By: Josh Kaplan
Campus Sherpa Blog Contributor, Northwestern University
Looking to make the most out of your college visit? Connect with the people that will guide your academic experience: the professors. Each part of this process will help you build your skills as a college applicant. Plus, the relationships you form with these professors may serve you for years to come, so let’s get started.
First, you have to find a few classes that interest you. Here’s a straightforward way to hone in on a few key courses. You don’t need to know your intended major; just take a peek at the available ones, and make a list of subjects that sound fun or useful. Next, find the department websites that correspond with the majors you selected. Every department at every institution should provide a list of classes online. While browsing the sometimes daunting catalogs, look for the course names that really jump out. Personally, looking for ones that brought two or more subjects together (e.g. Film and Politics in the Middle East) helped limit my list. The more niche of a department you look into, the more likely the professor is to respond, so give extra weight to these classes. Take down the names of the most recent professors who taught the courses you found, and head on to step two!
Get some background information on your list of professors. Each professor should have a biography available online, whether on the department page or a general website for the institution. Based on their tenure at the university, publications, and qualifications, you can judge which ones may be a better fit or easier to talk to. I’d recommend emailing roughly 3-5, but you’re welcome to spend time on more, or gamble on fewer. When you’ve narrowed down your list, look for other resources to bolster your understanding of their academic background. Their books, papers, and recorded lectures all work well to help understand their interests and style. Reading a full book poses a large investment, but if you have the time and motivation, go for it! Otherwise, reading a summary or glancing at some Amazon reviews will do just fine.
Draft an excellent email. You should use your own voice when cranking out your request to each professor, though in my experience, this method got at least a response e-mail every time. For the subject, use “Curious about” and then list the name of the school, the department, and perhaps a specific work of the professor. Then, start with addressing the professor by title and last name, as well as a cheery intro such as, “I hope your week is going well!” If you know more about the university, you could even dazzle the professor with some campus-specific intro: “I hope the centennial celebration was exciting!” Next, provide your name, where you’re from, and the date of your visit. This information is crucial to getting your foot in the door as a real person and not a robot. After that, you’re ready to mention you casually noticed the professor’s course: “‘Botany in the Middle Ages’ really piqued my interest,” or “‘Mechanics of Washing Machines’ caught my eye!” On to the next paragraph—now it’s time to lay out your knowledge of their academic history. Just write two or three sentences on what you took a look at and why you’re interested in the same subjects. These first two bite-sized paragraphs will be easy to digest and help the reader develop a connection with you and your request. Round out this gem of an email by saying you’re most likely or highly considering majoring in their department and state your interest in learning more about their work, their department, and the school at large. It’s best to include any special institutes or programs that the professor works with, going beyond the subject line’s detail. Finally, ask if they have any availability to meet to talk during your visit. Seal with a classy “Sincerely” or “Warm regards” and leave your name and phone number below. I would recommend excluding numbers such as scores and GPAs, as your path to this meeting likely hinges on broadcasted enthusiasm rather than raw qualifications. Whether the professor responds or not, writing emails such as these provides practice for formal writing of this style.
Don’t let this email go to waste! Just because professors are busy people and will likely be unavailable for the one day you’re on campus, you can still leverage your brilliant and friendly email to help you get a handle on the school. If they are unable to meet, ask for recommendations about other professors or students to reach out to for your visit. You can also try to schedule a phone call at the professor’s earliest convenience. Even if you don’t get a response to the email, you can use your research into the courses to come away with more solid material for your “Why this School?” essay and your interview.
All around, preparing for and chatting with a professor helps give you an edge in your application, and in life. Once you’ve sent emails to professors at one school, the process will become second nature. This practice will leave you with a deeper connection to the school and hopefully its faculty, too. There’s no downside, as long as you don’t misspell the name of the professor! By showing a genuine interest in the professor’s field, you just might make a friend with some sway.
Sample Email: “Subject: Curious about Davidson, Asian Studies, and Your Academic Field
Dear Professor Penny, I hope this message finds you well. My name is Will Anteater, and I’m coming from Arizona to visit Davidson next Monday, September 15th. I was looking through the course catalog for the Institute for American Foreign Policy and your course on “Environment and Sustainability in Vietnam” caught my eye.
After reading several articles and trying to get a better understanding of the work you have been doing, I am both impressed and fascinated. For a long time now, I’ve been interested in Vietnam and our environmental future, but never thought the subjects could overlap in such an academically intriguing way.
I’m most likely applying early as an Asian Studies major, but, like most people my age, I have passions that I’d like to combine whenever I can. Davidson’s Asian Studies program stood out when I read about classes like yours and other special departments. I would love to learn more about your connection to the Environmental Policy Department, Center on Southeast Asia, and Davidson as a school. If there’s any way we could talk sometime Monday (10/13) afternoon or evening, I’d be delighted.