How To Become An Undergraduate Teaching Assistant In College

Are you interested in becoming an undergraduate teaching assistant (TA) in college? Learn what it takes to become to a successful TA in college.

One of most rewarding experiences in college is becoming an undergraduate teaching assistant (UTA or TA for short).

An undergraduate teaching assistant is an upper-level student who assistants a professor with their class. A UTA takes on many responsibilities: tutoring, grading assignments, helping the professor prepare for class, responding to student questions and concerns, and even teaching.

Becoming an undergraduate teaching assistant is not only a great opportunity to get more involved in your major, but this experience can also enhance your resume and make you a stronger candidate for graduate school or other teaching experiences post-college graduation.

In today’s blog post, we will be talking in-depth about everything you need to know about becoming an undergraduate teaching assistant.

From what a TA does, is it worth being a TA, is it better to be a TA or a RA (research assistant), what makes a great TA, and the steps to become an undergraduate teaching assistant–we will be discussing it all!

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What is an undergraduate teaching assistant?

An undergraduate teaching assistant, often abbreviated as UTA or TA, is an upper-level student, either a sophomore, junior, or senior, who helps a college professor with a specific class or sometimes multiple classes for a semester.

What does a teaching assistant do in college?

UTAs have a wide variety of responsibilities, but it really depends on the professor they are a TA for and the department’s requirements for students classified as TAs.

In general though, as an undergraduate teaching assistant you can expect to do the following duties or at least some of the duties listed below:

  • Attending the class the professor is instructing on a regular basis
  • Tutoring students outside of class
  • Holding study sessions with students prior to a quiz or test
  • Responding to student emails or in-person questions
  • Grading assignments
  • Proctoring exams and quizzes
  • Doing short lectures under the advisement of your professor
  • Helping the professor prepare for class
    • Making copies
    • Running scantrons through the scantron machine
    • Organizing the classroom management system
    • Drafting classroom announcements
    • Proofreading materials for class like the syllabus or lecture slides

Is it worth being a TA?

College students seeking to apply to graduate school will find that being a teaching assistant is a necessity. For other students, being a TA can be worth it if you enjoy or want to contribute to other students’ success.

Here are some benefits to being an undergraduate teaching assistant:

  • Improved communication skills
  • Improved time management skills
  • Increase in knowledge and understanding of topics in your major or future career field
  • Establish a relationship with a professor/mentor who can help you when applying to graduate school or jobs after college
  • Earn course credit that can help you graduate earlier or meet an upper-level course requirement

However, it is worthy to note that you do not get paid monetarily as an undergraduate teaching assistant. Your form of “payment” as a TA is instead in the form of course credit and experience, which is similar to if you were an undergraduate research assistant.

What does being a teaching assistant teach you?

Once you become a TA for that class, you never stop learning even though you know the subject already.

As a teaching assistant you will learn:

  • To be patient with others: Remember that not all students think or learn like you. You’ll need to be patient with students who have a difficult time grasping concepts or have difficulty keeping up with course work in general.

  • How to think on your feet: You never know when you’ll come across a student with a tricky question or is not understanding a specific topic you are tutoring them in and needs it explained in a new way: You’ll learn to be savvy at thinking and acting quickly to serve these students.

  • How to communicate professionally: You will learn how to effectively communicate not only with your advising professor, but also with students who may not be as great with technology or with their words.

  • How to make students better students: As mentioned in the first bullet, as a TA, you have to remember that a majority of the students you come across as a teaching assistant are not like you. Meaning, learning, studying, and making good grades may not come easy to them. As a TA, the students you are a TA for will look to you for mentorship and advice on how to become a better student because you are more relatable to them than the professor.

You may also like: How To Get Into Graduate School: An In-Depth Guide

Which is better TA or RA?

When deciding whether or not to become an undergraduate teaching assistant or an undergraduate research assistant, it is going to ultimately depend on your long-term goals after college and your personal preference. But you can also do both experiences, so don’t feel limited by only choosing one. Lots of students have been a TA and a RA in their college careers.

