So you got to Harvard, woohoo! Now it’s time to succeed in what you came here to do: academics. Okay, that should be easy enough; you’ve been working hard in school for years.
After I was accepted to Harvard, when people would ask, “do you feel prepared for the classes you’ll be taking and their likely level of difficulty?” I’d often think about the challenging classes I’d already taken in high school, and how I learned strategies and skills to manage them.
After I started college, I went on to learn a new skill: using office hours. Taking advantage of the office hours offered by teaching staff (Professors and Teaching Fellows) is an important skill for academic success at Harvard or any college.
This will serve as a guide to approaching and making the most of office hours.
Preparing for Office Hours
Not sure where to start? There are a few things to keep in mind to help you start on the right foot and get the most out of your experience during office hours.
- Make a good impression
- If your class size allows, try to make a positive impression before attending office hours. Ensure that you arrive to class on time and are demonstrating active attention throughout the lecture.
- Include office hours in your schedule
- Treat office hours as you would a lecture or a section -- like a scheduled part of your class. Block off that time period, prepare, and show up. You may not need to attend office hours weekly, but it's good to block off the time in case you need it.
- Prepare your questions
- If there is something in the course material that you would like to understand better, seek to first identify what it is you do understand and what you don’t. Then you can explain to the professor something like, “I understand Durkheim’s take on dysfunctional institutions, but how may he then classify the prison system?”
- Preparing thoughtful questions will show that you are working on developing an understanding, as well as provide the professor with direction for the session. That way they can be more helpful to you! More on this below.
Topics of Discussion
While talking through questions about the course material is a big part of office hours, that's not the only topic you can discuss with your professor or teaching fellow! You can ask about any of the following:
- Their research
- The majority of professors have done some type of research and would appreciate the opportunity to discuss their work more in-depth. If you're interested in a professor's research projects, ask about them! Do some research before attending office hours, and go with questions about their work and the desire to learn more.
- Upcoming assignments
- You can also check in with teaching staff before submitting an assignment. It may be helpful to go with an outline of what you plan to write, or an idea for a project. Be sure to ask questions that couldn’t have been answered by the syllabus.
- Course material
- There will be times when, after a class reading or lecture, you will be left with some questions. Save these questions so you can ask them during office hours. This connects to the next point.
- Ask for examples or clarifications
- If there is a new concept that you are discussing, it may be helpful to ask for an illustration of it. This will be an opportunity to help you better understand the material.
Office Hours Etiquette
Like any new experience, office hours can be a bit intimidating if you aren't sure what the expectations are. Here are some tips on how to conduct yourself once you're in the office:
- Introduce yourself!
- After arriving, present yourself if it’s one of the first times you've attended office hours. Remind your professor or TF of who you are, your class year, and which class of theirs you're in.
- Take notes
- These will not need to be extensive notes, but it may be helpful to write some things down so that you may refer to them in the future. It also signals that you're listening!
- Ask the questions you've prepared
- Review key takeaways or action items
- It's a great idea to repeat your takeaways so that your professor or TF can confirm you're on the right track.
- Express appreciation for their guidance and time!
I know for me it was a bit daunting to think that a Harvard professor or even a TF would meet with only me. It was helpful that, for my math class during my freshman spring, our professor even required us to meet with him one on one at the beginning of the semester. Some professors will do this to ensure that students take advantage of this resource.
What's most important to remember when it comes to office hours is that students should not feel that they are imposing. Rather, you should remember that Professors are really hoping you’ll attend their office hours, even if it’s just so they can meet you! You can read more about professors' thoughts on and experiences with office hours in this Harvard Gazette article.
I hope this guide helps you feel even just slightly more prepared to take on this new aspect of academics during your college journey!