Don’t make your college professor hate you. Say this, not that.
It’s difficult to correct a bad impression once you’ve created one with your professor, and grading is always going to be somewhat subjective. If you don’t want your professor to think of you as a problem student and never give you the benefit of the doubt when grading your assignments, do not say anything of these things.
“I’m leaving early for Thanksgiving/Easter/Christmas break, so I won’t be able to take the test/do the assignment/attend the talk.”
I get it. Sometimes your family schedules a great vacation not paying attention to when you are actually on the school break. But telling your professor that is not a good idea, because he or she will hear “I’m going on vacation while you stay here slaving away grading papers and tests.” It’s possible nothing will keep your professor from giving you a zero on what you missed. But try this and you might salvage something.
Visit your professor during office hours EARLY in the semester and say, “My family against my wishes scheduled a trip before the break starts here. I’m feeling torn because I want to be with them but also do what I’m supposed to do as a student. Is there any way for me to complete the assignment earlier or in an alternative way?” Then provide a couple of suggestions of what you can do.
“I don’t understand this article/novel/poem/essay.”
To your professor, this sounds like you are giving up without any effort. It sounds lazy. Instead, say this: “I’ve read this assignment, and what I’m taking from it is [insert any kind of interpretation here]. Am I way off base?” This shows that you’ve at least given the reading some thought and want to have a conversation about it, not simply be spoon-fed the “meaning” of it.
“Is there anything I can do for extra credit?”
This is often seen as an insult. There’s usually no extra credit in college, except sometimes we offer some extra points if students attend a talk outside of class. And no professor wants this question AFTER you’ve blown an assignment. It’s like being sorry only after you’re caught doing the crime. Instead, say this: “I really blew the last assignment. I want to do better on the next one. Can I come talk to you/show you a draft before the next assignment is due? Most professors will adjust grades a little in your benefit if you’ve improved over the course of the semester. So work hard to improve!
“I couldn’t find any articles on this topic.”
This might be true, but it’s usually because you’re doing it wrong. When a student says this to me, then I get on the computer and find 5 great articles in 5 seconds, I get mad. Again, it sounds like an admission of giving up by a lazy student. Instead say this: “I’m having trouble finding articles on this topic you assigned. Can I show you how I’ve been searching the databases and you can point me in a better direction?“ Then show the professor on a laptop or the office computer what you’ve been doing. Being willing to show what you’ve tried means you’re saying you’ve already done some work on the topic.
“I need an A in this class.“
Don’t misunderstand: teachers love to have students earn As. Giving an A to a student whose work earns that A is a wonderful feeling. That’s different from a “grade-grubber” who seems to want the grade and not the learning that the “A” shows has happened. Say this instead, EARLY in the semester: “I chose this class on purpose because I’m really interested in the subject matter. But I find some of the material challenging and I want to be sure I do the best I can. Can I make some appointments with you during the semester to be sure I’m really understanding the material?”
Then show up for all the appointments with reading notes, a draft of a paper, evidence of having thought about assignments.
Whenever I hear this, I think of a story another professor told me (can’t vouch for it being true but it’s a great story). A student came into the office and said, “I’ll do anything for an A. Anything.” The professor got up, closed the office door, and said, “Anything? Really?” “Oh, yes,” the student said, meaningfully. “Then STUDY!” the professor said, flinging the door open again.
Nothing makes your professor happier than seeing evidence that you are thinking about and engaging with the course topic, enjoying gaining access to the knowledge he or she is sharing, and working hard to do your best. Maybe you can’t summon this kind of enthusiasm about every class you take. But you can fake it, and sometimes faking it leads to making it. At the very least, however, following this advice, you will not alienate your professor and get yourself tagged as lazy and entitled.