How to Manage Your Time in College (Part Two)

College Advice

Make a Schedule

In Part One, we discussed how you are the master of your own time.  You have the power to decide which activities and events  you will participate in and which you are not.  So when you begin to schedule your time, you have to prioritize your activities.  Since you are in school,  your priority is your education.  You may also have family or work obligations.  After that, you should schedule a reasonable amount of time to hang out with your friends, join extra-curriculars, etc.  Making connections with others and finding time to relax are important.  However, you want to make sure that your fun activities continue to be fun rather than exhausting. 

So open a calendar or a planner.  Mark down each day the times you have to be in class, the time you have to spend commuting, and the time you have to spend studying.  Pencil in any family, work, religious, or other truly non-negotiable commitments.  (Athletics may count if you are attending school on an athletic scholarship.)  Also make sure you mark time for sleeping, eating, exercising, grooming, and other important self-care.  Now look at the time you have left.  That is time you have for extra-curricular activities and socializing.  You may find you no longer have room for five clubs as well as video game night.  That is perfectly normal.  Choose the activities you are most invested in, pencil them in, and let the rest go.  No one has unlimited time.  It is okay and even necessary to say “no” at times.  Enjoy what you can reasonably commit to rather than feeling stressed out about “having” to do it all.

Prepare for Major Assignments

Your schedule will not be consistent from week to week.  You want to plan your time in regard to when major assignments are due.  If you have a major writing assignment one week, you may need to account for that by adding in some extra writing time or some time to see a tutor.  If you have a group project, you may need to pencil in extra hours to meet with your group.  This is okay.  However, keep in mind that the most successful students do not cram the night before a test but rather study consistently.  That is, ideally you are not going to pencil in an all-nighter before a major assignment is due because you will have been reviewing the class material every day leading up to that assignment.  This strategy should help remove some of your stress as it spaces your workload over a longer period of time to make it more manageable.  Then you can relax and get a good night’s sleep before your big test.

Turn the Electronics Off

Now that you have scheduled your study time, you need to  study.  You want to be proactive about this by closing Internet tabs not related to your work, turning off the TV, and choosing music that you do not find distracting.  Though it is tempting to try to do it all, scientists have demonstrated that people cannot really multitask.  They actually just switch quickly between tasks.  This means that every time you look up at your TV show, or listen to the lyrics of that song, or go to social media, you are probably not doing your homework, even if the book is open in front of you.  You can shorten your study time by focusing solely on the task at hand, then returning to your other activities once you have finished your work.  You may even find you have more time for fun now that you are studying more efficiently!

Some people find that they don’t have the willpower to unplug.  You may have to be creative.  Turn off your cell phone or at least your notifications.  Join a study session to shame yourself into keeping your work on your computer screen instead of your social media.  Find a study partner who will hold you accountable.  Do what you need to do.  Your strategies may be different from someone else’s, but that is okay as long as they are working.

Prioritize Your Tasks

Once you begin studying, you should begin with the assignments that are the most difficult and that will take up most of your time.  You want to leave the “busy work” type of work until last, when you are tired and less focused.  Difficult work may include writing assignments, complex math or science problems, or anything that requires critical thinking and creativity.  The work you save for the end should be things you can answer relatively easily–short personal responses to a piece of literature, answering a few questions about the content you read, etc.

Seek Help When Necessary

Some colleges have tutors or coaches available to help students learn how to navigate college.  They may be able to help you set goals, make schedules, read your textbooks, keep notes, and so forth.  Take advantage of them!  And do it sooner rather than later.  You don’t need to wait until you are struggling or even failing to seek help.  Tutors are there for everyone, even if they are trying to go from a “C” to a “B” or a “B” to an “A.”  They are a great resource as they can help you on a personal level since your needs and goals may be different from someone else’s.


How To Manage Your Time in College (Part One)

College Advice


College students often feel stressed that there is not enough time in the day to do everything they want to do–attend class, study, do extra-curriculars, and hang out with friends.  However, studies routinely show that college students do not, in fact, spend as much time studying as one might think.  In 2014, the average student studied 17 hours a week.  The 2016 National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) results indicated that the mean class prep time for first-year students was 13.8 hoursAssuming that the average student spends 15 hours in class, this means that the average first-year student in 2016 spent about 28.8 hours engaged in studying and that the average college student in 2014 spent 32 hours studying.  Though college students are undeniably busy, the math indicates that they are studying less than the 40 hours a week the average person is expected to work.  When we consider that the traditional college student typically does not have a family to care for or other “adult” responsibilities, they should, in theory, have more time than the average adult.

