As students and their families organize themselves to visit college campuses, they usually focus on itineraries, on reserving hotel rooms, and on scheduling those campus tours. They may even try to land an admissions interview.
Sometimes students will also sit in on a class or two, in hopes of getting a feel for what the educational experience will be like. Only a few, however, consider direct contact with professors during the visit.
Why would a visit with a professor be important?
Explore majors. Many students are still trying to learn about different majors as part of the larger decision about what college to attend. What better way to learn about an unfamiliar major than to talk to an expert? A professor in the department can give a first-hand account of what one is supposed to learn in that department. Most professors are accustomed to “selling” their discipline to undergraduates, and most are willing to take the time to talk with a prospective student and to efficiently introduce them to the department. To give a concrete example of this, a student of mine was trying to decide whether she was more suited for a business and marketing degree, or whether she was more interested in psychology. She had taken some introductory courses in both in high school, and she liked both, but she didn’t quite understand what the difference would be in terms of the courses she would be required to take, the format of those courses, and the career implications of both disciplines. So when she recently toured three campuses, she talked to a two professors on each campus–one in marketing and one in psychology. Upon her return, she had developed a very clear idea that while she wanted to take a few more courses in psychology, she was absolutely sure that she would be a marketing major in college. This self-awareness came through well-organized discussions with experts. Not only will her applications be stronger for having made this effort, but she is more certain of her academic path in college.
Establish contact with someone who shares your academic passions. If a student has a particular interest in (for example) the history of the Cold War, and believes that he would like to focus on that period while pursuing a history major, it makes sense to learn more about the individuals in the history department who share that passion. And there is no better way to learn about that professor as a person than by sitting down in his office for a few minutes. By establishing rapport as an applicant, it will be easier to build on that rapport once you matriculate.
Gather information that will help on your application. Admissions officers all want to know why you have chosen to apply to their college. If you have taken the initiative to meet with a professor, and you can clearly articulate what makes a particular department stand out, or that you want to pursue advanced study with a particular professor (of Cold War history, for example), then you can make a strong case for why you are academically suited to this school. Meeting a professor demonstrates that you are doing your homework, that you are really considering the academic fit between your interests and college offerings.
If you decide to include a visit with a professor during your campus visits, here are some tips on contacting the professor and on making the meeting a success.
Identify the appropriate professor. For some purposes, you may want to start with the department chair. If you are hoping to talk to a specific person (because you share their academic interests), then go right to that faculty member. You can find full lists of faculty in every department on a college or university website. Make sure you find their bios, their teaching responsibilities, and perhaps even links to the courses they teach. Do your homework BEFORE you initiate contact. Remember: faculty members are teachers, and they like students who do their homework.
Start with an email. Explain briefly who you are, when you will be on campus, and why you want to meet with the professor. Address the professor formally, and respectfully (i.e., not, “hey, professor!”). Set the tone by demonstrating that you are serious. The note does not have to be dull, but it has to be formal. Sign your name at the bottom and give your email and phone number. Also, your parents should not do this for you. The email must come from you. Professors have even less patience for parents than admissions officers.
Establish your goals or agenda for the meeting. Are you trying to learn more about a couple of different majors? Do you want to learn about research opportunities in a particular field or sub-field? Do you want to understand more about this professor’s research and teaching interests? Do you want to know how well your particular interests can be supported in the department? Did you read about a particular program or curriculum element that interests you, about which you want to learn more? Don’t just say “I’d really like to meet you.” Tell the recipient of your email why you want to meet. Refer to specifics in the course catalog, the professor’s publications, or the departmental website.
Follow through. If he professor recommends that you contact someone else, thank her for the guidance, and then immediately turn around and follow that advice. I repeat: do not forget to say “thank you.” If the professor does agree to meet you, make sure to write down the appointment (and tell your parent or whoever is accompanying you on the campus visit), and then call and/or email the professor the day before to confirm the appointment.
Be prepared. Come to the interview with three or four pertinent, relevant questions that relate to your agenda. Remember, this is not an admissions interview. You have asked for this appointment to gather information. So make sure you know what your questions are. Come with a pad of paper and a pencil, and be ready to take a few notes. Since you are asking for advice, be prepared to receive it. Furthermore, your notes may come in handy when you have to write that essay, “why I want to go to College X.” You can make some specific references to things your new professor friend taught you.
Don’t be afraid. Just because someone has the letters “PhD” after his name does not make him particularly scary. Professors are people, too, and they actually like it when students take an interest in them and their work. Most have chosen this profession because they enjoy students and genuinely enjoy dispensing advice. So if a professor agrees to meet with you, it’s because he wants to, and because he takes his job seriously.
Don’t invite your parents. As you explore a campus–and the people who inhabit it–you need to act independently. Professors expect you to act like an adult. Nothing will make you seem more juvenile than having mom and dad in tow. Of course, mom and dad may like to hear what the professor has to say. But this is your journey of discovery. This relationship is one that you need to build yourself–adult to adult. So gently remind your parents that you are perfectly capable of handling this meeting alone, and that you will meet them at the front door of the building in thirty minutes. While some parents may be a bit miffed not to be invited to this meeting, secretly they’ll be impressed by your demonstration of your maturity and independence.
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