How to Make the Most of Office Hours for an Essay Draft

College Advice

Office hours are a great way to get to know your professor better and to get individualized feedback on your work. Here are some suggestions to get the most out of office hours if you want advice on improving an essay draft.

Come Prepared with Specific Questions

Many instructors agree that the single most unhelpful way a student can approach a meeting about an essay draft is to show up at office hours, hand over a paper, say “How do I make this better?” (or “Will this get me an ‘A?'”), and then stare  fixedly at the instructor.  Some instructors might actually take the paper and read it, ignoring the awkwardness of the student staring them down for ten minutes as they peruse and comment.  Many are going to simply hand the draft back and ask politely, “What specific areas do you want to talk about?  What specific questions do you have?”

Asking “How do I improve this paper?” is, obviously, rather vague.  It doesn’t give the instructor much to work with, and it does give the impression you don’t know much about your own writing, what your own strengths and weaknesses are.  The most helpful approach is to arrive to office hours with prepared questions and specific areas of the paper you want to look at together with your instructor.  You might ask questions, “Does my thesis seem argumentative enough?” or “Do you think I have enough evidence to support my point in the third paragraph?”  instead.  This tells your instructor what you’re trying to achieve with your writing and lets them help determine if it’s working the way you want.

Arriving with these questions written down is useful, as well. The last thing you want to do is sit down, then realize you had questions you wanted to ask, but now you can’t remember a single one.

Write Down Your Professor’s Advice

A surprising number of students do not take notes while meeting one-on-one with professors in office hours, and this can be a waste of good advice.  If the advice you receive is particularly general, then it may be easy enough to remember without notes.  However, if you don’t plan on revising the paper immediately, or if the professor says something that’s a bit complex, or if they drop something really specific like a great way to reword your thesis, you will want to have their suggestions written down.  Don’t assume you’ll be able to memorize everything said in the meeting.  Take detailed notes so you can revisit them later, and don’t be afraid to ask the instructor to repeat something you didn’t quite get jotted down the first time.

Remember that One Meeting Does Not Guarantee an ‘A’

Pedagogical studies for writing suggest that instructors give students about three areas to work on revising their writing at once: anymore that that, and a student can quickly become overwhelmed.  Chances are that when your instructor gives you feedback, he or she is going to mention the most pressing areas to fix–and not everything he or she thinks can be improved in your draft.  If the most pressing problem is particularly large (say, you really need a more focused topic and thesis), the instructor is not going to bother commenting on your transitions or conclusion paragraph at this time because, theoretically, you’ll be writing completely new transitions and a new conclusion to fit your revised topic anyway.  If you are very grade-focused, keep in mind that the professor is not mentioning every possible area of improvement in a single meeting, and that your best bet will be making the suggested revisions and coming back to office hours later with your new draft.  At that point the instructor might say, “Great. I love the new topic.  Now we can talk about the way you incorporate sources.”

Take the Advice Seriously

If a professor gives you advice in a one-on-one meeting, they are most likely going to remember they did so.  If you have the time (I know, everyone has lot of classes and commitments!), try to revise as thoroughly as possible.  If the instructor said, “I think you need to explain concept X more,” that may actually mean “You should write another paragraph addressing this or you should integrate it more thoroughly throughout the entire paper” and not “Add one sentence.”  And, unless you have a compelling reason for ignoring their advice, try to integrate as much of it as possible in your revisions.  If the professor said something like “This topic is too broad for the prompt” or “Your conclusion contradicts the rest of your argument,” he or she will notice if these things are not revised and may be left wondering why you didn’t change them after specifically being told that you should.


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