Email Etiquette When Writing to Professors and Teachers — Interview With Vicki Lavendol, Instructor, UCF’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management



TUN sits down with Vicki Lavendol, an instructor at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management, to discuss the dos and don’ts when emailing professors and teachers.

TUN: Professor Lavendol, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us today. 

LAVENDOL: Thank you for the opportunity to join you today.

Let’s get started with the introduction portion of the email. How should students start off their emails to professors or teachers? Say, it’s a new instructor who they might not know yet. Should students stick to the formal “dear”? Is “hello” or “hi” okay to use? Where’s the line? 

When I write to students, I don’t say, “Dear Tom and Sally.” So, I don’t ever expect a “dear.” I sometimes get a “dear,” but I’m perfectly fine either way. It can be, “Hello Professor Lavendol.” 

I do expect some sort of a greeting. I’m happy if it’s just “Professor Lavendol.” It doesn’t matter one way or the other. 

Again, these are my perspectives as a faculty member. I’m sure other faculty may have different ones, but I’m happy to share from my perspective as a communications professor.

Say your professor has a doctorate. When introducing yourself to that professor, should you use “Dr.” beforehand? Or is it best to just kind of stay with “professor?”

“Dr.” always – anybody who has earned a doctorate degree deserves to be honored and respected with that every single time. So, it’s always going to be “Dr.” and her last name. Never use “Ms.”

I don’t think “Professor” is objectionable to anyone. In our conversation, I would be “Professor Lavendol” because I have not earned a doctorate. But, I would absolutely address anyone who has earned a doctorate as “Dr.” 

Moving on to the body of the email, how should students start off the body of their emails? Is it best to start with a meaningless nicety like “I hope all is well” or “I hope you had a great weekend?” Or, should students get straight to the point?

My perspective is that either one is fine. Sometimes that’s based on how much time you have, the timing of the message and the content of the message as well.

When I’m interacting with students, we’re typically dealing with questions about the course or an assignment. So, usually, we just go to that.

I do think that somewhere in the message you should be cordial. Either “thank you,” “have a nice day,” “good afternoon,” “good morning” or a greeting like that is fine and welcome. 

But, it’s not necessary to comment on, “Did you see the game this weekend?” or “Did you notice how sunny it was at the beach?”

If there’s been a circumstance where the student was ill, then I might say, “I hope that you’re feeling better” at some point in the message.

It’s not a negative in any way, but nor is it expected to have anything other than the purpose of the communication. 

Do you have any tips on how students should let their professors or teachers know who they are? Should they state their names up front or not mention their name until the sign-off at the very end of the email?

There’s no reason to include “my name is” because your name is in the email, the subject line and in the signature. So there’s no reason for a line that says, “my name is.”

I want to talk about the content of the body of the email. Is it best to be brief there, or should you add a lot of detail and explanation?

I think the goal is to have a meaningful conversation and to minimize the back-and-forth. 

Rather than saying, “I’d like to meet with you sometime,” write, “I’d like to meet with you during your office hours Tuesday. Are you available at 2 p.m.?” 

I would be as specific as you could be because the beauty of email (and the challenge of email) is that we can respond whenever we are able. Even if we’re on different schedules, we can get each other’s messages. 

But, you also want to minimize the lag between emails. If I’m in four hours of classes or you’re eight hours at work, you want to be clear. So, I would say you should put in as much detail as you need to meet your goals and objectives of the conversation so that you can minimize back-and-forth.  And there may be some back-and-forth.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t insert here that email is not the best tool for every single conversation of all time.

Sometimes, it may be that we say, “You know what, it sounds like this is a little more complicated and maybe we should schedule a call or a Zoom or a chat, or maybe we could manage this some other way to make sure that we get all your questions answered or that you get what you need from the conversation.”

I now have to ask, are there any big do-nots? Are there certain phrases, words or maybe styles of writing that students should absolutely avoid when emailing their professors or teachers?