Down below, you can see a comparison of being a TA vs RA:

Being a teaching assistant is better if you:

  • Enjoy working with a group of people as well as 1-on-1 with individual students
  • Don’t mind or enjoy public speaking occasionally
  • Want to teach or use teaching skills in your future career
  • Have the time to commit attending an additional class on top of your own course load to sit in on lectures and proctor exams
  • Have time outside of class to hold tutoring sessions and group study sessions prior to quizzes and test

Being a research assistant is better if you:

  • Enjoy working in a small group, but also alone
  • Enjoy reading, but also don’t mind statistics/math
  • Want to do research as a career or in graduate school
  • Good at writing and summarizing information
  • Desire to be published in an academic journal
  • Desire to present at a conference or symposium

At the end of the day, being a teaching assistant or a research are both great opportunities to further your knowledge and passion for a certain topic.

It is also a way to give back to your school while also gaining experience, skills, and course credit for doing something many other students don’t get to do at all during their undergraduate degree.

Finally, if you have any desire to go to graduate school, it is highly recommended you become a teaching assistant or a research assistant in undergraduate (or both).

Can you be a TA and an RA at the same time?

Technically, yes, you can if you can make it work in your schedule. However, because the time commitment is heavy for both TA’s and RA’s, it may be best to do these experiences one at a time.

For example, I was a teaching assistant in Fall 2017 and then was a research assistant in Spring 2017 and Fall 2018.

If you are looking to do both at the same time, perhaps consider volunteering as an RA while you TA and then switching over to being an actual RA (an RA who earns course credit) once you are done being a TA.

The reason for this is because volunteering as an RA usually is not as much of a time commitment versus if you were an RA who earns course credit and is expected to commit consistently to lab work. However, volunteer RA’s still gain valuable research experience even though they are not earning course credit.

You may also like: How To Do Research In College As An Undergraduate Student

What skills does a teaching assistant need?

Is it true? Can you be a teaching assistant with no qualifications?

Well sorta…

For the most part, the only “skills” or “qualifications” you need to become a teaching assistant is:

  • To have already taken the course you want to become a teaching assistant for
  • Make an A in that course
  • Met the GPA requirement (when I was a TA the GPA requirement was a 3.0)

Other than that, the skills you need as a TA are learned, “on the job,” by the professor you are a TA for. You’ll also pick up skills as you adapt to the needs of the students you are a TA for.

However, it does not hurt to already have these skills already under your belt:

  • Technology/computer skills to be able to operate the printer/copier machine and navigate different software and programs as needed
  • Communication skills to effectively and professionally communicate with the professor you are a TA for and students in-person or virtually
  • Time management skills to be able to juggle being a TA on top of getting your own coursework done
  • Tutoring experience which will help when holding study sessions or addressing student questions

Can teaching assistants teach a class on their own?

Depending on the professor you are a TA for, they may require you to teach one or two lessons on a topic to fulfill your TA duties. However, some professors make teaching optional for the TA.

If the professor you are a TA for does not require you to teach or does not provide the option up front, but you would like the opportunity to teach, many professors would be happy to provide that experience upon request at the beginning of the semester.

However, undergraduate teaching assistants do not teach an entire class on their own for the semester.

Undergraduate TA’s simply do not have enough skills and expertise under their belts to teach an entire section by themselves and there is no way an undergraduate student could fit teaching into their already busy schedule.

However, if you go on to graduate school, there is the opportunity to become a graduate teaching assistant or GTA, which is what I am doing as a graduate student in my Applied Statistics program.

As a GTA you will get paid to assist a professor in their courses and actually teach an entire class (or two) on your own under supervision of a professor.

Will you be the only TA for your professor?

It is quite common for a professor to have multiple TAs for a class.

When I was a TA in Fall 2017 for a Research Methods in Psychology course, there were actually three TA’s (two other girls and myself).

I have also been a student in classes where there have been 2 TA’s, but I’ve also been in classes where there has only been 1 TA.

Whether you will TA by yourself or have another TA to help divide the work up will depend on the professor and the rigor of the class.

For larger classes or courses with more challenging coursework, multiple TA’s are usually needed. However, a simple lecture class with 30-40 students may not need multiple TA’s.

How can I be a good TA in college?

Being a good TA is highly subjective, because honestly, not every student will love you as their TA.

