How to ask for help

This post is a slight departure from the usual fare from Flying Colours HQ - more about personal development than about maths. But it's still useful for your maths: today, children, we'll be looking at effective ways of asking people to help you.

In particular, if you're asking for my help, following this guide will increase your chances of getting a detailed reply!

1. Have reasonable expectations

If you've got an exam next week and you claim to know nothing and you need my help desperately... well, what exactly do you have in mind? I can't sit the exam for you. Even if I could write you a textbook, there's very little chance you'd be able to go through it in a week. If you booked a few classes1 , I might be able to do something to improve your grade a bit, but in all likelihood, it would be too little, too late.

When you make an appeal for help, think about how much time and inclination the person is likely to have to help you - and make it easy for them to do so.

2. Make a small, specific request

If someone asks "Can you explain percentages?" in an e-mail, my response is usually to suggest a copy of Basic Maths For Dummies. I could explain the whole of percentages to you, but I'd be giving up time I could spend writing for money, or playing with baby Bill.

On the other hand, if you ask "I got this question wrong - In a 10% off sale, some trainers are £135, and I added £13.50 on to get £148.50 but the answer is £150 - can you see where I went wrong?" - that's something I can, and usually will, answer in a few seconds.

Small, specific requests will usually get an answer more quickly and more helpfully than large, vague ones.

3. Show you've done some work yourself

That request in the last section? I'd have been extra-inclined to answer that one, as the person asking had clearly made an effort to solve it him or herself, and got stuck. The student is invested in the problem, and wants to know how to get to the answer.

By way of comparison, I've had people send me their homework sheets and ask me to fill in the answers. I'll tell you now, that's not going to happen2 .

It's also worth looking around the site to see if I've answered your question before. I don't normally respond with LMGTFY - I try to be friendly even in the face of provocation - but I'm tempted.

4. Don't plead

Putting extra Es in 'PLEEEEEEASE!' isn't going to sway my cold heart. Neither is a sob story about how desperate you are to pass.

Just ask, politely. You're less likely to make me tut , and more likely to hang onto a shred of self-respect. (Be nice, Colin. Be nice.)

5. Think about how your request can help the person you're asking

Me? I'm always on the lookout for ideas for a blog post or an e-book. If you ask a question I can answer on the blog, or suggest a common problem an e-book might solve, I'll not just send you an answer, but I'll thank you in the finished piece.

Reading that back, I look like a total curmudgeon. Perhaps I am in an unusually cranky mood (I blame a glut of vague requests and not enough sleep) - I promise, I'm a lot nicer than I sound today! Honestly, if you ask me a nice specific question following these guidelines, I'll do my best to answer it quickly.


Colin is a Weymouth maths tutor, author of several Maths For Dummies books and A-level maths guides. He started Flying Colours Maths in 2008. He lives with an espresso pot and nothing to prove.

  1. Assuming I have any available - exam times are always busy []
  2. I imagine there's some amount of money that would change my mind, but it's at least four figures. []


4 comments on “How to ask for help

  • sue

    Hello there, I last did maths cse in 1986. I have just found out I need a gcse maths c for a new job. I have to pass gcse maths in June. So my question is what book of yours do you recommend for me to learn and pass higher level C grade gcse maths in two months. I do have lots of time on my hands, I also have a degree albeit in law, so i do know how to study, I just dont know what and how ? Thanks for listening.

    • Colin

      Hi, Sue, thanks for your message!

      Unfortunately, GCSE maths is one of the areas I haven’t quite colonised with books yet! Some of the material in Basic Maths For Dummies (and BMFD Practice Problems) will likely help, especially the Table of Joy, but I’d suggest getting hold of a few past papers from the exam board websites and seeing where you are already. In (for example) EdExcel higher tier maths, the mark to get a C is around 30%. Given that you’ve already got a maths qualification (even from some time back), you might find you have many of the skills you need already.

      Best of luck!

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Where do you teach?

I teach in my home in Abbotsbury Road, Weymouth.

It's a 15-minute walk from Weymouth station, and it's on bus routes 3, 8 and X53. On-road parking is available nearby.

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