Professors are people. Potentially scary, grade-giving people, but people nonetheless. More often than not, they’re veritable founts of knowledge, full of incredible life experiences and advice. They know about the best courses to take, the best people to contact, and the best programs to look into. Sometimes, they’ll even throw a home-cooked meal into the mix — so for if no other reason than your ramen-filled stomach, it makes sense to befriend your professors.
Getting to know your teachers in college, however, is a bit harder than it was in high school. First off, your college professors won’t see you as often as your high school teachers did. It’s also likely that your class sizes will be much larger. But for the most part, like your high school teachers, your professors do want you to reach out to them, and they’re more than happy to help someone who is interested in their work.
As a general rule, you should aim to befriend one professor per semester. That way, by graduation, you’ll have eight potential mentors whom you could contact for guidance or a letter of recommendation.
A friendship with a professor starts the same way as any other friendship: with an introduction. Professors in smaller classes may take role or have their students introduce themselves, but if you’re a part of a bigger class, this responsibility will fall to you. If straight-up introducing yourself to your professor after class strikes you as smarmy, try to find some other pretext to make contact. (But also know that in a large lecture hall where half the students are either sleeping or absent, a little effort goes a long way.)
Once your professor can put a name to your face, it’s time to commence operation Good Student. Don’t use your phone, pay attention in class, and ask a question every once in a while. Then, on the way out each day, thank your professor. It’s a small gesture, but it lets the professor know you appreciate the class. (This is also just generally good behavior.)
Conquering office hours
Professors’ office hours are a lot like dental floss — everyone tells you to use them, but somehow no one does. But if you’re serious about getting to know a professor, attending office hours is one of the most effective steps you can take. Just do a little research and preparation beforehand to set up a good discussion.
Looking for ideas? The easiest way is to review an assignment or otherwise ask about the material you’re covering in class. It’s an excellent way to break the ice and establish a relationship with a professor. Ideally, however, you want to move beyond discussing your class. If you want to get to know your professor outside the classroom, ask your professor about things outside the classroom.
Here is where a little snooping comes in. Do a quick Google search for your professor and see what kind of research your professor is working on (or has worked on in the past). If the research strikes your interest, ask about it. In addition to prompting what will likely be an interesting conversation, asking about research will show a professor you’re motivated and interested in their subject. Establishing a mutual interest is an important step toward building a friendship.
Now that your professor knows your name and interests, you’re officially on your professor’s radar. If you see your professor around campus, say hi. And if your professor mentions extracurricular events during class, see if you can’t make one or two. Don’t go just to chat up the professor, but do go to show that you’re interested and motivated. And once you get a sense of the events your professor frequents, you’ll also know where to run into him after the semester ends.
Building a friendship with your professor over the course of a semester is only half the battle; the other half is maintaining your friendship when you no longer see each other in class. Here, the key is to keep in touch. If you see this professor around, make it a point to catch up every once in a while. If not, try to drop in during office hours to ask for an update on the professor’s research. Even the occasional email will do, especially if you’ve found some sort of news item that is relevant to your shared field. However you do it, just make sure to keep in touch
An unfortunate truth about higher education is that not all professors are dedicated to undergraduates. Some are more focused on their research, and others may simply not have the time to devote to mentoring undergrads. You’ll have a good sense of how receptive your professor is by the end of the first day of class (judging by your professor’s introduction and syllabus), but just keep that truth in mind.
Regardless, you’ll find that the majority of the professors are there to help you, and would welcome the opportunity to get to know you better. These professors can turn out to be mentors or career contacts, but the value of their friendship extends beyond letters of recommendation. In fact, your professors may turn out to be some of the most interesting people you will ever met. But first, however, you need to befriend them.