How to Find and Learn from a Great Mentor in College
A positive relationship with a professor can make an enormous difference in your experience as an undergraduate, as well as helping to launch your post-college career. A mentor can help you navigate degree requirements, independent study, research, study abroad, internships, scholarships, graduate school applications, and job applications.
They can offer advice and provide a support network, and can serve as an all-important positive reference as to your academic ability and character.
My mentors (I was lucky enough to find several), helped me win scholarships, get into graduate school, study and work abroad, and find meaningful and fulfilling internship positions that have led to further employment opportunities. An academic advisor helped me get to spend two magical years studying and working in Ireland. So if I come across as a bit enthusiastic, I hope you’ll understand why.
Who is a Mentor?
An academic mentor is usually a professor, although it could also be another member of the university teaching staff (such as a graduate student, college dean, or assigned advisor). This person knows you as a student, and has interacted with you in the classroom enough to know your abilities. However, they know you better than most instructors and have a sense of your goals, your interests, and the ways that your studies interact with your life in a broader sense.
How Do You Find a Mentor?
First, you show up. You select classes that you actually like. You do the reading and think about what you’ve learned. When one subject or professor starts to stand out as particularly interesting or inspiring, make an extra effort to stand out in that class. For extroverts, this can be a little easier—raise your hand with insightful questions or comments, and include both facts from the class and some element of your own opinion or experience. For introverts, put extra effort into your written assignments.
Once you identify a potential mentor you need to meet with them outside of class. Ask for an appointment or attend office hours. Bring questions about the final exam, or ask about future classes they will be offering. Seek advice on classes that will best further your interests from other faculty or even in other departments.
When opportunities arise, such as study abroad, an internship, or study abroad, ask this person’s advice. Ask for a letter of recommendation.
Do this early and establish the relationship. Everyone needs expert advice from time to time, and the earlier you connect with someone to fill this role, the easier your academic path will be.
What Makes a Great Mentor?
Every mentor is different, and yours may not be the best. A few cold, hard realities that make for a great mentor:
- Someone well-established at the college, with good connections
- Someone with tenure (and therefore both security and authority)
- Someone well published and known outside of your university
- Someone with a track record of mentoring excellent students
A few personality traits that make a great mentor:
- Someone who honestly shares your interests
- Someone you feel you “click” with
- Someone who thinks you are exceptional in some way
(I don’t share this list to be cold-hearted. Advice and help from anyone should always be appreciated and sought-after. If you feel that you have a strong collaborative connection with a second-year graduate student with few connections and limited authority at your university, it is entirely possible that your mentor could still offer enormous help on your journey. This list is simply to lay out some of the facts: that some people at the university are likely to offer a greater degree of support than others).
How to Be a Good Advisee/Mentee
In other words: what’s in it for them, and what’s your job?
Mentors help students because they like them. They want to help the students who stand out in some way.
So your job as a “mentee” is to do your best. It’s to listen to the advice given and to take it in the best possible direction in your journey.
But a truly good mentee will go a couple of steps better than that. And I know you want to be one of the good ones, so here’s some helpful pointers:
1. Say thank you. Say it often. Say it in person and in writing. A simple “thanks so much for meeting with me. It was really helpful, and I’ve followed up by [INSERT RELEVANT ACTION]. I’ll let you know how it turns out!”
2. Let them know how it turns out. Let them know about particular applications or decisions, particularly if they wrote letters in your support. But beyond this, stay in touch and let them know how you’re doing in the longer term. They invested some time and energy in you. Let them know it was worth it!
3. Give credit where credit is due. If you have the chance to tell anyone how much your mentor’s help and support was instrumental in your success, do so. Tell their colleagues, tell your friends. You don’t have to go overboard on this—just give them a mention whenever it’s appropriate.
4. Go above and beyond. If you get the chance to do some big “extra,” go ahead and do it. A mentor can be a big deal. So if there is a call for nominations for great teachers, put their name forward. If your department has faculty evaluations, make sure to give a detailed account of your mentor’s work. And if you are someday in the position of returning a favor, whether it’s offering assistance to one of their future students or to the professor themselves, make sure you go above and beyond.
A Final Note
Not everyone finds a great faculty mentor. It might be that you find guidance from another university connection: a boss, a coach, an administrative staff member, a spiritual advisor, a community member, a friend.
Academic mentors are uniquely positioned to help their students as students. But developing the kinds of connections that allow for solid advice and support allow for all kinds of positive opportunities in both the short and long term.