In college, especially at a big school with lots of students, it can be easy to get lost in the mix. Large, introductory classes may be taught mainly by graduate students instead of professors, meaning that you won’t get the one-on-one contact with a professor that comes with upper-level classes or attending a smaller school. While this isn’t a problem in and of itself, it may become a problem if you never take the time to introduce yourself to your professors, attend office hours, and enroll in advanced classes with low student-to-teacher ratios.
While you may not realize the importance of getting to know your professors right now, you’re eventually going to need recommendations for graduate school (including medical and law school) or your career. Take steps to secure your future while you are able to spend time with your professors instead of scrambling to find recommenders at the last minute when you’re in the middle of an application. For a job in a field related to your degree, a glowing letter from a professor who has connections in the field could make the difference in you getting hired! If you are planning to go to graduate school instead, letters of recommendation (typically two or three) are almost universally part of the application process.
So, how do you make sure you stand out to your professors?
Introduce yourself to your professors early. Although it might be easier to fly under the radar, do just what you need to pass, and lay low in your classes, that strategy will ultimately set you back if you need letters of recommendation later on. For elective classes, it may not be as big of a deal, but once you begin courses in your major, you should make sure that your professors know who you are. Introduce yourself to them within the first few classes, then continue to build on that throughout the semester.
There’s no “right” way to do the first introduction, and it’s almost guaranteed to be a little awkward. I usually planned mine for the end of the second or third class, and they went something like “Hi, I just wanted to introduce myself. I’m Hannah, and I’m a junior and psych major. I’m really looking forward to your class this semester!” Some professors would ask a question or two, some would just nod and move on, but the good news is that it (usually) gets easier with time! After the initial introduction, professors can put a face to your name.
Go to office hours. Professors have certain times that they teach and a certain number of hours per week that they have to be in their office and available to meet with students. Find their office location and scheduled office hours on your school’s faculty page or on the class syllabus. Drop in to talk to them a couple of weeks before the first test or before the first paper is due. This allows you to ask questions and clarify things before your first big graded assignment. As the semester goes on, continue to stop in occasionally with questions and to clarify material. This one-on-one experience gives your professors a chance to get to know you.
Volunteer for research projects. Some undergraduate programs require that students participate in research to graduate (often honors colleges or other selective programs). But even if it’s not required, it’s great experience! Working directly with a professor allows them to get to know you better and gives you experience that puts you ahead of many of your peers. You’ll learn about subjects that may not be covered in class, and you can use your experience to help determine your future career path. (Did you love it? Did you hate it? Do you want to do something related? Would you rather work with people?) Plus, if you need a reference for graduate school or a job later, they will be able to give a lot of detail.
Take a few classes with the same professor(s). Once you get into your major courses, the number of professors teaching your courses will get increasingly smaller. You’ll probably find that there are one or two whom you like the best; if possible, try to take as many of the courses they teach as you can. Having interacted with you across multiple semesters (and maybe even years), they’ll get to know your academic strengths. They’ll be a strong source to vouch for you later on!
Connect with your advisor. Most (if not all) programs pair you with an advisor once you declare a major. Your advisor is usually a professor within your department and will work with you until graduation. Advisors can help you choose classes, plan your schedule, and explore your options after graduation. Make sure that you talk with them regularly (at least once a semester, but ideally more) so that they can get to know you and write you a detailed letter of recommendation in the future. Also note that if you’ve already had experience with a professor that you like (e.g., having taken an introductory class in your department before declaring your major), you can usually request that they be assigned as your advisor!
Try to get a job within the department. Some departments may have work-study positions available for students, while others have part-time positions as a department aide or teacher’s assistant available for a few hours per week (and not reserved for students receiving work-study in their financial aid package). Either way, working for the department means that you’ll spend more time in and around the building! Becoming a familiar face gives you even more opportunities to interact with your professors and advisor. Also, they’ll have more experience with you to talk about in future recommendations!
Spend time in the department. Typically, along with professor’s offices, a department’s building will also have labs and a working space. If you’re studying or working on a project with other students within your major, suggest meeting at the department’s building instead of the library. The more time you spend within the department, the more familiarity you build with everyone there. As an added bonus, you may even be able to use the department’s printer for free!
Go to departmental events. A few times per semester, departments will host talks, movies, or other events related to their classes. Although it’s probably not going to be the highlight of your college social life, events aren’t typically longer than an hour or two, and sometimes there are free snacks. By making time to go, you’ll show the professors in the department that you are passionate about the subject and want to learn more. Not only do these events create more one-on-one opportunities for professors to get to know you, but they also allow you to network with people in related fields who attend.
Your future is in your control. Good luck!