How to get the most out of your questions

academic advice study skills

Even at the doctorate level, many students struggle with phrasing questions in a clear way that will result in thorough and informative responses from others. This can leave the student feeling discouraged and unsatisfied with their effort to speak up, leading to a decreased willingness to ask questions in the future. Here are three key aspects to keep in mind while asking questions to achieve the most from your inquiries. 

Preface your questions

We’ve all experienced asking a question and then being told information we already knew. Prefaces help circumnavigate this issue! Implementing a preface describing what you already understand will direct the conversation towards more productive learning. 

Instead of Saying:

“How did you get that answer?”

Try Saying:

“I understand how you achieved the previous line, but am not sure what method brought you to the next line. Do you mind going into detail about how you arrived at your answer from the prior line? Thanks!”

This kind of phrasing explicitly shares what you're trying to understand and piece together, which allows your instructor to dive in at the precise moment of confusion, leading to a more productive conversation. 

Be specific!

If an introduction to your inquiry still leaves you wondering, try constructing a more precise question. This takes a bit of practice, as it requires you to collect your thoughts to best shape your ideas. 

Instead of saying:

“How did you solve that problem?”

Try saying:

“I am unsure how to approach this problem. I feel quite confident about the theory behind the problem, but am unsure how to begin. Do you mind providing an example of how to take the first steps in a similar problem? Thanks!”

By specifically identifying a place where you feel lost, you help your instructor narrow the scope of their response. Furthermore, gathering other relevant practice problems can be a stellar way to improve your critical thinking skills.

Mind your p’s & q’s 

Everyone has seen a heated back and forth between a teacher and a pupil, which appears akin to an intense debate rather than direct learning. This usually begins as a tonal issue! If you are ever worried about the tone of your questions, integrate a “please” or a “thank you.” Even within emails, which can be very hard to interpret, a simple “thanks!” is a simple way to recognize the other person and their effort in supporting your learning. 

Brian is a PhD student at Columbia University studying Chemical Engineering. Previously, he earned a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering, Statistics, and Chemistry, with a minor in Accounting at the University of California San Diego.


academics study skills MCAT medical school admissions SAT college admissions expository writing English strategy MD/PhD admissions writing LSAT GMAT physics GRE chemistry biology math graduate admissions academic advice law school admissions ACT interview prep test anxiety language learning career advice premed MBA admissions personal statements homework help AP exams creative writing MD test prep study schedules computer science Common Application mathematics summer activities history philosophy secondary applications organic chemistry economics supplements research grammar 1L PSAT admissions coaching law psychology statistics & probability dental admissions legal studies ESL CARS PhD admissions SSAT covid-19 logic games reading comprehension calculus engineering USMLE mentorship Spanish parents Latin biochemistry case coaching verbal reasoning AMCAS DAT English literature STEM admissions advice excel medical school political science skills French Linguistics MBA coursework Tutoring Approaches academic integrity astrophysics chinese gap year genetics letters of recommendation mechanical engineering Anki DO Social Advocacy algebra art history artificial intelligence business careers cell biology classics data science dental school diversity statement geometry kinematics linear algebra mental health presentations quantitative reasoning study abroad tech industry technical interviews time management work and activities 2L DMD IB exams ISEE MD/PhD programs Sentence Correction adjusting to college algorithms amino acids analysis essay athletics business skills cold emails finance first generation student functions graphing information sessions international students internships logic networking poetry proofs resume revising science social sciences software engineering trigonometry units writer's block 3L AAMC Academic Interest EMT FlexMed Fourier Series Greek Health Professional Shortage Area Italian JD/MBA admissions Lagrange multipliers London MD vs PhD MMI Montessori National Health Service Corps Pythagorean Theorem Python Shakespeare Step 2 TMDSAS Taylor Series Truss Analysis Zoom acids and bases active learning architecture argumentative writing art art and design schools art portfolios bacteriology bibliographies biomedicine brain teaser campus visits cantonese capacitors capital markets central limit theorem centrifugal force chemical engineering chess chromatography class participation climate change clinical experience community service constitutional law consulting cover letters curriculum dementia demonstrated interest dimensional analysis distance learning econometrics electric engineering electricity and magnetism escape velocity evolution executive function fellowships freewriting genomics harmonics health policy history of medicine history of science hybrid vehicles hydrophobic effect ideal gas law immunology induction infinite institutional actions integrated reasoning intermolecular forces intern investing investment banking lab reports letter of continued interest linear maps mandarin chinese matrices mba medical physics meiosis microeconomics mitosis mnemonics music music theory nervous system