Email Etiquette – How Do I Communicate with my Professor?

Most students are used to using social media, like email, text, instagram, and so on, to communicate quickly with friends and family. Social media breaks down barriers, which is a wonderful thing . . . but it also sometimes leads students to use some very unprofessional behavior when they email their teachers and – I assume – their bosses. This is not a wonderful thing. In fact, how you present yourself in email may affect how other people interact with you, and it definitely affects how they judge you.

Like in your work life, there is an unequal power relationship in the college classroom. Sometimes students like to think that because they pay tuition, that they are, in effect, the teacher’s “boss.” Here’s the reality: your tuition dollars paid for access to the teacher, who is a recognized expert in the course subject matter. Their boss is their department chair, not students, and they are responsible to the college or university for assessing your performance in the classroom. (See Yes, your teacher DOES owe you a grade. BUT. for more on this topic.) Your teacher, then, is analogous to your boss; what you earn is not money, but a grade.

The majority of emails I receive are appropriate. Sometimes they are even too formal (I’m not a terribly formal professor). But I have also received, for example, email that:

  • Is so vague I have no idea what the student wants
  • Doesn’t use sentences, real words, or punctuation
  • Treats me like a buddy (“hey” is not a good way to start an email)
  • Demands outcomes/responses and/or is angry, ranting, or otherwise abusive
  • Attempted to bully or shame me into opening assignments or giving a higher grade

Take a guess as to how well those student’s requests were received.

Now imagine a brand new college graduate sending an email to their boss that falls into one of these categories.

I guarantee that they won’t have the job for long.

College is a great time to practice skills like these. The sections below will help you craft effective, efficient and professional email communication.

Structure
  • Use a meaningful subject line. For a college class, include the name of the course, and any other detail that might be helpful.
    • For example: “Question about midterm essay in Popular Culture”
  • Use a professional salutation. For college instructors, start with addressing them as Dr. or Professor and let them invite you to use their first name if they wish. Pay close attention to how they sign their email response to you:  often this will tell you how they wish to be addressed. (Often, the course syllabus will tell you how your teacher expects to be addressed.)
    • Don’t be “that student” who insists on calling a female professor “Mrs.” instead of “Dr.” or a young or minority professor by their first name unless they have invited you to.  When you refuse to address someone by the title they have earned and requested, you are indicating that you do not respect them. Even if that is the case, an important part of functioning in adult life is learning to be respectful of people, even if you don’t necessarily like them.
  • Use a a professional closing, including both your first and last name. Examples:  Thanks, John Jones; Regards, LaToya Smith, etc.
    • Sometimes students use phrases that they may have been taught are polite, but in practice are not. Asking someone to get back to you “as soon as possible” does not read well to professor with 300 students, four classes, and advising and service responsibilities.
Content
  • First, always exhaust all of the resources your teacher has given you for the course. Make sure you have read the assignment sheet and rubric if you have questions about the assignment, for example. If you have been sick and want to make up work, read the syllabus so you know what the teacher’s policies and procedures are. Check out Before You Begin and How to read an assignment sheet and rubric for help.
  • Write clear, short paragraphs and be direct and to the point. Like your subject line, you should be specific about what you’re referencing.  Example: “I’ve read the assignment sheet for the midterm essay exam and I don’t understand question 2.  If I read it one way, it means x, but if I read it another way it means y.  Which one of these is correct?”
  • If you can’t make it to class or are asking for more time on an assignment, make sure you tell me what class you are in and give me a valid reason for missing or needing the time. Do not go into great detail – I don’t need to know how many times you’ve thrown up, for example.  Make sure you have followed rules laid out in the syllabus for extended time, if available.
    • NEVER ask your professor if you have “missed anything important” or “did we do anything in class today;” these questions are insulting.  DO find a classmate to help you catch up on work.  Don’t expect your professor to re-teach the lesson via email.  That isn’t possible.
  • Avoid focusing on how stressed out or frustrated you are. Instead, focus on the specific difficulty you are having and ask for help.  Doing so helps your professor to better help you.
  • Spell check
Tone and Style
  • Avoid humor in email. Since email has no vocal tone or inflection, humor is often mis-read.
  • DON’T WRITE IN ALL CAPS. IN ELECTRONIC  COMMUNICATION, ALLCAPS IS CONSIDERED SCREAMING.
  • Don’t use exclamation points throughout your email! Even if you are very upset!!! It’s professional to convey disappointment, discouragement, or displeasure but not the kind of extreme emotion conveyed by one or more exclamation points.
  • dont write an email that doesnt use punctuation or capital letters and periods proper english bad speling or SMS slang it make you rly dumb n lzy  an if u didnt care enuf to write a desent sentence then why shld ur Prof. spend time trying to figure out what ur sayiin  lolz J
    • Believe it or not, I’ve gotten a lot of email like the above. Don’t do it.)
  • Re-read and if you’re angry, cool down before you hit send.
Email Chains

Once you are in an email “conversation,” (your recipient has responded and you reply back) you can often omit the salutation and treat the conversation as more informal. However, you should still keep your responses fairly short and to the point and follow the guidelines for humor, grammar/punctuation, caps, etc. outlined above.

Example:  after the instructor has answered your question, it would be appropriate to send back “Thank you!” without a salutation or closing.

Waiting

I know waiting is hard, especially if things are going wrong and you are anxious about your grade in the class.  But remember that your teacher has a lot of responsibilities and that they are not sitting on top of their email. They also sleep and have personal lives.

So be patient and realistic. An email sent at 2 am is not likely to get an immediate response, and neither is a question about an assignment that’s due in an hour. I have gotten rude emails when both the original email and the follow-up were sent within an hour of each other and while I was in the classroom, teaching. This hasn’t happened to me, but colleagues have woken up in the morning to find out that a student has complained to a Dean . . . because they didn’t answer an email sent in the middle of the night.

Some professors — like me — are moving to “email office hours.” I check my email at regular times during the day, Monday through Friday, during normal business hours (8 am to 5 pm). Check the course syllabus for your teacher’s email policy, and if there isn’t one, it’s OK to ask your teacher in class what their usual turnaround time is. I usually tell my students that if they don’t get a response in 2-3 days, to assume that their email has been lost–technology does sometimes fail–and that they should re-send it.

For more information

More about sending emails:  Ramsey, L. (2004). The Top Twelve E-Mail Mistakes That Can Sabotage Your Career. Business Credit, 106(1), 72.

The above advice has been adapted from:

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