So where is the time going?  Why do students feel so terribly busy?  The answer tends to be two-fold.  First of all, many students mistake optional activities for mandatory activities.  They believe they have to do participate in several athletics and extra-curriculars, that they have to attend every sorority or fraternity event and party, and that they have to participate in college-wide festivities or fundraisers.  Second of all, many students (especially the ones transitioning into college) are using ineffective study strategies and thus overestimate the time they are actually preparing for class. 

You are the Master of Your Own Time

I wish I could say that the solution for stressed college students is easy: time management.  However, time management tends to be difficult for people because it requires us to take responsibility for our own time.  That is, instead of feeling like the clock dictates our lives and that we have to engage in every activity we are invited to, we have to recognize that we have the power to say yes or no.  College students, in my experience, are hesitant to say no because they ascribe equal weight to everything in their schedule.  They often prefer to walk into class with their work undone because it was, frankly, more fun to go that fundraiser that had them dancing past midnight or that sorority party that was “mandatory.”  And they truly believe that their instructors will understand that they had to go to these things.

Instructors, however, do not tend to be sympathetic while listening to these types of stories because they understand full well that an individual controls his or her own time.  When a student walks into class and says, “I didn’t do the work because I was with my fraternity,” the instructor hears, “I value socializing more than I value your class or my own education.”   Any student who is not willing to let go of their defensiveness long enough to recognize this truth is not likely to be successful at time management.

Recognizing the Need for Change

In the same vein, students who feel defensive about the way they study are also less likely to be successful in changing their time management and thus less likely to achieve the grades they desire.  Students can become very vocal about why their study strategies work and why they need to listen to music or watch TV or work in a group to study.  However, the reality is, if they are not achieving the grades they want, if they are reading in front of the TV for five hours only to discover that they have only read a few pages, the strategies are not working.  This is natural.  College courses often require students to learn how to learn in new ways.  But students, perhaps surprisingly, can be very resistant to trying out new strategies.  They would, as a point of pride, prefer to study ineffectively for a longer amount of time rather than effectively for a shorter amount.

In our next post, we will discuss specific strategies that you can try in order to manage and maximize your time.  Some of them may work for you and some may not.  However, being open to changing is the first step to success.

How to Use Tutoring in College

College AdviceTutoring Isn’t Just for Failing Students

Often we associate tutoring as something failing students do in order to scrape by with a pass.  Tutoring, however, is not only for students who are not passing, nor is it advisable to wait for help until you are failing.  Rather, it is beneficial to start taking advantage of tutoring if you are getting “C’s” but want to do better or even if you are earning “B’s” but are hopeful for an “A.”  Waiting until you are failing often means it is too late for you to turn yourself around in a meaningful way; a tutor cannot cover a month or three months of the semester in a one-hour session.  However, if you start early, you can change your course before you get into trouble.  If your college offers free tutoring, you should take advantage of it, even if you do not think you need it.

Tutoring Can Surprise You

It is a truth universally acknowledged that students are not very good about knowing what they do not know.  This is why even students who are accustomed to earning “A’s” sometimes find themselves confused when they start to struggle.  Going to tutoring even when you think you do not need it can reveal knowledge and strategies you did not realize you could use to make your work even stronger.  For instance, maybe you are really, really good at writing a five-paragraph essay–but a writing tutor can explain why you will never earn higher than a “B” in college writing this way.  Or maybe you always were good at math until you got to Professor X’s class.  A tutor may suggest study strategies that will work more effectively for you in a new situation.  Going to tutoring at least once is a worthwhile use of your time.

Preparing for Your Tutoring Sessions

If you are filling out a form online for tutoring, you want to provide: the class, the type of assignment you need help with, and the specific concerns you have.  It is very important that you explain as specifically as possible what kind of help you need.  If you are seeing a math tutor, saying you need help with “math problems” does not give them enough information to prepare their tutoring session with you.  Explain what types of problems, what types of format (worksheet, paper, online assignment, etc.), and what specifically you do not understand.  Likewise, do not tell a writing tutor that you need help with “a paper.”  They already know you’re writing a paper (probably) because they are, after all, a writing tutor.  They need to know if you’ll be brainstorming together, working on an outline, or reviewing a finished draft for structure or for integration of sources or for something else.  They also need to know what genre you are working with: a summary, a literary analysis, a creative fiction piece, etc.  That way they know what materials to have ready and what kinds of strategies to employ.

