Impress Your Professor: 5 Questions to Ask (and Avoid)

Professors. They have the power to ruin your vacations with untimely assignments, bore you with a monotone that defies caffeine, or, if you have chosen wisely, switch on some inner light bulb that makes the world -- and your place in it -- suddenly clearer.

The challenge facing students today is how to go from being one amongst the blur of hundreds to a recognizable face, especially should you plan to ask for a recommendation or career help. Office hours play a big role in getting to know your prof, but Facebook-generation students often avoid the one-on-one because they don't know what to say (and don't want to look like an idiot not saying it).

Take heart, the face time is well worth the effort. Professors are a vital cog in the wheel around which all university life spins, and most are eager to provide insight on coursework and majors and how those influence life ambitions. So, whether you are meeting up with your professor at office hours, on the treadmill, over a steaming horchata, or even helping him rake leaves, keep these in mind.

Five questions that are best avoided...

  1. How can I get an A in your class? (This question is transactional and makes it seem like all you care about is a grade, not an education, which is a common point of frustration among faculty.)
  2. Who are the worst professors in your department? (This puts the prof in an awkward position, first admitting there are weak links in the department and then ratting out his colleagues. For a better way to phrase this, read on.)
  3. Did you see that op-ed by one of your colleagues, and what did you think about it? (Professors hate admitting when they haven't read something, and if she has read the article and disagrees with it, we reiterate the previous point about the awkwardness of undermining colleagues).
  4. Does it bother you what other people say about you? (What, not everyone loves me?)
  5. Can I count on you to write me a good reference letter? (This question is another that is highly transactional and doesn't offer the prof a polite way to say "no" without sounding like a jerk).
Conversely, five questions that are best to ask...
  1. What do you like best/worst about being a professor? (His answer will give you some keen insights into what he also likes best and least about students, so listen intently.)
  2. What other courses in the department/university would you recommend I take? (Remember that awkward question we told you to avoid earlier? This is the flip side that will get you a similar result, not to mention kudos for having a high EQ).
  3. Why did you decide to enter your field? (Her answer will reveal highlights of an area of study that may be new to you, as well as give a bit of insight into what makes your professor tick.)
  4. What can I do to improve my writing? (Every professor has a different spin on "writing the perfect paper" and it is an invaluable skill to learn to write to whatever style is necessary to reach your audience.)
  5. What do you know now that you wished you knew when you were my age? (Don't be fooled by the nostalgic softball this question may seem to be -- your prof has been succeeding in academia probably longer than you've known how to write your name, and he will likely have a nugget of wisdom that will make your thirty minutes of small talk well worth the investment.)
One final reason to start off with these questions (besides the fact they are practically handed to you in Nordstrom gift wrap): these questions play well to your prof's strengths, and, as a result, you will come off looking intelligent, thoughtful, and wise beyond your years. After earning you some initial credibility, you have now made room for further thoughtful discussion around subjects in the prof's area of expertise. Build on that credibility by appearing at future meetings on time (or even a shade early), dressing professionally, and, above all, performing your academic best. You'll be seeing light bulbs in no time.

Anne Crossman is an education expert based in San Francisco. Peter Feaver is a professor of political science and public Policy at Duke. Sue Wasiolek is Dean of Students at Duke. Together they have written Getting the Best Out of College (Ten Speed, 2012). Visit for more info