While we’ve previously discussed the value of reaching out to your professors, keep in mind that when you contact a professor by email, it’s important to not only carefully consider what you say, but also how you say it. In the age of texting and Twitter, it’s understandable that many students have become a bit lax in their approaches to written communication. In this context, however, you are expected to present yourself professionally and in a manner which conveys respect. In this post, we’ll show you how (and why!) to craft a thoughtful and polished email to your professor.
First, consider what NOT to do.
Put yourself in your professor’s shoes: you’ve spent the entire break creating the syllabus, selecting readings, and crafting exams and assignments. Then, you receive an email from a student that makes it seem as though they haven’t reciprocated any of your effort. How would you react? Probably something like this:
In the example above, the professor’s irritation is more than reasonable. Conversely, consider the following example, which features all of the elements of a professional, respectful email. Which would you prefer?
Follow these pointers to ensure that you’re presenting your best self in your emails:
- Choose your subject header carefully
The subject of your email should be a few words which briefly sum up the purpose of your email. Don’t use a greeting (“hey professor”) or a very broad term (“test”) as your subject. Something like “Requesting an Appointment During Thursdays Office Hours” would work well.
- Greet your professor with a professional salutation, and the correct honorific and last name
Use a professional salutation such as “Dear,” or “Hello,” followed by an honorific and your professor’s last name. An honorific is a title used to communicate respect for a person’s position. In this instance, “Professor” is your safest bet. If you know that your professor holds a PhD, “Dr.” is also appropriate. Next, refer to your syllabus for the correct spelling of your professor’s name. The resulting greeting will be something like “Dear Professor Johnson [,].”
- Identify yourself
State the name, section, and meeting time of the class. You don’t need to include your name in the body of your email, as you will include it in your signature. Something like “I’m in section 3 of your Foundations of Western Civilization Class, which meets at 2:00pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”
- Clearly state your question or need
Always refer to your syllabus, review your class notes, and reach out to a classmate first to make sure that your professor hasn’t already given the answer to your question. If you still need clarification, state your question clearly and directly in your email. So, instead of asking, “What’s our homework for tonight?” you’ll write, “I looked through the syllabus and asked a classmate for this weekend’s assigned homework, but unfortunately I am unable to locate it. Could you please direct me to the assignment?”
Just as you would with a written homework assignment, make sure to check for silly mistakes and correct spelling and grammar.
- Say thank you
End your email by thanking your professor for their time and signing off with your full name.
Remember, the ability to compose a well-written email in which you present yourself respectfully is a valuable skill that you will be able to draw upon well beyond your college years, so approach corresponding with your professors as yet another collegiate learning experience!