Why You Should Never Arrive Excessively Early

You may have heard that you should arrive 10-15 minutes early for an appointment.  This makes sense if you are going somewhere like a doctor’s office where there is a reception area for you to wait while you fill out papers.  However, if you are going to tutoring, arriving fifteen minutes early to a half hour session does not make as much sense.  Consider the following scenarios:

  • Your tutor is already working with someone else.  You are going to have to wait 15 minutes for your turn.
  • Your tutor is actually on break.  They are not allowed to tutor you outside their working hours.  You are going to have to wait.
  • Your tutor does not begin work until 9:00.  You showed up at 8:45.  You are going to have to wait.
  • Your tutor did happen to finish up their previous session early, but now they are filling out paperwork and scanning your files to prepare for your session.  You are going to have to wait.

In almost any scenario in which you show up fifteen minutes early, you are going to have to wait.  Many students show up early because they are hoping to get a 45-minute tutoring session instead of a 30-minute session, or an hour and fifteen minutes instead of an hour.  However, this is not how tutoring works.  If you make an agreement with someone that you will show up at a specific time and will stay a specific length of time, you should honor that agreement.  Doing otherwise is suggesting to your tutor that you believe that your time is more important than theirs.  This is not how you want to start off your relationship with your tutor!

At the Session

Always arrive with your assignment and any rubric in hand.  Your tutor will not be as effective if they do not understand exactly what your instructor is looking for.  Some instructors may be assigning summary papers and some may be assigning analytical papers.  Some instructors may want you to reference specific sources or want you to answer specific questions.  Your tutor can’t help you fulfill the assignment if they do not know what the assignment is.

Also be prepared to work actively.  An effective tutor guides students to find the answers themselves.  They may ask you to write sample theses or to find and correct your patterns of error.  They may give you similar problems to work on.  They are not going to proofread your paper for you or do the math problem while you watch.  (Indeed, many writing tutors do not work with grammar at all because they do not want to be used as proofreaders, so check your tutor’s policies beforehand.)

Before you leave, take notes about what you learned and what next steps you will take.

After the Session

Be prepared to follow through with what you learned.  If your tutor gave you strategies to use, find ways to put them into practice.  If they gave you three steps to do while you continue to revise your work, do the steps.  Then, make a follow up appointment.  Tutoring works best when it’s a consistent effort.

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.

The Worst Writing Advice People Received in High School

College Advice
For several semesters I taught a college first-year composition (FYC) course, where the students were required to write a variety of assignments focused on their own literary development.  Write about someone who influenced your writing/reading/language development, for instance. Or write about a problem you encountered with your literary development.  As a result, I’ve seen a lot of student perspectives on what makes a good or bad literary education.  Here are some of the worst things my students’ high school English teachers told them about writing.

Facts Don’t Matter

I am 95% certain this advice is meant primarily for standardized tests like the writing section of the SAT.  I assume the teachers meant to convey something like, “If you want to write about the American Civil War to make a point, don’t agonize over remembering exactly how many people died at Gettysburg. Estimate the number and move on because the test is timed, and you’re not being graded on your knowledge of history.”  Due to the way most standardized tests are graded, I can’t say this is wrong.  However, many high schools teachers were very unclear that they meant this only as a standardized test taking tip, and that it is not actually a good approach to writing or argumentation in general.  A surprising number of my first year college students were convinced that the content of their essays did not matter and that there was no need to be factually accurate, as long as their prose and overall structure were good.  Honestly, I wish high school teachers would skip the “facts don’t matter” line completely.  The harm it does to some students’ writing in the long-term isn’t worth the potential minor SAT score bump.

There Is No Writing Formula

On the surface, this is actually great advice: it’s true there is no single correct way to write a “good” essay.  Unfortunately, a number of high school teachers apparently took this as a cop out to say, “I can’t explain to you why you received the grade you did. There’s nothing particular you can do to get an ‘A.'”  Perhaps there is no exact way that every single person in the class can get an ‘A,’ but surely there is something each particular student can work on to improve his or her own writing.  There’s no formula, but last time I checked, individualized feedback certainly existed.  Acting hand-wavy and implying writing is a mystical art does a huge disservice to students, when generally there are concrete steps they can take to at least get closer to an ‘A.’  Good writing is not an inherited talent; it’s something students can learn from teachers who actually want to teach them.

