College Visits 101 – Talking to Professors

Nothing like a nice stroll through Harvard yard, right?
Nothing like a nice stroll through Harvard yard, right?

So, you’ve scoured a college’s website, gone to the info session, and taken the guided campus tour. And yet, you still have unanswered questions. Which departments are the best? Who can answer technical questions about a specific major? How are you going to find out the truth about this university? Well, you might try talking to some professors.

There are a number of reasons you might want to try to meet with professors when visiting a college. Unlike admissions officials, they are actually experts in a particular field, and they can tell you about the particulars of a specific major or program, as well as about special opportunities available to undergraduate students. Also, while it is unlikely that they would say bad things about their institution, they do tend to be less sales-y than admissions officers, and they generally try to give honest answers to your questions. Also, they could be your future teachers, so you might want to see if they’re crazy or not. And that’s one of the interesting things about meeting with professors – they are interviewing you, of course, but you’re also interviewing them.

Of course, there's the good kind of crazy as well as the bad kind of crazy.
Of course, there’s the good kind of crazy as well as the bad kind of crazy.

You should decide which professors to contact primarily based on what majors you are interested in pursuing. It’s okay if you’re not sure what you want to study yet, just make sure that you’ll be able to show some genuine interest and enthusiasm when you meet with professors. Also, you should know something about the subject. You don’t have to be an expert, obviously, but it should be something that you did well in at school and/or read about for fun on your own.

Once you figure out which departments you want to try to meet with, go to the department website. There, you should be able to find emails for all of the faculty members in the department. Pick a few of the most senior ones (or ones whose specialties interest you) and send them a friendly email requesting a meeting. It might go something like this:

Dear Professor [insert name],

I am a prospective student interested in studying at [insert university]. I am very interested in [insert subject], and if possible I would very much like to meet with you or one of your colleagues in order to learn more about your undergraduate program. I am planning to visit [insert university] on [insert dates when you will visit]. Would it be possible to arrange a meeting during this time? If not, could you recommend me to one of your colleagues who is available? Thank you for your time and consideration.


[your name here]

With any luck, at least one of them will respond. Do NOT send emails to everyone in the department. Limit these inquiries to two or three max. If you don’t hear back from anyone, don’t worry. It’s generally okay to just drop by the department when you’re visiting the campus and see if anyone is free to meet with you that day. Chances are they will at least have an adviser or someone who can talk to you.

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On the day of your visit, make sure you dress nicely (a button-down shirt and slacks are generally appropriate) and are on time if you have set up a meeting in advance (in fact, try to be 10 minutes early). Make sure you have a map of the campus and know where to go. Also, be prepared to answer a few questions:

  1. Why do you want to go to this college?
  2. How did you become interested in this subject?
  3. What sorts of career paths are you considering?
  4. What academic courses/extracurricular activities/independent study have you done related to this field?

Professors probably aren’t going to grill you with a bunch of questions – it’s not their job – but these sorts of things are likely to come up in conversation, and you should have well-thought-out things to say on each of these topics. You want to come across as thoughtful, confident, mature, and well-spoken. If you can do that, you will probably impress the professor.

There will be plenty of time for stress later.
There will be plenty of time for stress later.

This should not be an especially stressful experience. Professors generally don’t make admissions decisions, so you aren’t under a lot of pressure. If you’re feeling nervous, it’s perfectly okay to have a parent go with you when you meet with a professor. Chances are your parents will be touring the campus with you anyway, and they might have questions of their own for a professor. Having a parent with you at the meeting will not reflect badly on you in any way; in fact, it might help break the ice, especially if your parent studied the same field that the professor teaches.

Do make sure to always be polite and do try to make a good impression, though – if the professor thinks you’re great, he or she just might say something to the admissions department (and if you are rude, that could also have consequences). Hopefully, the two of you will just have a friendly chat and be able to geek out a bit about whatever subject it is that you’re interested in.

Of course, you aren’t just there to chat. You’ve got questions that need answering! Some good questions to ask professors might include:

  1. What makes this department special/better/different than other [insert major] departments?
  2. Do students have opportunities to do research/publish?
  3. What does a typical course of study look like? What are the major/minor requirements?
  4. Does this department have any special relationships/collaboration with other near by institutions?
  5. Are there any special or unusual opportunities for students in this department? How often are students actually able to take advantage of these opportunities?
  6. What different tracks can students follow within the department?
  7. Where do undergraduates in this department end up after graduation? What graduate schools do they get into? What companies do they work for?
  8. Is it possible to go here for graduate school as well as for college? Are there any programs that allow you to earn your bachelor’s and master’s in five years? How many students per year participate in these programs?
  9. What career paths could this major lead to? What industries have a demand for students of this field?
  10. Is it possible to double major if I want to major in this department?
  11. Is it possible to study abroad if I major in this department?
  12. How can one earn departmental honors from this department?
  13. What undergraduate classes do you teach?
  14. What is the typical class size? What role do Teaching Assistants play in undergraduate education?
  15. How large is the department? How many undergraduate students typically major in this department each year? How many graduate students are currently in this department?
  16. What is the focus of your own research (make sure you look very interested when they tell you)? What topics do your colleagues research? Does the department as a whole have strengths in a particular area of this field or subscribe to a particular point of view within the field?
  17. Could I visit or could you show me around the building/labs/departmental library/campus museum/etc.?
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Asking good questions like these will be sure to impress them. Also, do as much research as you can before you show up. Read over the information on the department’s website, and peruse the current course listings to see what kinds of classes they offer (course listings are usually available on the department’s website). Doing your homework might help you come up with other, more specific questions about the department.

Always note that whenever someone tells you about an amazing program or opportunity, always ask how many students per year actually take advantage of it. It may sound great on paper, but in reality there may be only one in a hundred students who gets to take advantage of these kinds of opportunities. Not to say that you couldn’t be that one in a hundred, but it’s important to take realities like this into consideration when making your decision about where to go.

Do any of the professors bear a resemblance to Harrison Ford?
Do any of the professors bear a resemblance to Harrison Ford?

Be aware that your conversation is only one way to learn about the department: you are there just as much to observe as to talk. Is the department’s building run-down and shabby or nice and well-kept? Are the laboratories and research facilities new and shiny or do they look like relics from the Cold War? Do the students and faculty in the halls look miserable or happy? Are the people with whom you interact friendly or snobby? Are the professors with whom you speak clear and precise or vague and hard to understand? Do they seem pedantic and ideological or nuanced and open-minded? If you aren’t careful, you could end up working in a genetics lab where you spend hours watching videos of mutated fruit flies attempting and failing to copulate (true story).

Some departments may be friendlier than others. When I was visiting colleges, the Geology professors were always the nicest; on the other hand, there were a few Music departments that didn’t seem to have time for me (obviously, I should have majored in Geology). However, be aware of the timing of your visit. If you show up during finals, don’t be surprised if the professors seem harried and the students look like zombies. Also, always be aware that one bad experience (or one good experience) doesn’t necessarily reflect on the department or university as a whole.

That said, meeting with professors can be extremely helpful and informative when deciding where to go for college and what to major in as well. Most students won’t think to do this, but always remember: just because most people don’t do something doesn’t mean you can’t, and it never hurts to try. If you meet with professors, you will be ahead of the curve when it comes to selecting a college and a major.

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Of course, there are still other questions you probably have…questions only a real, live college student could answer. Check back soon for part three of College Visits 101: Talking to College Students.

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