In recent years, one of the most common things I’m asked about by students is email. Specifically, how to email your professors. When I first started getting this, I was a little confused by it – until I realized that we’re at the point where none of our traditional students remember a world without IM or texts. For the current batch of college students, communication has always been getting increasingly informal, and increasingly instantaneous, and so it seems that many find themselves anxious about saying “the right thing” when sending a formal email to a professor for the first time.
So I’ve decided to compile some tips about how to avoid gaffes when emailing a new professor in the hopes that they’ll help some of you out there as much as the students who have asked me claim they helped them.
Tip #1: Treat the email as if it was a professional letter.
Particularly if you’re contacting a professor for the first time, you want to write formally. Use a proper, professional greeting, and a professional sign-off. Write in full sentences and paragraphs, and always proofread. Until you get to know your professor a bit better, you always want to air on the side of caution and treat your emails with them like professional communication – because it is. Your professors are just that – professionals. And so you shouldn’t be using the same tone and communication conventions that you would with your friends – at least until you know your professor a little bit better.
Now of course, every professor is different, and some do tend to prefer more informal communication. For example, I make very clear to my students from the start that I’m not really a formal kind of person, so I don’t think twice if an email comes in with informal speech patterns, no professional greeting, or uses slang. But many professors do. So it’s always wise to wait until you know know your professors a bit better before dialing back the professionalism.
Tip #2: Always use their academic title until given express permission to do otherwise.
One key to formal communication from the start is to make sure you’re using their proper title. It’s simply a matter of respect. Don’t call them Mrs., Ms., or Mr. So-and-so. If they have a doctorate, it’s “Dr. So-and-so.” If they don’t, or if you’re not sure, use “Professor So-and-so.”
And again, depending on your professor, you might end up able to eventually drop that. Some professors just prefer their last name, or some might even be okay with you using their first name. But if that’s the case, your professor will make that clear. So until then, make sure you’re using their proper title.
Tip #3: Don’t use text speak (u, ur, imo, etc…), and if you’re emailing from your phone, proofread for autocorrect mishaps before sending.
Again, it’s just a matter of formality. But additionally, you’ll avoid miscommunications and possible embarrassments this way. The number of times I’ve seen “public” accidentally autocorrected to “pubic” should be reason enough to take extra care with this step.
Tip #4: If you’re emailing to ask for permission for something (missing a class, rescheduling a test, an extension on a paper, etc…), make sure you actually ask permission.
A pretty common mistep that I’ve started to see recently is the email that instead of actually asking, “Would it be okay if…” instead just says, “I’m going to have to…” or “I’m going to need to…”
A lot of people chalk that change up to “blah blah blah millennials are so entitled, blah blah blah,” but as a (late) millennial myself, I don’t buy that. I honestly don’t think that in most cases it’s a purposeful thing – I generally attribute this to changes in the way we would ask for permission verbally, and more informal patterns in the spoken word – but even with that said, it’s still always best to avoid this with your professors. Because whether it’s a purposeful omission or merely a generational rift in communication, ultimately, telling a professor “this is happening” without actually asking for permission is downright rude. Professors’ reactions to this can range anywhere from mildly irritated to downright pissed, and that includes those of us who usually don’t get our feathers ruffled about formality. Honestly this one can get the hackles of even the most informal and chill professors up at the speed of light. So be careful of how you phrase things so that you’re sure the “asking for permission” part is never just implied.*
Tip# 5: Don’t thank them for understanding until you actually know that they understand.
This is almost a corollary to the previous point, because ultimately using “Thank you for understanding” in an email when you don’t yet know that they do can transform an otherwise polite email asking for permission into exactly what I advised against above. Best avoid using this as a sign off until you get the reply for them that indicates that they actually DO understand. Then by all means, thank away.
Tip #6: If you’re writing to ask for help, don’t focus on the grade, focus on improving your understanding of the material.
In email, sometimes if you’re not careful about how you’re wording things even honest inquiries for content help can accidentally come off sounding like you’re grade grubbing. And grade-grubbing is something that is on basically every list of major professor pet-peeves that I’ve ever seen. So instead of asking, “How do I pull this up to an A?” get specific about the material you missed that prevented it from being an A. For example, if there’s a specific type of question that always throws you for a loop, ask if they have any advice to better prepare for them. Ask them about study tactics and specific topics that you’re struggling with. Make it clear that your concern isn’t just getting the grade, but rather achieving a better grade through a better command of the material. That tiny little distinction can go a long way.
Tip #7: Always check the syllabus (or other course documents) first.
Bascially, you want to make sure you’ve fully done your due diligence before emailing your professor. Because nothing is a bigger waste of both of your time as you spending all this time composing a formal email to ask something you could have found the answer to in 30 seconds, and then the professor having spent all that time planning and writing a syllabus only for you to not use it and then have to reply to your email with, “It’s in the syllabus.” And speaking now as a former student who has made that mistake – it’s also kind of embarassing to get that as a reply anyway.
So save everyone a bit of heartache and just check the syllabus first.
Tip #8: Use your full name in your sign-off.
Most professors teach multiple classes, and unless you already have an established relationship with your professor, they’re not going to be able to place your first name with your last name or your face right away (and sometimes never, depending on how big your class may be. I have trouble enough with about 40 to a class – I don’t know how professors who are responsible for like, 200 students per lecture could ever do it). Depending on how common your name is, and how many classes they teach, they might have several students with the same first name as you, so always make sure you specify exactly who you are. This doubley goes for if you’re not using your university email, or if your university’s email nomenclature doesn’t use your full last name.
Hopefully those of you who struggle with emailing your profs will find this helpful and reduce some of the anxiety as you compose those communications. College alumni or fellow teachers – anything you feel I missed? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!