There Is a Formula: The Five-Paragraph Essay

Five-paragraph essays are the bane of college instructors’ existence.  I admit I see something to teaching students this as a basic structure (though I should acknowledge many professors don’t like it even as a baby step).  Having an introduction, at least three points to support your argument, and a conclusion are all good things in an essay.  However, some high school teachers teach this form as a rigid fill-in-the blank exercise.  Every essay looks the same.  Nothing can deviate.  I got a number of college first years (and even upper division literature students) who were very, very good at five-paragraph essays.  But these students were often the hardest to teach because they struggled to unlearn this one form.  The structure is limiting and often doesn’t fit the type of complex arguments one should be learning to make in college.  Writing a solid five-paragraph essay certainly is better than writing something completely unformed and confusing, but it keeps a lot of students capped at B+ grades at the college level.

Grammar Is Worth Nothing/Everything

The problem with grammar is that everyone thinks it was someone else’s job to teach it.  High school teachers think students ought to have mastered it in middle school.  College instructors think students ought to have mastered it in high school.  No one wants to teach it because they have other material they’re supposed to be teaching .  However, failing to review grammar in high school does a disservice to students who didn’t fully cover it previously or don’t fully understand it.  Poor grammar will negatively affect them in all sorts of places, from standardized tests to college personal statements to actual college classes.  And, yes, most college instructors won’t cover it because it is distinctly not college-level material.  At this point, professors might just say “Go review commas” and expect a confused student to handle it on his or her own.

Alternatively, some high school teachers seem to value grammar far too much.  Every single mistake is circled or underlined in red.  Or one mistake means you automatically lose ten points on the paper.  This tactic might scare students into learning grammar, but it can be paralyzing.  Students might not experiment with new styles and sentence structures because they don’t want to mess them up.  Additionally, it keeps students focused on minor issues and not global issues like whether their argument is logical and their supporting points are the right order.  Grammar should be reviewed in high school, but it shouldn’t be the focus of composition education.

Did you ever receive horrible writing advice from a teacher? What was it?


How to Communicate with Your Instructor Without Being Accidentally Offensive

College Advice


Communicating with instructors can be a challenge for colleges students, even seniors.  Below we break down some of the common mistakes students make when emailing, and how they can be avoided.

YOu ARe Explaining Why You will MIss All or Part of Class.

Scenario One: The Other COMMITMENT

You write: I scheduled an interview over it.  I double booked myself and have an internship that overlaps with your class.

Your instructor hears: I don’t value your class. I value these other things more.

The solution: You already know you are not free during specific times during the week.  Don’t schedule other commitments over them.

SCENARIO Two: THE “Mandatory” Event

You write: I have a mandatory club event.  I have a mandatory meeting for another class.

Your instructor hears: I don’t value your class. I value these other things more.

The solution: Most club events are not mandatory.  If your sorority or fraternity is requiring you to miss class to stay a member, they are wrong and you should bring this matter to the attention of your school.  Your education comes first.  You go to class before you go to extra-curriculars.  And if another instructor schedules another meeting over your class, the correct course of action is to inform them that you are already in class at that time and need to reschedule.  Almost no instructor will say no.  If they do, tell your other instructor, who will likely write an email asking why someone else is telling their students not to attend class.

Scenario Three: Illness

You write: I am sick.  I have the flu and strep and constant vomiting and diarrhea.  I can barely get out of bed and the amount of bodily fluids I am expelling is astounding, I tell you!  Astounding!

Your instructor hears: You trying too hard.  You don’t have to convince them that you are really sick and they don’t want to know the gory details.  (Privacy laws in the U.S. mean they cannot even ask.)

The solution: Bring a doctor’s note if you need your absences to be excused.  If not, just take they day off and try to recover.  You can email your instructor that you are ill and would like to know what you missed in class, but you aren’t required to provide any more information than that.  They don’t need to be convinced of your physical inability to get out of bed.  They want you to rest and to get better–and to keep the flu to yourself instead of spreading it throughout the class.

Scenario Four: You Have Reasons

You write: It’s my birthday.  I want to go on a date.  The bus arrives late so I will be late every day for class.

