How to Ask for Help in College the Right Way

by Amanda Cross

Have you ever felt so frustrated by a class that you felt helpless?

You look down at your work and all you see is an endless stream of numbers or words haphazardly strung together. The clock is ticking, the paper’s blank, and now you’re crying all over your textbook.

We’ve all been there. The good news is, you don’t have to spiral into this hot mess express! Instead, you can ask for help. Follow these five steps to make sure you’re asking for—and getting—help in a way that’s efficient and respectful of your professor’s time. (Note that these steps also work for getting advice from a TA, which can be preferable in certain classes, such as large lectures.)

1. Attempt the work

First, you must attempt the work. Even if it feels painful and you’re sure you won’t succeed, you have to try. It helps professors immeasurably to see exactly where a student is getting stuck, plus you’ll gain points for taking initiative.

2. Break it down

Get down to the exact point that you’re struggling to understand. The most unsuccessful office hours are the ones in which a student walks in and says, “I don’t understand any of this!”

Chances are you understand the basics of a concept or the first few steps of a problem. In fact, you probably know more than you think! Understand where it all unravels, and take time to figure out the simplest way to explain that to your professor.

3. Create a list of questions

Now that you’ve pinpointed exactly where you need help, it’s time to create your list of questions. Coming to office hours with a written list of questions ensure you get the help you need without getting sidetracked. Don’t worry about sounding stupid or asking questions that are too simple. It’s far worse to struggle through a class because you missed a basic concept than to simply ask the right question.  

4. Walk through your list of questions with your professor

Ask each of the questions you wrote down, one by one. Don’t be afraid to take your time. Your professor is obligated to be there to answer student questions during their office hours. (Of course, this gets harder during midterms or finals season when professors have more students to see—which is another reason to ask for help early!)

If you have a short list of questions, you can also email them. However, seeing your professor in person gives them real-time feedback and allows them to adjust their advice to your understanding. Also, problems are usually resolved quicker in person.

5. Follow Through On Your Professor’s Advice

Last but not least, follow through on all the advice your professor gives you. In some cases, it might feel tempting to go back to doing what’s comfortable. However, this isn’t going to push you to learn something new. Step out of your comfort zone and follow the steps the professor laid out for you. If the advice doesn’t work over time, you can take the next action and get help from a tutor.

The important thing to remember is that no one has to struggle in college alone. Your TAs and professors are there to help you. So don’t be afraid to ask.

More Citation Machine resources: Learn how to do a works cited page and when to use parenthetical citations.