How to Write an Email to Your Professor

Academic Success
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. In fact, privacy laws in the U.S. mean that your instructor cannot even ask what you have.

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 isn’t 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.

Krysta 64

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21 thoughts on “How to Write an Email to Your Professor

  1. rantandraveaboutbooks says:

    Good idea for a post! When I first started college, what now feels like ages, I also wondered about sending the professor an email. I bet a lot of students are intimidated when it comes to contacting the prof directly.

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    • Briana says:

      I think it’s helpful, too! While it’s true most professors are interested in helping you and you should never be afraid to talk to them, I have to imagine that most professors roll their eyes when they get the sixth email that says something like “How long is essay 1 supposed to be?” or “When are your office hours?” I’d rather take the extra minute to double-check that information isn’t on the assignment sheet or the syllabus before sending what might come across as a mildly annoying email.

      The other big thing for me is actually specifying what time you want to meet with someone. I have been in countless never-ending email chains that go “Can we meet sometime?” “Sure, when are you free?” “Sometime this week.” “Ok, well, what days were you thinking?” “Maybe Tuesday or Wednesday.” “Ok, I I’m free those days at [times]. What works for you?” “Well, either [time], [time2], or [time3].” “…So Tuesday at 1 pm works?” “Yes.” Just give some time options in the first email! Please! :p

      Liked by 2 people

      • rantandraveaboutbooks says:

        Yeah, that would really annoy me. I get the same type of emails from co-workers, and I’m always like if you want to meet me then you need to pick a date and time instead of playing this guessing game. I also think a lot of kids are lazy and would rather annoy the prof with things they can find on their own because they’re so used to their parents or high school teachers holding their hand. I noticed that in a lot of classes I had years ago. The same people kept holding up class over dumb questions that were specified in the syllabus.

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        • Briana says:

          I definitely get that impression. It seems like there’s this impulse that’s “I don’t know the answer, so I’ll type up a quick email asking the professor because that will be faster than actually looking for the answer.” You just have to switch your point of view and realize that, to you as the student, it’s a quick time-saving email. To the professor, it’s the eighth one they’ve received and they’re kind of wondering why you can’t just handle your own affairs and read the syllabus. If this professor is teaching a particularly large class, say 300 students, you have to realize that receiving 77 “quick emails” will actually take a significant amount of time for them to deal with. I’m not sure if there’s a way to discourage such emails that doesn’t make the professor come across as a jerk. I imagine if you keep replying “That information is on page 3 of the syllabus,” it might train the students to look at the syllabus first, but it will probably also result in evaluations to the effect of “This professor is a grouch and doesn’t want to help students.”

          Liked by 1 person

          • rantandraveaboutbooks says:

            I had a few profs who had strict email policies. You could only email them your papers. Pretty much all questions they suggested the students ask in class or during office hours and refused to answer miscellaneous questions via email. I think if they state this upfront, students don’t think asking silly questions is allowed.

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            • Briana says:

              The office hours policy is a good one! I know people who do that for regrade requests. You have to come to office hours in person with a written explanation of why your grade should be higher. Apparently it makes people really think about how much they care about their grade/question. Is it important enough they would spend their OWN time on it?

              Liked by 1 person

            • Briana says:

              I know people who teach college physics, and the department policy is basically to submit your regrade request over email. You’re supposed to explain why you think you should have more points, but apparently people tend to be vague: “I didn’t get enough credit for showing my work.” And it’s not uncommon for multiple students to submit a regrade request for every single question on the quiz, on the off-chance it benefit them. I think an in-person policy might help the department. 😛

              Liked by 1 person

            • rantandraveaboutbooks says:

              That’s interesting. I didn’t know people did that. I’ve never had to ask for a regrade. Well, I was an A student, so I guess I never needed it, but I couldn’t even imagine complaining about extra points to a prof. I only argued grades with teachers who allowed it as part of their law classes. I used to pick apart the law just to see if I could change their mind for the rest of the class. 🙂 I’m such a pain. I also did it a few times with my math profs and somehow convinced them my wrong answers were right. I think I just wore them down. 😂

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            • Krysta says:

              I think at some point asking for more points just seemed greedy to me. I generally got high grades, so for me to go back and say, “Hey I think you owed me 3 more points here,” seemed ridiculous, even if I actually deserved them. Especially since in college you’re working with letter ranges and 3 points on an assignment that gets folded into 10% of your grade is probably not going to stop you from getting an overall “A.” Maybe if I were still in high school and competing for rank, I’d go for it because the top students were so close the high school decided we needed to go four decimal places instead of the usual two. But in college? Really doesn’t matter in most cases.

