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Marks My Words: Winning the heart and mind — of your professor

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If you are reading this on Friday, the Stanford campus will be swarming with hundreds of admitted students. For 48 hours, these bright-eyed, bushy-tailed seniors in high school will be told that Stanford professors are one of the greatest aspects of this University, along with the weather and cool buildings.

And they will be told to forge connections with these professors.

Befriending a professor is no easy task, but it does come in handy. For one thing, a good relationship with your professor makes it easier to get that prized recommendation letter. How do you think those lucky few students managed to get a Rhodes Scholarship? You guessed it: five to eight letters of recommendation.

After five years of everything from huge lectures to medium-sized seminars and three-person classes, I’ve seen my fair share of professors and the students who successfully charm them. There are several key strategies. Adopt them, and you can’t go wrong.

The first strategy: sit as close to the professor as possible. Are you in a 15-person seminar? Sit by the head of the table. But be warned that, in a large lecture hall, this act will make you the “front-row kid,” and not everyone loves the front-row kid. The front-row kid is often inquisitive, talkative and too eager to display his or her accumulated knowledge.

However, there is a reason for this front-row kid’s confidence. When you’re in the front row, your entire field of vision consists of the professor. You know how that special someone makes you feel like you’re the only person in the room? That’s what it feels like to sit in the front row. Stare at your professor and do not look away. As far as you’re concerned, that professor is lecturing just to you.

The professor will inevitably notice you. Between staring at PowerPoint slides and notes, the professor will inevitably cast his or her eyes into the audience. The kids in the front are less likely to be asleep, talking to a friend or texting.

Now that you’ve sat in the front row, your professor sees you. Good work. The next step is to be receptive to whatever your professor says. Nod knowingly if the professor says something that begs a sign of agreement. Just be careful not to nod too much — you’ll look like a bobblehead.

Most importantly: laugh at any jokes. Some professors choose their favorite students with humor. If your professor cracks a joke, don’t be shy in acknowledging it with a smile or quiet chuckle. Sometimes, the joke won’t be very obvious. Was that a joke or a sign of genuine bitterness at not getting tenure?

Occasionally you will laugh in error. Your professor will dismiss you as a little strange and promptly forget about it. But a shared laughing moment will live long in your professor’s memory, so it’s worth taking the risk. Laugh freely.

At this point in time, you and your professor have shared eye contact, smiles and hopefully laughter. And yet, your relationship can progress no further under the watchful eyes of other students. It’s time for some one-on-one time. It’s time for office hours.

Don’t waltz into office hours without a plan. Prepare some topics of discussion and a few thoughtful questions. Most importantly, ask your professor about his or her career first — don’t forget that your professor is a lot more accomplished than you. He or she doesn’t care that you were in mock trial in high school or that you’ve been to China once.

Rather, this is the time for you to show that you are interested in your professor. You have to be aggressive. This professor is being courted by several — or dozens or even hundreds — of other students. At the same time, be genuine. Some professors can sniff out the students who are faking it.

Does this sound familiar? The whole process is a bit like The Bachelor(ette). You are engaged in a struggle to woo a central figure. You must differentiate yourself from the pack without compromising your dignity. You must also preserve your relationship with the other students in the class. The seminar can’t deteriorate into insults and hair-pulling (okay, maybe that’s just in The Bachelor).

In the end, much like in The Bachelor, only one person walks away with the ultimate letter of recommendation and, obviously, the lasting emotional connection. And much like the successful relationships that emerge from The Bachelor, it helps when you’re not motivated by the material reward. It helps when you seek a good relationship purely for its inherent value. And your professor will be able to tell.

 

Feel free to send Miriam any feedback to melloram “at” stanford “dot” edu, especially if you’re one of her professors.