Yeah. I think you don’t want the casualness that students sometimes use with friends. 

For instance, I messaged a student one time and got back a, “Oh, I didn’t know what day it was.” And they just went into questions about the comment that I had with no greeting, with no acknowledgement, with no signature close, with none of that.

I also have received emails with sentences in all capital letters when a student was upset about something or another. So if you’re upset, think about it for a moment.

We’ve all had times when we’ve been upset and we’ve responded before we really thought through our response. This has happened to me, and I’ve had to go back and say, “I apologize. That response was not as gracious as it should have been. I was trying to be brief.”

Again, it’s okay for us to make mistakes in our communications. It’s also okay to apologize for that. I’ve had that happen with students both ways as well. 

Again, the thing is not to be so casual. I do think there would be enough respect represented by using greetings and a signature close like, “Thank you for your time.” 

Building off of that, what are the most appropriate sign-offs? Are there any things that you should use? Are there things that you should avoid?

Most often, in our professional exchanges, we are asking for information or asking for clarification. So, I think that, most often, when we’ve had a conversation with another, we do close it with “thank you.” We’re thanking them for their time. We’re thanking them for the information. We’re thanking them for responding. I think “thank you” is 100 percent golden all of the time. I think you cannot go wrong with “thank you.” 

Some people prefer “best” or “best wishes,” and that’s perfectly fine. But, if you need to say thank you for what’s happened, then “thank you” may be a part of that. I don’t think I’ve seen anything inappropriate in terms of that.

I’ve seen a lot of no close and no greeting and just the “What’s going on with this class?” or “What’s going on with this final or this assignment?” Didn’t make sense to me.

Let’s talk about follow-up emails. If a professor or teacher doesn’t respond within a certain time and the student needs an answer to a question, is it appropriate for that student to follow up? If so, how long should students wait? Do you have any advice on how they should go about constructing a follow-up email?

Whenever there’s a timeline involved, you want to express that. For example, if somebody asks for a letter of recommendation, one of my follow-up questions is always going to be, “When do you need it?”

It’s helpful to be thoughtful about what we’re asking for and by when we’re looking for a response. 

Some professors say, “I’ll respond to emails within so many hours or so many days or within a week.”

I don’t establish that. I try to get back as soon as I can. Sometimes things happen that keep us from that. Once in a while, things do get lost or never send. All those things happen. 

An appropriate follow-up may sound like, “I messaged you on Tuesday. This is the next Monday, and I just was hoping for clarification before I see you in class on Tuesday.”

You never want to be disrespectful.  But it’s fine to say, “I’m not sure if you received my message, but I was hoping to clarify this before our class tomorrow.” 

Realistically, if it’s 20 minutes before our class, I may be in another class for the four hours before that. If it’s my teaching day, I may be in class all day. So, try to remember that it’s not just your schedule. Somebody who is teaching a class does not have access to respond, especially in the last 15 minutes before the class starts. 

What is an appropriate time frame for students to send their emails? Can they send an email at 3 a.m., or is it best to keep it between that 9 a.m.-to-5 p.m. window? 

I don’t have a problem with a late email. Again, maybe some professors established that, “these are the times that I’ll check and respond to emails.”

But, that’s one of the beauties of email. I can send it at my convenience, and you’ll get it at your convenience. So, I don’t have a concern with that, unless it was 3 a.m and you need a response at that moment.

I also think it’s fine to say, “I’m sending this now because I just got off work and I know that I probably won’t hear from you until the next day.” That’s fine too.

Again, be clear about what your expectations are and the timeline. I think that helps everybody. 

Thanks again for taking the time to talk with us.

It was my pleasure. I hope this is helpful. The bottom line is to think like a professional. Part of the college experience is preparing you to be a successful professional in whatever your chosen field is. Communication is a really important part of that. So, if you think “How do I make sure I’m professional,” that will serve you well when you leave campus. 

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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