And when you are a TA, you will discover that being a TA is very different than being an actual student of the class, so you may find yourself struggling to connect with the students or find the joys of being a TA.

However, whether you are “good” TA is determined by how you see yourself as a TA and of course, your professor, who is giving you a grade for being a TA, so you can earn course credit.

Overall, a good TA is:

  • Confident
  • Open-minded
  • Warm and welcoming to students questions and concerns
  • Good at communicating in a timely matter
  • Determined to help students become better learners
  • Able to maintain academic integrity when interacting with students
  • Good at thinking on their feet
  • Always taking initiative

You may also like: How to Stay Motivated in College

Alternatives to becoming a teaching assistant in college

Becoming a teaching assistant is not always possible for students.

For some students, they are unable to commit the time needed to be fulfill the duties of a TA or they have not have the grades to become a TA.

There is also a limited number of TA positions available, which makes it difficult for students to become a teaching assistant if they do not take action fast enough.

Even if the opportunity to become a teaching assistant is not available to you, there are alternative opportunities you can take advantage of if you still have the desire to teach or gain a similar experience to TAs.

Tutoring

If you are knowledgeable in a certain subject, have the grades to show for it, enjoy helping others become better learners, and want to earn money then becoming a tutor is an excellent alternative to becoming a TA.

As a tutor, you can work at a tutoring center off-campus or on-campus or start your own private tutoring service by advertising it on Facebook and community apps, like Next Door.

You also don’t have to tutor college students. You can tutor students in elementary, middle, or high school in all sorts of subjects and overtime, even have regular students and parents who seek out your tutoring services.

I personally was a tutor for my campus’s student-athlete success services, and I was able to tutor many football players and track athletes in psychology and statistics.

Majoring in education

If you love to teach and want to make it a long-term career, majoring in education is a great way to learn the necessary skills to teach as a profession.

As an education major, you will shadow and have hands-on experience working with students by doing a field experience or practicum in either an elementary, middle, or high school before graduating and having a classroom of your own once hired as a teacher.

Holding an educator position in a club or organization

In many clubs and organizations on campus, particularly academic fraternities or social clubs (sororities or fraternities that are not academic-based), there are educator positions you can hold where you educate new members of the chapter prior to initiation into the chapter.

In these positions, you teach new members the values, rituals, and basic knowledge about the organization that all initiated members should know to be successful.

However, educator positions are limited and you do not get paid for holding these positions. They do, though, provide experience that can be used on a resume for a future job.

What are the steps to becoming an undergraduate teaching assistant?

In general, the steps to becoming an undergraduate teaching assistant, are:

  1. Take the class you want to be a TA for (it can be an elective or a required course)
  2. Make an A in the class
  3. Ask the professor who teaches the class you want to be a TA for if they are accepting new TAs
  4. Complete the department’s application to become a TA

We will discuss these 4 steps in more detail in the following sections.

However, please understand that this is a general guideline to on how to become a teaching assistant in college.

Individual universities and colleges may have their own specific requirements for students to become a teaching assistant and I advise you to learn what those requirements are even if you are slightly interested in becoming a TA.

Step 1: Take the class you want to be a teaching assistant for

Professors are not willing to have students be a TA for a for a course they have never taken before, so you will need to take the class before even being considered as a potential TA for the class.

And honestly, you won’t even know if you want to be a TA for the class until you have gotten to know the professor and their style of teaching and have received enough feedback/grades in the class to know if you would qualify to be a TA.

Because trust me, you do not want to be a TA for a professor you do not get along with or a class you are not finding success in either.

Taking the course will also give you the perspective of knowing what students struggle with in the class, so when you do become a TA you can provide advice and tips to help future students grasp the more difficult concepts.

Step 2: Make an A in the class

Most professors will not let you be a teaching assistant for them if you have not done exceptionally well in their course, meaning receiving an A as your final grade.

Receiving an A in the class tells the professor that you are a hard worker and have a great understanding of the concepts taught in class which will help you when tutoring students, addressing student questions, or holding study sessions before a quiz/test.

If you have the desire to become a teaching assistant but are not quite where you want to be grade-wise in a certain class, have an alternative class you’d be willing to TA for in mind.

It’s ok if you don’t get to TA for your “dream class.”

