Kate Szumanski still remembers the note her professor wrote at the top of an essay in her senior year: "This is a good argument ... Why don't you come visit me at office hours and we'll talk about graduate school."
By all accounts this was a good note. Szumanski got an A on the paper – and she'd done well in the political science class all semester. But that note terrified her. "I started to shake, my cheeks turned bright red," she told me recently. In all four years of college, she'd never once gone to office hours.
The next week, she mustered up the courage to climb the three flights of stairs to her professor's office. The first time she got to his door, she kept walking. And the second. And the third. Eventually, she just left.
"I never worked up the nerve to go in," she recalls. "I remember feeling just intimidated and frightened; as if I'm an imposter and he's going to figure me out."
Ask just about any college student, and they'll tell you a similar story: Office hours are scary.
And so here's our guide to taking the fear out.
Let's start first with the mystery: Students often don't know what office hours are – or what they're for, or how they're different from class time.
They're part of what some students say is a hidden curriculum – the set of rules on a college campus that no one ever tells you about. And then, what students do know is that you have to meet one-on-one with your professor, which in some cases means talking to the smartest, most powerful person you know (remember, professors are the ones giving out the grades!).
I've had dozens of current college students describe office hours to me as "intimidating" or "terrifying."
This fear is so universal that Arizona State University made a satirical video about it, spoofing a pharmaceutical commercial. The diagnosis: Fear of Meeting One on One with My Professor, or FMOOWMP. The suggested treatment: Faculty Office Hours, or FOH. But once students try FOH: "Everything fell in to place," a smiling student tells the camera, "I knew how to study for class. I'm hooked."
This video is definitely fun, but it also offers an important message: No matter how scary, office hours are a huge factor in a student's success. Not only in college, but even after — in the workforce and in life.
"Office hours are a way for your professor to get to know you," explains Anthony Abraham Jack, a professor at Harvard University and the author of The Privileged Poor. "You gain access to institutional resources, you gain access to a professor's network. You gain access to a professor's support — for adventures and experiences that you may not even know about."
It's a valuable part of the college experience; a time when your professor can transform into an adviser and ultimately a mentor. For students who don't know this – or are too nervous to take part – they may be missing a crucial component of what they're paying for by enrolling in college.
"The students who are least likely to go to office hours are the students who would benefit from them the most," explains Jack. He says colleges and professors need to do a lot more to make office hours more accessible. A good place to start, he says, is to actually tell students what office hours are — not just when they are.
Kate Szumanski, who did laps on the third floor to avoid meeting with her professor more than 25 years ago, now teaches college students at Villanova University, just outside Philadelphia. She holds her office hours on the second floor of the library, with 20-year-old Kate in mind. "My office travels to where students are. Office Hours on the road," she says. "That's my kind of small way to say, 'Where are our students who need my services?' "
No matter how lovely a faculty office is decorated, she says, it's not a familiar space for students. Moving office hours to a student-centered location like the library, a dorm or the food court can make students feel more at ease. Szumanski thinks of her road show as a gateway to other office hours, in more formal settings.
Professors have tried other strategies to demystify Office Hours, including changing the name to "Hangout Hours" or "Student Hours."
"There is a power dynamic that has to be acknowledged," says Monica McLemore, who teaches nursing at the University of California, San Francisco, "I completely understand why students avoid it." McLemore holds her office hours over video conferencing apps — like Zoom and Facetime — since many of her students are commuters.
For students who are still wary, Harvard's Anthony Abraham Jack has this advice: "Never, ever, be afraid to ask for help: It is not a sign of weakness, it's a sign of strength."
Plus, he says, when you go to office hours, you're letting the professor do their job.