Seven Slamdunk Questions to Ask a College Professor


As you plan for college, it would be great if you could meet and interact with college professors before you show up in a lecture hall the first day of classes. Why? Because these academics are the doorway to your intellectual and professional future. They will teach you entire new worlds of information and ways to process it. They will grade you on a curve, and you will like it! Okay, you will hate being graded on a curve if there is a genius in the class who keeps setting the top mark in the stratosphere. Unless you are that genius. BE THAT GENIUS! All right, got that out of my system.

I know the thought of talking to a 60-year-old, white-haired icon of brilliance and power can be a bit scary (or a little too “Harry Potter”). Relax… Professors come in all varieties of ages, ethnicities and more. Think of them this way: they also headed off to college after high school, fell passionately in love with what they were studying, studied it for 2/4/7 or more years in graduate school, still loved it, and decided to teach more students how to love it, too. Don’t think of them as academics – think of them as fan club presidents for your major.

Now that we’ve identified him or her, the elusive “faculty member” actually is not that hard to spot. Here’s where you might meet one:

Campus Visits. If you haven’t caught on already, I insist that you see at least four distinct campuses before applying to college. Be sure to arrange at least a brief meeting with a professor in a field you’re interested in while you’re there!

Special Programs. Summer camps, student weekends, lecture series and more all offer opportunities to meet professors year-round.

Personal Outreach. Most college Web sites list their academic departments and the faculty right there online, with emails. You can send a brief note introducing yourself as a prospective applicant and asking for a time to talk.

Once you do meet a professor, or even a teaching assistant (since they are fellow students doing graduate work in a field you are interested in), here are seven insightful questions to get the conversation started:

  1. Office hours. What are the two most common reasons students come to see you during office hours? This will help you understand what kind of private counsel the professor offers beyond what you learn in the classroom.
  2. Using this major. What are some of the more unusual jobs or internships some of your students have gotten using their major? This tells you interesting things you can do with your degree – AND if the professor stays in touch with former students (always a plus).
  3. High school prep. What high school classes and experiences will prepare me best to succeed in this major? No one knows better than a professor (or a TA), what core skills will cost you if you don’t learn them before starting college coursework. Get the inside scoop!
  4. Public service opportunities. What are some of the public service opportunities you’d like to see some of your students pursue using their major? This is to remind you that one of the greatest gifts of education is using it to help other people. From Statistics to English Lit, ask what creative ways students before you have applied knowledge from college.
  5. Up-side/Down-side. What is the most fun thing and the most difficult thing about majoring in this field? Goes without saying!
  6. Typical workload. What is the balance of the workload for this major between reading, doing problem sets, writing papers, labs, research projects, rehearsals, etc.? This was the biggest eye opener for me freshman year. My quadmates were electrical engineering, pre-med, economics and political science (me). We all worked hard, but we worked very differently. Eileen’s endless graph paper engineering problem sets still wake me up with the willies. Meanwhile, I was writing 20-page papers on a regular basis. Both of us thought our own assignments were perfectly routine but would have hated to swap workloads! It may help you filter possible majors to know how you’ll spend your time inside and outside of class.
  7. Independent research. If you do independent research with undergraduates, what is one of the projects you really enjoyed? You’ll want to find out what opportunities there are to explore independent interests. But you’ll also find out how surprisingly passionate your professors can be about academic pursuits – event after all these years.

One more thought. Even if you don’t know what you want to major in, or you don’t meet a professor from your specific area of interest, I want you t ask these questions of any faculty member you get a chance to meet. They may excite you about a whole new area of study! And even if they don’t, they surely will educate and, yes, excite you about the brand new academic experience waiting for you at college.

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DMA is the CEO of The CLIC, the revolutionary new site where students can powerfully plan for college and institutions can effortlessly recruit students from a single home page in our FREE interactive network. CLIC students can connect to college matches, scholarship searches, college access programs and the nation’s first master calendar of all college-related deadlines and events, with streaming video tips and much more, at