Interacting with Instructors

There are lots of different kinds of instructors you will engage with at Harvard. They will range from professors to lecturers and preceptors to teaching fellows, teaching assistants, and course assistants. Harvard teaching staff are here to support you and are happy to hear from you!

Below are some common ways that students interact with instructors and tips for making these interactions successful:

Emailing Instructors

Sometimes you’ll need to write to your instructors to get information or to make a request. What should you keep in mind?  

  • Reserve email for short, direct questions that aren’t answerable by reading the syllabus or class materials. If you have a longer or complicated question, go to office hours or set up a meeting with your instructor.    
    • ARC tip: If you aren’t sure whether the answer to your question is somewhere in the class materials, try asking a few classmates before emailing your instructor.
  • Be sure to address your instructor at the beginning of your email. Avoid saying just “hey” or “hi,” as this can seem too informal to some instructors. Instead, you might write, "Dear Professor [Last Name]" or "Dear Dr. [Last Name]."
    • ARC tip: If your instructor has told you how to address them, use their preferred title. If they haven’t, and you’re not sure what their title is, err on the side of promoting them. A TF (or any instructor, really!) is never offended if you call them “Dr.” or “Professor,” but calling someone with a doctorate “Ms.” can be interpreted as demeaning.
  • Be polite and be considerate of your professor’s time and attention. 
    • ARC tip: You can ask many kinds of things of an instructor, but you need to do it politely (e.g., use please and thank you). You also need to give the instructor the opportunity to let you know they can’t fulfill your request, so avoid making demands or saying things like “thanks in advance." Instead, phase your request as a question and conclude with something like "thank you for considering my request."
Still not sure you know how to write to your instructors? Or are you unsure of what to do with an instructor’s response to your message? Schedule an appointment with an Academic Coach or attend a workshop on working with faculty. The ARC can guide you through crafting your email, interpreting responses from faculty, or connecting you with resources to help you advocate for yourself with instructors.

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Going to Office Hours

Office hours are an important part of your learning experience at Harvard – they are a chance to interact with your instructors outside the classroom. While they might seem like an “extra” or optional part of a course, most students find that attending office hours has a positive impact on their classroom experience.

How to prepare for office hours:

  • Figure out what kind of office hours your instructor holds. Do they answer questions about course material? Help troubleshoot classwork? Are they individual or group? Office hours can take lots of different forms, so see if you can get information on office hours and appointments from your syllabi or course website. Also don’t be afraid to ask your TF or professor, if it’s not clear.
    • ARC tip: Try to find a student who has taken the course, or other courses, with your instructor. Ask what office hours were like.
  • Prepare something to bring (specific ideas, questions, materials, etc.) to office hours. Even if you ask only a question or two, knowing ahead of time what you’ll talk about can take a lot of pressure off you. 
    • ARC tip: Get a sense for whether your instructor is open to chatting about things outside of class (your academic/professional interests, their own lives, etc.). If they are, try to ask at least one question that isn’t just focused on the material. It can be a great way to build up your relationship with a faculty member! Even something as simple as “How is your semester going?” can make your interaction feel less transactional and more human.
  • If you need to meet outside your instructor’s normal office hours, make sure to send them an email well in advance of your desired meeting time and show awareness that you are asking them to carve out extra time to meet with you.
    • ARC tip: Over the weekend, figure out which office hours you plan to attend in the coming week. Then, on Monday, email any professors who require appointments or whom you will need to meet with outside of normal office hours.
  • Check out the ARC's Office Hours page for more information on what office hours are for and how you can take advantage of them.
Still nervous about attending office hours? Having trouble coming up with questions to ask that seem authentic? Schedule an appointment with an Academic Coach, or attend a workshop on working with faculty. The ARC can help you craft your questions and give you a chance to practice them ahead of meeting with faculty.

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If you are running into accessibility issues in any of your courses or have a medical diagnosis that is impacting your ability to engage fully in your classes, please visit the Accessible Education Office for information on requesting accommodations.

Requesting Letters of Recommendation

Sometimes you’ll need to ask faculty for letters of recommendation. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Consider what kind of application you’re submitting. Is this the right person to write the recommendation? 
    • ARC tip: Generally, you want your recommender to be from the same field, or an adjacent one, to the thing you’re applying for (for instance, if you’re applying for a position at a lab, you’ll want to ask a science or math instructor when possible). 
  • Make sure you’ve had a few interactions with your recommender outside of class. Otherwise, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to write you a very detailed recommendation, even if they agree to do it.
    • ARC tip: Unless you’re applying for something very prestigious and competitive, such as a national or international fellowship, you probably don’t need a big-name, tenured professor to write for you. It’s much better to go with someone who knows you and can write in a detailed way about your abilities!
  • Give your recommender lots of advance notice (at least 2 weeks, but 3 to 4 weeks is better), and offer to send a follow-up email reminder closer to the deadline.
    • ARC tip: Some instructors may prefer to get letter of recommendation requests over email rather than in person. Since it’s hard to know ahead of time what your professor prefers, a good middle ground can be to make the request over email, but offer to meet with the person in office hours to discuss the opportunity you’re applying for.
Still not sure how to ask for a recommendation? Worried about how to tell who is the right person to approach? Schedule an appointment with an Academic Coach, or attend a workshop on working with faculty! The ARC can help you think through your options and craft your request.

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