Student Advice Column: Are Office Hours for Real?

Office bookshelf

DEAR COMPASS,

My professors keep talking about office hours, but I’m not really sure what they are, or even what they’re for. Am I just supposed to show up and hang around my professor’s office? What would we even talk about? Plus, we’re all busy, so what’s the point? I keep hearing that going to office hours can be a really good thing, but I just don’t know. Are office hours even a thing?

Sincerely,
SKEPTICAL OF OFFICE HOURS

Dear SKEPTICAL,

When was a student, I too once looked askew at the office hours posted on each syllabus I received (which I then tucked into a magical folder with the power to somehow transfer all contents to a completely different dimension). But your professors are right — office hours can be invaluable to success in college.

To explain, let me tell you a story about the power of office hours.

It took me two full years to realize that I belonged in college. Those first two years of mine were spent sitting in the back row when I came to class, and hiding from my professors on the days I didn’t. I was not what you might call an ideal student.

But I did turn it around. At the beginning of my third year, I finally figured out what I wanted to do in college (I wanted to write poems, which was a whole other set of problems). But once I figured that out, I got serious. Part of getting serious, I figured, was taking advantage of whatever my professors had to offer.

And I couldn’t help but notice that they all kept offering these office hours.

So after my professor handed back my first essay in my American Poetry class, I ran a finger down the syllabus (an actual finger! This was before Blackboard!) and found his office hours. I picked a time, walked up to his office door, drew a sharp breath for courage, and knocked.

He opened the door, a little surprised to see me. Even back then, it seems, students didn’t much bother going to office hours. But he looked friendly enough, though his face dropped a bit when I told him that I wanted to talk about my essay, which, incidentally, I’d earned an A- on.

I know now the reason for this face — he thought I’d come by to challenge the grade, to try to grub my way to a full-blown “A.” But that wasn’t it at all!

It was just an excuse to come talk about the class. My essay seemed the easiest way to do that. So I asked what I could do better for the next assignment, and we talked about that for a minute, then talked about the class for about five minutes, then about poetry in general for 20 minutes, and then about what I wanted to do after college.

I can honestly say that this was one of the most important conversations I had in my college career. Not only did I get a better sense for the class and how to succeed in it, but I also connected with the professor, and I became more than a name on the roster. He saw that I was interested in the class, and so he took an interest in me. I learned how to be a college student that day.

From there, I started stopping by during all of my professors’ office hours, sometimes with a problem or question, sometimes just to talk about an assignment, sometimes to ask about something from class. Going to those office hours was never what I feared it would be — 30 excruciating minutes trapped in the office of an eccentric sadist, or worst, 30 minutes of insincere groveling to try to kiss up to a professor I loathed (and who loathed me right back). It was none of these things.

It was, in fact, kind of enjoyable. Going to office hours helped me in those classes, and it made those classes ten times more interesting and engaging. “If only I’d known this my first year!” I thought to myself.

So here’s what you need to know about your own professors’ office hours. They hold them just for you. These are times when professors are in their offices, waiting for you to stop by for a few minutes (or longer) to ask questions, work on problems, talk about assignments, or just say hi.

So, SKEPTICAL, should you go to office hours? Yes. Yes! YES!

Even if you don’t have anything super-pressing to talk about, swing by some day to have a quick conversation. Get to know your professor. And, sometimes more importantly, let them get to know you.

If you aren’t sure what you should talk about, here are a few suggestions:

  1. A recent reading assignment
  2. An upcoming project, test, or assignment
  3. Tips for doing well in the class
  4. How the professor got interested in their subject
  5. What you want to do with your life.

It took me two years to figure out that I could use all of the resources and opportunities that came with being a student in college. Don’t let it take that long for you!

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