              Liked by 1 person

            • rantandraveaboutbooks says:

              Yeah, I agree. To me, it never made a difference because of the letter grades. I wouldn’t make a very good prof cause I’d be tired of hearing complaints like this every day. I couldn’t even imagine. Hopefully, students read this post and don’t bother their profs with nonsense.

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            • Krysta says:

              Well that’s annoying. I can’t imagine people going up to someone in another profession and saying “You did every single part of your job wrong,” which is essentially what this kind of grade grubbing sounds like. If they took off points, 99% of the time, you probably were supposed to lose those points!

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            • Briana says:

              Yeah, the regrade thing obviously exists because in a very large class of a couple hundred students, where often a couple teaching assistants are grading instead of the instructor, mistakes do happen. Apparently they post an answer key (with work shown and all that), so you can accurately compare your quiz/exam to it and see if something actually is wrong with the grading before you ask. But people just abuse it, and then you have ten people asking the instructor to regrade the entire quiz “just in case” he/she finds them some extra points somewhere.

              I should write a college advice post. It would have one tip: Take 2 minutes to reconsider whether you have a reasonable request or whether you are just being annoying. :p

              Liked by 1 person

            • rantandraveaboutbooks says:

              That must be new. I don’t remember having an answer key made available to the class. I also never complained about my grades even when I thought the prof was being unfair. I don’t recall emailing a single teacher anything other than my paper. Yeah, that’s a good idea for a post. I’m sure a lot of incoming students have no idea what to expect in college.

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            • Briana says:

              I assume it’s supposed to save the instructors work in that students can check it’s all graded correctly or just see where they went wrong so they can understand the concept better, without having to ask the instructor about it. I think I went to a professor once in college, more for an explanation of my grade on an essay than to contest it. Which is good because, despite the fact the professor actually agreed with some of my questions about her comments, she didn’t raise my grade. :p (It was things like marking me down for using a popular source instead of an academic one, which I distinctly stated in the paragraph that I was commenting on popular beliefs on the topic….)

              Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I’m the type of person who makes other people read my emails before I send them like, “This sounds professional and like I’m sane right???” so I appreciate guides like this. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Geraldine @ Corralling Books says:

    Oh gosh, just yesterday I was stressing out about this!
    I finished off the email and sent it yesterday – but I’m glad I did write “Dear Dr..” in the end, using the lecturer’s full title >.< I figured, when in doubt, it's better to be too formal than too informal, right?
    Loved this post and this series – I can imagine it will be as useful for other people as it has been for me so far!~

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I always err on the side of too formal as you can always adjust once you see what the other person writes back. These days, however, I am pretty sure a lot of instructors are simply relieved if you don’t start with “Hey” or “Yo” or something. I knew a professor would call out students if they did that and write back something like, “I believe you meant to say Dear Dr. So-and-So….” 😉

      On the other hand, he was from a department that was more formal in general. The professors wore suits and such. In other departments, the students would just call out “Hey, Dr Whatever!” and, I don’t know, high five them in the hallways.

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    • Briana says:

      I was always weirdly anxious about emails and was like “What if I sound too formal and therefore ridiculous???” I mean, I am now 99% certain that’s not a thing, and no one’s going to be upset if I write “Dear Dr. ____” and end with “Sincerely.” 😛 I think I went more formal if the class hadn’t started and I didn’t know the professor. Otherwise I went with “Hi Professor” most of the time and never had a problem. Of course, this was also a school where most of the professors asked to be called by their first names, and it just felt like too much to me to be all “Hi Joe!” I don’t think I even called a professor their first name to their face, except for the ones I knew only from clubs, who weren’t actually teaching any of the classes I was in. (Welcome to my world of overthinking everything.)

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  3. TeacherofYA says:

    This is a brilliant idea: writing about preparing for school is something I should share on my site! I’m thinking of reblogging your posts, if you don’t mind!

    Like

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