It’s better to get the experience of being a TA than to worry about which specific class you are a TA for.

Also, be mindful that there is usually a GPA requirement to become a TA too. If your overall GPA does not meet the threshold (at my university it was a 3.0 to become a TA), you will need to bring up your GPA before even asking to become a TA.

Step 3: Ask the professor who teaches the class you want to be a TA for if they are accepting new TAs

In general, if the class you are taking has TAs helping the professor, there is a good chance that the professor is actively seeking out new TAs for the next semester or future semesters.

Some professors may also make a class announcement towards the middle or end of the semester that they are seeking out TAs, but I honestly have only seen this occur in my psychology classes.

Most of the time, professors do not announce they are seeking new TAs or they do not have active teaching assistants, so it can be hard to determine if the professor is even open to having TAs for their future classes. If this is the case, the easiest solution is to talk to the professor or email them about the opportunity to TA for them.

If you talk to the professor about becoming a TA in-person, schedule a meeting with them during office hours, so they have enough time to prepare any materials for you.

If asking by email you can write a similar email to this one:

Dear Dr. Professor,

I hope you are having a wonderful day.

My name is Juliet Meiling and I am currently in your PSYC 9999 class that meets on Mondays and Wednesdays at 9 AM. I have thoroughly enjoyed the content of the course and have learned a lot in just 8 weeks.

I am emailing you today to inquire about any opportunities you may have in the future to become a Teaching Assistant for your PSYC 9999 class. I currently have a 3.90 GPA overall and have a 4.0 GPA for my psychology courses.

I am very interested in becoming a Teaching Assistant and would love to learn the process of becoming a Teaching Assistant for you.

Thank you for your time and I look forward to your response.

Best regards,

Juliet Meiling

Hopefully, you will receive a response from the professor within 24-48 hours, but if not, again it is best to have an alternative class you want to become a TA for. This could be a class you have taken in a previous semester or a class you are currently taking an have an A in.

You may also receive an email with the unfortunate news that the professor you want to be a TA for is not accepting new TAs at the moment.

Some professors may be able to connect you with another professor who is teaching the same class and is accepting a TA, but if you are simply told “no and good luck,” then you will need to seek out another TA opportunity yourself.

But don’t get discouraged if you are not initially successful in your search for a TA position. Remember that TA positions are limited.

So if you know you meet the grade and GPA requirement to become a TA, it isn’t that you aren’t TA material, it just means you need to keep on seeking out a professor who is accepting new TAs and all that takes initiative and sending out a few more emails. You got this!

Step 4: Complete the department’s application to become a TA

When you email or meet with a professor about becoming a TA they may go ahead and accept you as a TA verbally. Or they may have you fill out a department application to put you into a pool of other students who also want to be a TA for them.

Either way, you will more than likely have to fill out an application for the department so they have on record who will be TA next semester or who is interested in becoming a TA in the future.

The application may ask for:

  • Your GPA
  • How many credit hours you have earned/classification (freshman, sophomore, junior, senior)
  • What class you want to TA for and for which professor
  • Tentative class schedule for the semester you want to TA in
  • If you plan on working (part-time or full-time) while being a TA
  • Why you want to be a TA (short-answer response)
  • What qualities you have that would make you a good TA (short-answer response)

Be sure to honest and as accurate as possible on your application because your information, especially your GPA and grades, are easy to look up by the department or the professor you are trying to become a TA for.

Also, be sure to fill out and submit the application as soon as possible. You do not want this opportunity to be taken away from you by another student.

Once you submit your application, the next step is to wait for further instruction from the professor you are a TA for and prepare for your semester as a teaching assistant.

Concluding thoughts on becoming an undergraduate teaching assistant

Becoming an undergraduate teaching assistant is a great opportunity for you if you want to go to graduate school or need to use teaching skills in your future career.

As a TA, you will be helping other students learn to be successful in a course you have already taken and you will be providing invaluable help to the professor you are a TA for.

If you want to become a TA, take initiative now to find out what your university or college’s requirements are to become a TA.

And then actively seek out professors looking for a TA for an upcoming semester.

With hardwork, dedication, and initiative, I know you can fulfill your goal of becoming a teaching assistant in college.

Related posts to becoming an undergraduate teaching assistant

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