Your instructor hears: I don’t value your class and I am not even trying.

The solution: If you have free absences, take them and don’t explain it’s because you’re blowing off class for fun.  If you know the bus arrives too late for you to get to class, take a different bus and arrive earlier on campus.  You knew your schedule for months.  You were expected to work out a valid timeline to make sure you arrived on time for all your classes–and stayed there for the duration.  School is a professional environment.  If you wouldn’t show up ten minutes late to work every day, don’t arrive ten minutes late to class every day.

You Want to Schedule a Meeting.

Scenario One: You need a meeting Right now.

You write: Can I meet with you in 20 minutes?  I’ll be there in five minutes.  Can you come in to campus just for  me?  What about Saturday?  Are you free?

Your instructor hears: You not realizing that they are not always on their email waiting for meeting requests.  You  not realizing they have other commitments and might not be able to squeeze you in last minute.  You not realizing they have a personal life, too, and maybe a family.

The solution: Plan your meetings ahead of time.  Attend office hours if possible.  If not, give your instructor a few days’ notice about wanting to meet at different times.  That way they know to clear their schedule for you.  The nicest instructor in the world is not going to be able to meet in five minutes if they live an hour away or at weird times if they don’t have a babysitter for their children.

Scenario Two: You Need Lots of Help

You write: Can we meet from 1:00-2:00?  Can we meet Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday this week?

Your instructor hears: You not realizing they have other commitments and other students.

The solution: Ask for a 20-minute meeting.  Don’t ask the instructor to keep adding office hours several times  a week to accommodate only you.  Give them time to meet with and help their other students.  If you have other resources such as a TA, classmate, tutor, or Writing Center, use those options, too, so you can allow other classmates access to the instructor.  If the instructor offers additional help, that’s different and you may accept their very generous offer.  Remember they don’t typically get paid for mentoring/tutoring and they don’t typically receive professional acknowledgment or advancement for it, either.

You Need Details About the Assignment

Scenario One: You Don’t KNow what the Work Should Look Like

You write: When is the assignment due?  How many words should it be?  Did you want it in MLA or APA?

The instructor hears: You didn’t read the assignment prompt or the syllabus and you weren’t paying attention in class.

The solution: Read the syllabus and the assignment prompt.  Email a classmate with your question. Then email the instructor as a last resort if you still can’t find the answer.  One of the most important things you can learn in a professional environment is always to initially assume that YOU made the mistake, instead of someone else.  That way, you won’t accidentally write an email saying that the instructor didn’t do what they were supposed to, when in fact they did.

Scenario Two: You Are Struggling with the Work

You write: I am having trouble with the assignment so can I not do it at all/provide a shorter essay than my peers/ forget the research?

Your instructor hears: I do not like hard work and so I give up.

The solution: Frame your email as a question.  As in, “I am having trouble finding research for X reasons.  How can I change my methods so I can complete the assignment?” Or, “I am having trouble meeting the word count.  Do you have any strategies I can try to add content to my paper?”  Present yourself as trying to find a solution rather than trying to get out of the work. Again, school is a professional environment.  If you wouldn’t tell your boss you don’t feel like completing an assignment, don’t tell your instructor that, either.

You are Trying to Use Your Rhetoric Effectively in Your Email.

Scenario One: It’s urgent.

You write: URGENT in the subject line of the email.

Your instructor hears: You being overly dramatic about the assignment–it’s actually not urgent for you to know if assignment 2 is due in one week or two.  “Urgent” implies some sort of personal emergency.

The solution: Just title your email what it’s about.  Don’t add adjectives.

Scenario Two: You Need an Answer Now

You write: Please respond ASAP.  I hope to hear from you soon/promptly/quickly.

Your instructor hears: You being rude and demanding about how and when they should respond.

The solution: Sign off with a polite thank you or a wish for a good day/weekend/whatever.  Your instructor will answer your email when they have time.  They are busy with professional and personal commitments, too.  If they don’t answer after a few days, it is then appropriate to send a polite reminder email.  However, most instructors understand that professional email etiquette requires a response the same day or the next, so in most cases you won’t be waiting long.

Scenario Three: You Know You Asked for Something that Goes Against Course Policy

You write: Thanks for being understanding.

The instructor hears: You trying to convince them that they are a warm-hearted individual who will bend the rules for you because you were very polite about it and told them how to respond emotionally.

