Alright, ladies and gentlemen, classes start in two days. Did you get your dorm room set up, your mini-fridge stocked, and your school supplies organized? Good, then it’s time for the last installment of the Freshman Survival Guide series!

The subject I saved for last isn’t that exciting, but it sure is important. Today I’m going to talk about building relationships with professors.

This is a two-part story of how vital it is to have proper communication with your professors, and how it can impact your grades.

Part 1- Una Mala Nota: How my lack of communication resulted in an unsatisfactory Spanish grade

During first semester of freshman year, I took Spanish 307D (Spanish Grammar and Composition). On my first essay, an in-class essay, I received a grade I was very disappointed in. Luckily, the procedure for in-class essays included taking it home, editing it, and submitting it for a second grade. I scored much better on the revision and was happy with my grade.

I also did well on the take-home essay that followed, even without the regrade. But then the next in-class essay came, and with it, another low grade.

I was really confused. I would look at the rubric, see that I wasn’t getting that many points off for creativity, grammar, vocabulary, etc., yet my overall grade was low. I decided she must be giving the essays a final “holistic” grade after taking the rubric grade into account, and that I was bad at essays/she was a difficult grader, hence low scores.

After a particularly painful essay score, my professor asked me to visit her during office hours so we could discuss what was going on with my essays.

It turned out that I was getting deductions for not having enough lines on my in-class essays. While I was aware that some of my essays were too short, what I didn’t understand was how she calculated the point penalty for this. So I made the same mistake several times, until it resulted in a noticeable blow to my grade. When she explained it in her office, it all made sense. She said she wished I had come in earlier during the semester to talk with her about essays, and I couldn’t agree more. If I had gone in earlier, she would have been able to help me. I ended the semester with a grade I wasn’t happy with, since I knew I could have done better if I had understood my mistake earlier. I learned an important lesson then: Don’t put off communication with professors until it’s too late!

Part 2- Coding Catastrophe: How my communication with a professor resulted in a grade boost

It was the end of second semester, and I was calculating my computer science grade. The overall grade that included labs and quizzes wasn’t up yet, but I estimated by using the grades I had available and predictions of what the labs that were currently ungraded would be. I was really happy with the estimated percentage. During the course of CSE 132, I felt I had improved greatly since CSE 131, and now I had the grade to prove it.

So I was shocked when I returned home to California, checked WebSTAC, and saw my final grade. It wasn’t what I wanted at all! I was devastated, but eventually I consoled myself with “better luck next time” and told myself I was okay with it. But I really wasn’t okay with it. After a couple of days, I finally emailed my professor and asked about my grades. I also pointed out some grade discrepancies I had noticed. It turned out that some of my assignments had been overlooked and weren’t graded. The professor apologized and gave me the correct grade. Because I 1) had been keeping track of my grades 2) communicated with my professor, my wrong grade was changed to the right grade, which was actually higher than my previously estimated percentage!

Two Things to Keep in Mind:

Professors are people too

I once spent over half an hour talking with a computer science professor. I went in to figure out where I stood in the class grade-wise, and then the conversation transitioned into the declaration of my major. Not only did he advise me on the several ways to do the computer science route and how they differed, but also he told me a funny story about an internship he did when he was my age and how he had gotten into programming. It was when I was laughing at his story that I realized: Professors are people too! I mean, okay, of course I knew that my professors weren’t robots. But there’s often that erroneous assumption that professors are unapproachable. And then you never stop to consider otherwise. Contrary to popular belief, teachers aren’t trying to make your lives miserable, won’t get mad if you admit to needing help, and do have lives outside of school.

I had a particular professor who, when I visited during an appointment, told me some useful information about the grading system that he hadn’t put on the syllabus. And whenever my Writing 1 Professor offered to review our outlines for major papers before we wrote them, I signed up to meet with him, resulting in helpful feedback and ideas.

Some professors will have walk-in office hours. Others will prefer an appointment. They are there for you as a resource, so take advantage of it.

Keep track of your grades

At my high school, we had this online system where you could log on and check your grades for all your classes.

At WashU we have a similar system. It’s called Blackboard. The difference is that in high school all of my teachers entered grades, while at WashU the professors aren’t required to do so. Some of my professors used Blackboard mostly to upload files and rarely used the grading portion of the site.

That means there was always that uncomfortable period a few weeks before finals where I wasn’t really sure what my grade was in a class. The way to avoid this anxiety is to keep track of your grades yourself. Some classes don’t let you keep your graded assignments and/or tests, so you’ll need to write your grades down when you see them. You could also find out your grade in the class by asking your professor to print out a grade report, but it would probably be better (and more responsible) if you just kept track of it yourself.

Good luck with the first week of classes everyone! :)