Academic Writing, Writing

Back to School: How to Ask for Help

Haneen, an international student at a large American university, was struggling to complete one of her assignments for an English composition class. “I knew I needed to talk to my professor,” said Haneen. “But I wasn’t sure how to approach her. I was afraid she would think I was stupid. I also worried about the effect it might have on other students from my country. What if I said something that would make us all look stupid?”

Whether you’re a seasoned professional, new to the workforce, or still a student, asking for help with your writing can be intimidating. It can be tricky to determine when, how, and whom you should ask for help. This is especially true if you are an international student or if you are still in your teens. If your parents have always handled your school problems, you might not be sure how to do that on your own.

You’re NOT stupid!

Before we go any further, let’s make one thing clear: If you are a student or a professional who needs help with your English writing assignments, that does not mean you are stupid.

We edit a lot of scholarly papers, reports, and other important documents at TextRanch. The authors of these papers are obviously intelligent people who are well versed in their subject matter. They generally have a good grasp on the conventions of English writing, but certain small details can cause problems:

  • Choosing the right “little” words like articles, prepositions, and conjunctions.
  • Using the correct word order.
  • Catching typos.
  • Following the right rules for punctuation.

Even professional writers need editors to provide a second pair of eyes to look for mistakes before an article or book is published. Asking for help with your writing problems is a smart move, so forget about “stupid”.

Our previous article outlined some guidelines to prepare you for the new school year, which included a list of resources that are available on most university campuses. Now let’s look at some more specific strategies so you can communicate effectively with your professors and get the help you need.

Start off on the right foot.

For those of you who are not native English speakers, “start off on the right foot” is an expression that means to form a positive relationship with someone right away, especially a teacher, a manager, or someone else in a position of authority. As a university student, starting off on the right foot with a professor means showing them that you are taking your studies seriously. Here are some ways you can do this:

  • Attend class regularly.
  • Be on time for classes, labs, and any other scheduled meetings.
  • Come to class prepared by keeping up with readings and course work to the best of your ability.
  • Contribute to class discussions.

When it’s time for you to discuss your writing problems with your professor, the professor will already have a favorable impression of you. You won’t be some anonymous face in the crowd.

Be specific about your writing problems.

You may be feeling overwhelmed, but try to take a step back and look at your writing objectively. Ask yourself some questions to find out where exactly the problem lies. Take notes and include any information that your professor might find relevant.

  • Are you struggling with just one assignment, or one particular type of assignment?
  • Is your writing problem connected to a reading problem?
  • Are you so worried about proper spelling and grammar that you aren’t able to focus on the actual content of your assignments?
  • Do you have personal problems that are interfering with your ability to complete your work?
  • What kind of help do you think would be most effective for you?

Haneen figured out that her trouble with her writing assignment was related to the class readings. “In secondary school, my English classes were all very traditional,” Haneen recalled. “I’d never read modern short stories like the ones my professor assigned. The structure of the stories was very unusual, and I think I was also missing something on a cultural level. It’s hard to write an essay about stories that don’t make sense! But now that I know exactly what the problem is, I don’t feel so stupid.”

Ask for help sooner rather than later.

Whether you are having problems with one class or with all of your classes, it’s better to seek help right away. Don’t wait until you have fallen so far behind that it will be impossible to catch up. Remember, your professors are busy. They, too, have deadlines to meet. They can’t do much to help you if you wait until the end of the semester.

Let’s say that both you and your professor agree that you could benefit from some tutoring. The professor even recommends a graduate student who can work with you. How much can those tutoring sessions really help you if the semester is almost over?

How do you contact a professor?

Each professor is different. Some of them have time to chat after class, while others prefer to meet with you during office hours. Check your syllabus to see when your professor is available.

Even if you don’t have time to talk to your professor immediately before or after class, in most cases you can give them a heads-up and let them know you will be contacting them in the near future. For example, you could tell the professor, “I am going to send you an email about this paper sometime tonight.”

If you need tips on how to email a professor, click here. Many of these tips can also be applied to the workplace.

Be prepared for your meeting.

When you have your actual meeting with your professor (or your manager if you are in the workplace), make sure you have everything you need.

  • Bring any notes or partially completed work that will help the professor better understand your problem.
  • If your problem is related to a disability or medical condition, include information about that.
  • Are you already working with a tutor or utilizing other university resources? If so, let the professor know.

Being prepared will help you feel less nervous about meeting with your professor. It will also make it easier for you to remember everything that you wish to discuss.

What if the professor is part of the problem?

Most instructors want their students to succeed. They don’t enjoy handing out bad grades or pressuring their students into a nervous breakdown. Unfortunately, toxic personalities exist everywhere—including universities—and sometimes the professor is the problem. What should you do then?

Since each school and each situation is different, we cannot give you an exact answer, but some of these strategies could help:

  • Ask your student advisor, counselor, or another trustworthy official for advice regarding school policies regarding disputes with instructors.
  • Use a journal to keep track of the times and places of every meeting you have with this professor.
  • After each meeting, write down everything that the two of you discussed in as much detail as possible to keep a record of your discussions. 
  • Follow up your meetings by emailing a summary of your discussion to the professor; they may reply with clarifications that will help you understand things better. 
  • Save all emails (sent and received) and any other written communications (comments on your papers, class materials, etc.) that your instructor provides.

Keeping a careful record of your interactions will be important evidence if the situation escalates to the point where you need to report the professor’s behavior to university officials. The same hold true if you ever have a problem with a manager or supervisor in the workplace.

Fortunately, extreme situations are rare, as Haneen discovered when she reached out to her professor for help. “I didn’t tell my professor that I disliked the stories we were reading in class,” said Haneen. “But I did admit I was having difficulty understanding them. She gave me some articles that helped me understand the stories a little better. I also formed a study group with two of my classmates. And I always make sure to have someone look over my papers before I turn them in.”

If you are in a situation like Haneen’s, our TextRanch editors are here to help you. If you would like a professional editor to review your academic papers and provide feedback, click here. If you have specific questions about the English language, click here. For help with emails or shorter texts, click the blue box below.

How useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!

Average rating 4.2 / 5. Vote count: 18

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.

We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!

Let us improve this post!

Tell us how we can improve this post?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *