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Maintaining Lines of Communication

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US Higher Education: Maintaining Lines of Communication

Problems are inevitable. Difficulties understanding concepts that have been taught in a class, trouble finishing homework assignments, illnesses, family crises, or just taking on too much work at one time happen to everyone during their studies. The best way to start addressing such problems before your grades suffer is to talk to your instructor.

  • Stay in touch. The basic rule to apply in all situations is that communication can only help. DON’T WAIT TO TELL YOUR INSTRUCTOR. Talk to him or her as soon as possible—the earlier, the better. If you can’t talk in person, use e-mail. If what you need to tell him/her is complicated, send an email and set up an appointment to meet in-person during their office hours.
  • Make use of office hours. Office hours are the time during the week where you can meet with your professor individually outside of class. They usually appear on the course syllabus. Instructors do not interpret use of open office hours as weakness on your part—in fact, they see it quite positively, as a mark of a student who cares about his or her work and who actively confronts problems. Office hours are there for your benefit; never be shy about asking questions and getting the help you need.

E-mail and Websites

If you are reading this, there is no need to tell you about the growing importance of the Internet in the academic world. Although the Net might seem like a wild and lawless territory where anything goes, every community, academic and non-academic, has its own generally accepted rules and preferences. Here are some basics for US academic work on the Net.

Check e-mail often

Some students have not relied heavily on e-mail before college or university, and were able to check it infrequently. Others might not have used emails to communicate with their instructors in their home countries. While you are a college or university student (and well beyond, in the professional world), e-mail will quickly be a much more significant mode of communication. For instructors and administrators alike, e-mail is a primary form of communication that they use often, and they expect their addressees to read and respond rapidly. Make sure that you read emails from your instructors carefully as they may contain important instructions or an update of the course schedule. If you are not checking your e-mail very often, get into the habit of reading it much more, at least three times a day.

Use your university e-mail address

It’s easier for university personnel to send things to your university account than to outside accounts. More importantly, having that institution name in your address (“”) is much more impressive and professional than having a domain name that anyone could get (like Hotmail, Yahoo, or Gmail!)—it shows that you are an insider, that you belong to an academic institution. Make use of it if you are applying for an internship or a summer job.

Use the subject line for the subject of your e-mail

People get a lot of e-mail these days, and the best way they have for managing it is by reading the subject line; if it’s obviously an important subject, they will read it sooner and respond sooner. Get into the habit of clearly and succinctly writing subject lines for all your messages. Here are a couple of examples:

History essay question

Tomorrow's class

Laboratory materials requirements

Saying “Hi” might be friendly, but it doesn’t tell the reader anything. There’s no need to put your name in the subject line (“This is John”) since the e-mail address will clearly have part of your name, or you will sign your name at the end of the message. Just leaving the subject line blank is often a good way to have the reader IGNORE your e-mail. Don’t forget to mention which course section you are emailing about. Some instructors teach multiple sections of the same course and might have hundreds of students, which would make it difficult for them to remember every student.

Use standard writing conventions when e-mailing university personnel

It looks professional, it looks like you care, and it’s easier to read. Avoid informal instant messaging-like spellings and abbreviations (for example, write “You are,” not “U R”), and capitalize where appropriate (for example, the first person singular pronoun “I” is never lower case). Use punctuation appropriately. If you are not sure about how to address the person you are emailing, try to look them up on their university website that should provide you with some helpful hints.

Your website represents YOU, whether you want it to or not

Many colleges and universities provide server space for their students to create their own home pages. Technically, you are free to post (almost) anything and everything you want to post. You may, however, want to be more selective about doing so. Instructors and employers often Google individual names, in order to learn more about that person—and a lot of people have lost good job opportunities due to websites that feature personal characteristics that are “cool” or “wild” to friends, but are antithetical to a professional persona. Ask yourself, “Do I want my boss to see this?” This also applies to social media accounts like Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.