervous about running out of things to talk about, you can arm yourself with these conversation points.
- Your story. Who are you, where are you from, and what are your passions or hobbies that relate to this course? Make sure to coherently explain what made you enroll in the specific class, or how this class could help advance your long-term plans upon graduation
- Your teacher’s story. Who are they? Ask them about their interest in the field or specific research topics. Why did they decide to teach this class? Everyone loves talking about themselves, so spur them on by asking questions about how they came to teach at your school, what they studied as students themselves, etc.
- Classwork. Of course, any specific questions you have about the syllabus, readings, or assignments should be brought up promptly. If nothing else comes to mind, ask them for feedback as you air out your initial thoughts for a final paper/project!
Now that you can initiate, stay organized, and dig into a reserve of conversation starters, go ahead and practice!
Like anything, going to Office Hours is a skill that you can improve upon with diligent, purposeful application. If you're in high school, start dropping by your teacher's room after school or lingering after class to ask questions. At the college level, you can practice on the course assistant, known at Harvard as a “CA” or "TF," or other members of the instructional team first. Get comfortable with the rhythm of office hours and then work your way up to meeting those world-renowned professors!
Still unused to the idea of meeting your teachers for academic advice? Find other reliable mentors for your studies through our Harvard Tutors! Or practice seeking out help by working with Harvard students who have gone through this process and can refine your networking and interviewing skills.