The Smartest Word Your College Student Can Use — How Your Student Can Ask for Help

This is the third of three posts about college students asking for help.  In our first post we considered why students sometimes have difficulty asking for help. Our second post looked at who students might turn to for help. In this post we’ll consider how students can most effectively seek the help they need.

Many high school students planning to go to college spend a lot of their time reviewing vocabulary words for their SAT College Board exam.  They learn big words, important words, roots of words, and definitions.  But if your college student is going to succeed in college, there may be one important word that he needs that never shows up on his entrance exam.  It may be the most important word that he can use in college.  What is that word?  ”Help.”

Your student is very likely to need help at some point in his college career.  Hopefully, you’ve helped him understand that it is important to seek the help that he needs and encouraged him get past possible barriers to seeking that help.  Your student has worked to learn what is available to him on campus and thought about the most appropriate source of help for his problem.  Now your student needs to think about how to most effectively ask for that help.

Asking for help is often very difficult for students.  For many of the reasons that we discussed in our first post, students are reluctant to seek help.  However, even if your student understands that he needs to ask, actually approaching professors or college staff members may be intimidating.  This can be especially true if your student has missed some classes, or has any other reason to be concerned about what the professor or staff member may think of him.  Having a plan for the appointment may help your student to anticipate what might happen and to feel he has more control over the encounter.

How can my student best ask for the help that he needs?

  • The first thing that your student should remember is to ask for help early and often.  He shouldn’t wait until the problem has become so overwhelming that there is no alternative.  Sometimes, seeking help early can prevent a problem from growing beyond the point where your student can deal with it.
  • A second important principle for your student to remember is that asking for help does not replace doing the work.  If your student is having academic difficulty, working with a study group or tutor may actually mean more work.  Asking for help should never come before attempting to solve the problem.
  • Requests for help are often most productive when they are specific.  ”I need help in this class” will be less useful than ”I am having trouble doing the calculations in chapter 3.” ”I don’t understand the assignment” is less helpful than ”I’m not clear about the types of sources I need to find for the paper.”
  • An appointment, tutoring session, or conversation will be most productive when your student has prepared ahead of time.  She might want to gather earlier assignments, collect pertinent e-mails, make some notes, jot down her questions.
  • Giving the other person (professor, advisor, RA, counselor, tutor) an opportunity to prepare ahead of time will also help.  Stopping by an office unannounced may not be as useful as scheduling an appointment ahead of time.
  • Showing up prepared to work and make some notes is important.  Your student will want to remember what was said.  Your student should bring any books and/or papers necessary, something to write with and on, and turn his phone off before the appointment.
  • At the end of the session, a thank-you and plan for follow-up if necessary is appropriate.  Your student might need to ask for another appointment or might ask to have an assignment reviewed when it is done.  Thinking about the ”what next” will be important.

Most of the principles that we’ve suggested here may be simple common sense, but if your student is feeling overwhelmed and stressed, he may not be thinking as clearly as he might.  You may need to do some coaching to help him sharpen his help-seeking skills.  You’ll be relieved and proud as you see your student gain the willingness, confidence and skills to advocate for his needs.

Related Posts:

The Smartest Word Your College Student Can Use – Part 1

The Smartest Word Your College Student Can Use – Part 2

Tutoring Can Help Your College Student Succeed: Twelve Reasons to Start Early

Helping Your College Student With Goal Setting – and Action Plans

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