The solution: Don’t try to ask for special exemptions.  If you have an emergency or personal crisis, that’s one thing and almost all instructors will work with you to make sure you complete the work.  If you are trying to get out of the attendance policy because you just prefer to do other things that day, it’s best not to bother.  Your instructor fields these requests all the time and, unfortunately, your desire to get a Shamrock Shake on the last possible day it’s available isn’t likely to melt their heart with understanding.  In fact, in that case, you should, if you must, quietly take one of your free absences and let your instructor assume it was a mental health day/for an illness/something else.


I write these examples somewhat playfully.  However, it is true that many students do not quite realize how they may be coming across when they write.  So just keep some key concepts in mind.  Be polite.  Don’t expect your instructor to treat you as the special exemption–all their students are busy and struggling but they have to be fair and try apply the same rules to all.  And remember that your instructor is only human and has other commitments.  It’s that simple.

One final note:  College is hard.  Instructors really do understand that and sympathize!  Hence why many give out free absences or don’t require documentation for absences.  If you really need a day off for some reason and don’t want to tell them why because it’s personal or embarrassing or you just don’t feel comfortable talking to that particular instructor, you can!  A helpful hint, though: It is hard for instructors to work with you if they don’t know that you have an ongoing issue.  In this case, one or two absences may not be enough.  You may need repeated extensions because you are secretly pregnant, are struggling with a mental health issue, or just feel sad because of a family or personal situation.  Even if you are just feeling blue because you had a fight with your best friend, you might want to bring this up and see what your instructor can do to help.

How To Use Office Hours in College

College Advice

In college, instructors schedule office hours each week to meet with students about any questions or concerns they have about the course.  These hours are generally listed on the syllabus or on the instructor’s office door.  You do not have have to schedule a meeting in advance if you plan to attend office hours, though during busy times of the semester you may find it useful to claim a time slot.  You should do this by emailing in advance.

Some instructors also have an “open door” policy, which means that if you walk by and their door is open, you can ask to meet with them.  You should do this mostly if you have a quick question since they are probably busy doing their own work and would prefer to schedule in any long interruptions.  If you walk by outside normal office hours and their door is closed, you should not knock, even if you can hear them typing inside.

Also be sensitive to the fact that not all instructors, especially TA’s, have an open door policy.  If you show up to your TA’s office on Monday when their office hours are on Thursday, they are probably busy working on preparing for the class they teach or for the classes they are taking.   The door may be open, but it’s possible this is because their office mates are holding office hours.  If you want to meet outside office hours, your best option is to email in advance requesting a meeting

Emailing Your Instructor to Request a Meeting

Your email to your instructor should include:

  • a relevant subject line that also includes the course title
  • a professional greeting (“Dear X” or “Hi X”)
  • the reason you would like to meet (question about grade, go over the feedback on a paper, etc.)
  • suggested meeting times
  • a formal sign-off that includes your name.

You should expect to meet for about 20 minutes, so don’t ask for a 45-minute meeting or an hour meeting.  This ensures that your instructor has time available to meet with other students as well.

At the Meeting

You should arrive prepared with specific questions.  If you have concerns about your grade, bring the graded assignment.  If you want help with an essay you are writing, bring the essay.  Be prepared to ask specific questions about your concern.  You may, for instance, come with a thesis statement and ask if it specific and complex.  Or you can explain the structure of your essay and ask questions about it.  Your instructor will likely not (re)read the entire paper, so you want to maximize your time by getting to the relevant points.  You should be focusing on global issues rather than minor ones such as grammar usage or if that one sentence makes sense on page two.  Your instructor wants to guide you as you explore your topic, not make you feel like you need approval for every sentence you write.

Other Office Etiquette

Leave the door open when  you attend office hours.  This protects both the instructor and you.  If you are discussing a sensitive topic such as your grade or your accommodations due to personal issues, your instructor may close the door slightly for more privacy but they will probably still leave it ajar.  If you walk into the room and close the door for them, they will most likely ask you to reopen it or get up to open it themselves.

If you arrive at office hours and see another student already talking to the instructor, or if you hear the instructor discussing a matter with a colleague, you may politely indicate to them that you are there, but you should then remove yourself to give the others privacy.  Your classmate doesn’t want you to hear about how they’re failing!  You can position yourself in a place where you can see when the other student has left if you so desire, but most likely the instructor will come find you when they are ready.

Krysta 64