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After being on campus for a little while—in fact, almost three months now—one of the biggest differences I’ve experienced has been the great contrast between approaching professors in college and approaching teachers back in high school. I’m pretty sure I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard the following statement: “No matter what you do in college, be sure to visit your professors during their office hours.” That statement is usually followed by “They’re there to help you and talk to you.” There’s no doubt that my professors are here to teach, but they’re also here for a million other reasons. The reality is that when it comes down to actual execution, talking to them isn’t as easy as it was to talk to a teacher back in high school. In fact, I would say it’s a lot more difficult.

Busy Schedules and Shifting Hours

Some professors’ schedules simply don’t allow for time to care for students as much as high school teachers are able to. After splitting their time between meetings, presentations, research and actual class time, it seems that for the most part, professors have so many things on their hands that even when they are in their offices, they’re not just waiting for students to come in to talk to them. They’re doing work: whether writing grant proposals, emailing colleagues or whatever, they’re always doing something.

A part of me believes that if students don’t come to visit them during those hours, they don’t really feel bad, or at least not to the extent that some people claim. I mean, if I were a professor and no one was there, I’d probably be doing something productive with my hour or so of “office time.” While they may be delighted to see students, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind being able to spend that time on their other work, too.

As a testament to that, many of my professors have shifting office hours. In addition, when they do have office hours, it’s only once or twice a week for about an hour or two—three, max.

Re-evaluating the Visit

Since my arrival on campus, I’ve had to re-evaluate what “visit your professor during office hours” really means. Initially, it seemed as if I should try to bond with all of my professors, but in reality, it shouldn’t even be close to that. You should be aiming for people who suit you. Don’t just talk to them because they’re your professors.

Steer Away From Small Talk

Sometimes we’ll take a course simply because it seems appealing, but soon, we may find that the topic doesn’t interest us. Although I haven’t experienced this, I have no doubt that I will at some point in the future. In that case, I don’t believe that I should use my time walking to a professor’s office that is 10 minutes away to only engage in small talk.

Look Beyond Teaching Topics

When considering which professors you really want to talk to, think about more than just the subjects they teach or the fact that they’re simply your professors. Just as we didn’t form only one kind of relationship back in high school, we shouldn’t be attempting to do that in college, either.

Like everyone else, professors have varying personalities, some of which interest us, and others that push us away. If you’re thinking about talking to someone, rather than just talking to a random professor of yours, talk to one with multiple traits that make him or her a good match. These may include style of teaching, shared life experiences or just a subject in which you’re sincerely interested.

Play By College Rules

High school and college are not the same. They’re two different playing fields with different rules of engagement and different types of teams playing. It’s important to know what does and doesn’t matter, especially when we as first-generation students find ourselves on step one of connecting with the people who will push us far, challenge us like never before and help us when we’re in situations in which we require assistance. No matter how prepared you think you’ll be, I can guarantee that even the most prepared of students will find something they didn’t expect to find here.

College is something new for everyone, so learn fast! The payoff will be faster and the ride will be that much more enjoyable for that much longer.