Sometimes it seems as if college students are supposed to know things no one ever taught them. In this series, we offer advice to university students.
Should you email your instructor?
Asking about Assignments: If you are asking about a due date, word count, or something else minor, you should check the syllabus and the assignment sheet before emailing. Chances are, the information is already there. If it is not, try to contact a classmate to see if the instructor gave out this information in class. If you still cannot find your answer, it is then appropriate to email your instructor, perhaps noting (politely) that you did not see the information on the syllabus and are seeking clarification.
Missing Class: Most classes have unexcused absences built in. (This means you don’t need a doctor’s note, for example, if you are sick. You simply stay home.) If you have two or three of these and have not used them up, you don’t need to email your instructor about the details of your illness. Reiterating how much you are throwing up does not really add to the validity of your excuse. Your instructor probably doesn’t care where you are anyway. They gave you unexcused absences and if you want to waste them only to realize you need them for a real illness later, or if you want to miss class for something like going on a date, most instructors figure you are only hurting your own academic performance.
How to Write the Email
Subject Line: This should be brief and clearly state the nature of the communication. Instructors receive a lot of emails. Make sure they do not delete yours by mistake. You can consider adding the course number to the subject so they know who you are, especially if you are at a large university.
Additionally, your subject should not contain words like “URGENT!” and “IMPORTANT!” This sounds like you have an emergency. If you are letting the professor know you have a virus and will be staying in your dorm room, your communication is, actually, not that urgent.
Greeting: “Hi” and “Hello” are frequently used in professional communications (though not in all cases–you should begin a cover letter for a job with “Dear”, for example). Some people in academia still use “Dear,” but this is starting to seem like a more formal address. When in doubt, begin formally. For example, you can write “Dear Dr. So-and-So.” If the professor responds with “Hi Maria,” you can begin your next email with “Hi.”
You can also use this approach if you don’t know how to address an instructor. Begin formally with the person’s title: “Dear Prof. So-and-So” or “Dear Ms. Last Name.” In class, they will probably tell you what they prefer to be called. Some instructors go by their first names, but others do not.
Body: Be concise and provide all the information necessary to make sure the entire exchange is as short as possible. If you want to meet with your instructor, give a few days and times when you are available instead of simply writing “Can we meet?”
Sign-off: Most people use “Best” but “Regards,” “Best Wishes,” and other variations are also used. “Sincerely” is a more formal sign-off and can be used if you are emailing a professor for the first time (for example, asking for information about a program you might apply to).
Do not end with a directive like “Please respond ASAP!” Your instructor is busy and will email back as soon as they can. If a few days pass, you can send a polite follow-up email, but you don’t want to end your emails with a sentence ordering your correspondent how to respond.