I am no professor (or boss), but I do get countless emails from high school students whom I oversee at my volunteer work. As a supervisor, one of my key responsibilities is communicating with the high school volunteers throughout the week, via email. Over time, I have become – involuntarily but naturally – the point person for questions, concerns, and complaints regarding the volunteer work and the organization. Before I knew it, I was receiving emails not only from the volunteers I oversee, but also from outsiders with inquiries (see #3 below about emailing someone you’ve never had an interaction with before).
After three years of “back and forths,” I have come to the conclusion that this well-intentioned young generation can definitely use some help in the department of email etiquettes.
But high school students aren’t the only ones who fail to use proper email etiquettes. Many college students, and recent grads, are equally clueless (and perhaps seen as more “unprofessional” because they are expected to know better) when it comes to emailing their professors and higher-ups.
My hope for anyone reading this article is that they would learn and put into practice these crucial email etiquettes and their emails get taken seriously.
Writing a good email is a MUST in college and in the workplace alike, so take heed!
*This article is tailored towards college students writing to professors, but you can swap out “professors” with “bosses” if you are working.
1. Address your professor in a professional way.
“Dear Professor [Last Name]” would be a good starting point.
If you’ve had an interaction with the professor before, it’s probably safe to say “Hi Professor [Last Name]” but it’s probably never a good idea to say “Hey” as a salutation, no matter how “close” you are to the professor.
+ Some things to consider:
- You can address the professor as Dr. if they have a PhD, but “professor” is probably your safest bet, since some of them don’t want to be addressed as “doctor.”
- Avoid saying “Mrs.” or “Miss” or “Mr.” because regardless of your intent, that could be offensive or create unnecessary awkwardness. Besides, this is college we’re talking about – we refer to them as “professors.”
- Don’t address them by their first names unless they explicitly give you permission to do so.
- Spell the professor’s name correctly. Write it exactly as it appears on the syllabus – check twice.
2. Acknowledge your professor as an individual.
You have a specific reason for emailing your professor, I get that. But don’t jump straight to your point, asking or requesting something from them. Recognize that they too, have personal lives outside of their academia– they are not their roles.
Whether genuine or not (although sincerity always shows), greet your professor and acknowledge them as an individual. You can say something like “I hope you had a great weekend!” Adding this simple sentence can make a huge difference in the response you get.
3. Introduce yourself.
Really, please do. In my personal experience, the most frustrating email I’ve received was one where the person failed to introduce herself (I had no idea who she was) and jumped straight to “the point,” already breaking rules #1-#3.
I want to volunteer but I don’t know how.
That was the email I got in my (personal) inbox. No greetings, no introduction, no courtesy.
As I read the email, which literally took me 2 seconds, I thought to myself: I don’t know who you are, how you got my email, and why you think I should grant you your request, if, again, I do not even know you.
But putting the lack of professionalism (and my annoyance) aside, I replied back with all the details on how she can apply to become a volunteer (which she could have easily found on the website – see #4 below), only to get an equally unprofessional 9-word reply: “Oh, sorry. I actually don’t think I can volunteer.”
I hope I don’t have to elaborate.
In the same way, if you’re a student, don’t assume that the professor knows you. And more importantly, don’t make the professor go out of his/her way to find out who you are. You should be the one providing all the necessary information, like your student identification number, class section, course number, etc.
This is especially important if you are emailing your professor for the first time, or if you’ve never had an interaction with him/her before. If you have, it’s still a good idea to remind the professor – for instance, you could say, “I’m the girl who stayed after class to ask you about so and so.”
4. Explain why you are writing.
Now’s finally the time to reveal your real reason for writing. Do you need to make an appointment to see the professor outside of his office hours? Do you have a conflicted exam schedule? Whatever it is, make it succinct and straightforward, but be courteous. Don’t beat around the bush, don’t make excuses, and don’t provide excessive details. Your professor cares about what he/she can do for you, not why they should do something for you (they don’t have to, most likely).
BEFORE YOU SEND THAT EMAIL, ask yourself these questions:
a) Is the information I am seeking already in the syllabus?
b) Can a classmate explain or solve this problem for me?
c) Is the professor actually the only person who can answer my question or solve my problem?
5. Include a (polite) call to action.
Call-to-actions are wonderful, not only in the world of sales and marketing, but also in our everyday lives. Call-to-actions are not commands, but requests. Before you end your email, rephrase or highlight your request(s) and ask the professor if he/she could address the issue(s) you brought up. You can do this by saying something like, “I would very much appreciate if you could assist me with [issue]” or “Please let me know when the best time is for you – I would love to talk to you in person.”
6. Thank the professor.
This one is pretty obvious, but students forget to do this all the time! As you close off your email, thank the professor for taking the time to read your email. It’s a common courtesy.
7. Follow up, but don’t be demanding.
If you don’t get a response, wait. And wait some more (if it’s not super urgent). After you did “enough” waiting, follow up gently. Don’t blame the professor for ignoring you or forgetting to respond – the professor might have had more pressing and urgent matters to take care of, or your email might have unintentionally gotten buried under other emails.
When you send your follow up email, forward your original email, but still remind the professor what your original request was. And then simply let him/her know that you are still waiting for a reply.
That’s it! If you’ve followed these 7 steps, you’ve done all that you can (or the bare minimum).
Being able to write a good, professional email is not a mere advantage in college, but a necessity. You will be emailing professors, classmates, bosses, and even friends for the rest of your life, so you might as well learn to do it properly.
Please please please, before you press that “send” button, make sure you are being clear in your communication and courteous in your manner.