As the semester begins and your GMail fills up with countless emails that you may or may not have time to read, it is worthwhile to brush up on your email etiquette, especially when sending emails to professors. If you want to be taken seriously and respected by your professors, read and heed!
The majority of teachers have certain expectations from messages they receive from students. These professors and instructors will expect a student’s level of communications to reflect professionalism and proper tone, no matter how adept they are at using technology. If the teacher’s title is “Assistant Professor,” “Associate Professor,” or “Professor” you should use the standard described below. The titles of “lecturer,” “visiting assistant professor,” or “visiting lecturer” usually designate adjunct faculty, and in writing to teachers at this level you should use the same standard. If you would like to learn more about the standard for composing an email to a professor or see example emails, please click here.
According to wikiHow, the following outlines the standard for composing an email to a professor or instructor:
- Read the syllabus. Often times, the question you would like to ask has already been answered in the material the professor has provided at the beginning of class. Requesting a professor go over this again makes you look like you are not a serious student and only harms your cause.
- Make sure email is really the best way to communicate your issue. Email is often much more time consuming than an actual conversation. It generally takes longer to compose word-processed text than to say it. Even if the email is short and quick for you to deploy, the response for which you are asking can be time-consuming for the professor. For example, emailing a professor to ask “what did I miss?” is not OK. You are basically expecting the professor to take the time to write up an entire class just for you. Also, don’t email to ask about your grades. In the US, FERPA laws mean many universities have instructed professors not to send grade information via email. (Plus grades are better discussed in person. Go to the professor’s office hours or make an appointment where you can sit down together and review your work. Then the professor can show you exactly where in the assignment you fell short. Also, you are more likely to come across as interested in learning rather than being a grade grubber just whining to get extra points.) Whenever possible, try to have a “live”, synchronous conversation with your professor. A general rule-of-thumb is: if it is going to take your professor longer to type out a reply to your email than to say it, reconsider your using email. Make use of the professor’s office hours, where you will most likely get an immediate response. Or, if the office hours do not work for you, make an appointment to visit either by phone or in-person at another time. Reserve email for short exchanges.
- Use your academic account. People are deluged with emails every day, and by using your school account, you will have a better chance of avoiding the spam filter, or your professor skipping right over your email because it is from an unknown address.
- Include a meaningful subject line. While this is true of every email you send (that you wish to be read), it is especially important when you are attempting to communicate with somebody whose day is busy enough as it is.
- If your professor does not already have a preferred convention, then a good default is to start with your course department, number, and section (or day and time of course), and then the topic of your email. For example, “PSYC100 Section XX: Question about data collection for project” would be an excellent way fill in the subject line. With your academic account and your well-titled subject, the professor knows who you are and exactly what you want, even before clicking “Open.” This information helps the professor organize and prioritize student emails. Including the section info is especially important for professors who teach multiple sections of the same course. If you cannot remember your section number, then give the day and time the course meets (PSYC1001 MW @ 2 p.m.). Naming the subject of the course may be almost as useless as a blank email, imagine if a good portion of your job was researching and teaching psychology topics, and an email arrives in your inbox titled “psychology”.
- Always use a greeting. Do not begin with “Hey” or similar colloquialisms. Generally speaking, you should use “Dear Professor Last-name.” If the instructor does not have a PhD, remember that “Mrs.” is appropriate only for married women who prefer it (and that many female academics do not take their husband’s name). “Ms.” is safer, especially if you do not know the instructor’s marital status, and is often preferred regardless.
- If he or she signs the reply with a first name, it is still best to address him or her as “Dr. Last-name” or “Professor Last-name” in an email. Do not use the professor’s first name unless you have been explicitly invited to do so. Also, please spell your professor’s name correctly.
- Briefly and politely state the reason why you are emailing. Offer only as much information as is relevant to the situation and likely to interest the professor. Get to the point right away. You should not begin by providing your name in the body of the message. The professor should already know your name from the email headings and from the signature of your message. Not only is such information redundant, but it also makes you sound like an 8-year-old writing to his or her first pen pal if you begin “Hello. My name is….” Instead, get to the point of why you are writing. Be sure to include the name or number of the course (including section info) that you are writing about, in the email as well as in the subject line. This information is worth including in the body of the email because some email programs, like Gmail, do not show the subject once you leave the inbox.
- If you are emailing with a problem, suggest a solution. Be considerate of how your solution might create additional work for the professor. For example, you may say, “If you are unable to give me notes for the material, is there another student in your 101 class that you might be able to direct me to who can help instead?”
- Sign it with your name and your student ID number. Even if you know that your professor knows you by name, use first and last name and include your course and section information below your name. You will save him or her from having to figure out what course and section you are talking about if he or she needs to look up something about the course in order to answer your question
- Read it over. If you do not have spell-check on your email, then you can copy the message, paste it into a word-processing program, and run spell-check there. Consider not only the mechanics, but also what you have said. Strive for a polite tone, concise language, and clear purpose.
- If the issue is touchy or the email long, ask someone else to read it, too. Ask if your reader would be offended by such an email if it were directed at him or her.
- Allow adequate time for a reply. If you are sending only a piece of information (“I have the flu and will not be in class on Tuesday, but Sue will turn in my paper for me.”), then the professor may not consider a reply necessary. In this case, you are done.
- Once a reply has been received, acknowledge it. A simple “Thank you,” may be enough. If necessary, write a more extensive email using these same guidelines to achieve a professional effect. If the case is not being adequately resolved by email, then ask for an appointment to meet in person.
- Use the words “please” and “thank you”–they really help and are universally appreciated
- Try to contact a peer first if the purpose of your email is to find out what you missed when absent.
- Recognize that requests that may take only a few seconds to write and send may take much longer to fulfill. If you want a grade calculated, or a full breakdown of what you missed during an absence, or anything else that may be labor intensive, then offer to come to office hours if the professor prefers.
- Being polite does not mean being a pushover. If you have a need, make it known. While you should not make a demand, you can certainly make a suggestion. For example, if you have surgery scheduled on the day of the final, then you should do more than merely state your conflict. You should offer to take the exam early, request an incomplete, offer to submit a final project in place of the exam, or present whatever other idea you think would solve the problem to everyone’s satisfaction. Be sure to remain open to other suggestions, as the professor may have ideas of his or her own.
- Leave enough time for a response. Some professors do not work on campus every day and may not have Internet access at home, so you may need to wait a few days.
- Follow up. If more than a few days have passed and you have not gotten a response, then it is appropriate to politely ask if the professor received your email and had time to consider what you wrote. It may be more effective to follow up by phone or by an office visit. Do not be afraid to speak up or send a reminder.