Email Etiquette (Or: How to Write to Your Professor)

As a student, you are more than likely to receive a multitude of emails from various sources every single day, but how often do you send an email to an instructor or another professional contact? More importantly, do you know how to construct a professional email? Here’s the deal: you’re not in high school anymore. Professors expect you to act and communicate like an adult, so being able to write a formal email is crucial. Here are some tips to make sure your emails to instructors reflect positively on you.

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First of all, is your email necessary? Have you checked the class syllabus for the answer to your question? Professors do not like to iterate. If the answer to your question is already accessible, chances are they will either direct you to the syllabus or just not respond to your email.

The first thing to do when constructing a message is to fill out the subject line with a phrase summarizing your email. The subject should be short yet informative. If you have a question about an assignment, write ‘Question about [Course number] assignment’. Do not simply put ‘assignment’, and certainly do not leave the subject line blank.

At the beginning of your message, you should have an appropriate greeting. Your professor may specify in class what title they want their students to use when referring to them. If they go by Professor, Dr., Mr., Mrs., or Ms., feel free to use any of those options in your email. Never use first name only unless they specifically say that it’s acceptable. If you are unsure of which greeting to use, just stick with ‘Dear Professor [Last name]’.

If you have a large class size, include information about who you are: full name, which class day/time, and which section (if applicable). Even if you’re confident the instructor knows who you are, still include some of this information (especially if you’re emailing them for the first time).

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When writing the body of your email, remember that it isn’t a text message. Formal grammar and writing is crucial in an email. It is better to type words like “I am” and “should not” instead of contractions like “I’m” and “shouldn’t”. Use complete sentences and avoid slang. Also, ask questions instead of making demands. “Would it be possible to get a 24-hour extension on my paper?” is much more effective than “Give me an extension.”

Finally, always include a “thank you” or another appropriate sign off and your full name at the end. Double check the email address and spelling of your instructor’s name. If your email is a reply in which multiple people are included in the thread, make sure you are replying to the right person and not sending personal comments out to the whole class. If you only want your message to go to one person, double check to see that you didn’t hit ‘Reply all’. (However, if you are replying to a message that included multiple recipients for a specific reason, remember to hit ‘Reply all’ so the recipient does not find themselves forwarding your email out to the intended recipient list.)

If the email turns out to be long and lengthy, consider office hours as a better option. There you can talk things through instead of running the risk of cryptic messages and misunderstanding. In addition, don’t expect to have an in-depth conversation about grades via email—that’s illegal according to FERPA. Ask to set up an in-person meeting instead.

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One more thing: don’t email something last minute if you can avoid it. Factor in enough time for your professor to respond and for you to understand their answer and act upon it.

Hopefully these tips will help you to improve the grammar and tone of your formal emails. Remember that email is a key method of communication in college—and beyond–and it should be used skillfully. Happy typing!

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