This document was originally written by Michael Leddy and posted at his blog, Orange Crate Art. He licensed it under the Creative Commons NC-ND License, which allows me (and you) to redistribute an unmodified copy for noncommercial purposes. I’m putting a copy here in case the original moves.
— Gray Calhoun
I’ve read enough e-mails to know that many college students could benefit from some guidelines for writing an e-mail to a professor. Here they are:
Write from your college or university e-mail account. That immediately lets your professor see that your e-mail is legitimate and not spam. The cryptic or cutesy or salacious personal e-mail address that might be okay when you send an e-mail to a friend is not appropriate when you’re writing to a professor.
Include the course number in your subject line. “Question about 3009 assignment” is clear and sounds genuine, while “a question” looks like spam. “Question about English assignment” or “question about assignment,” without identifying the class you’re in, may leave your professor with the chore of figuring that out. For someone teaching large lecture classes, that might mean reading through hundreds of names on rosters. But even for a professor with smaller classes, it’s a drag to get an e-mail that merely says “I’m in your English class and need the assignment.” All your English professor’s classes are English classes; she or he still needs to know which one is yours.
Consider, in light of this advice, the following examples:
An e-mail from “qtpie2005” with the subject line “question.”
An e-mail from a university account with the subject line “question about English 2011 essay.”
Which one looks legitimate? Which one looks like spam?
Think about what you’re saying. Most students are not accustomed to writing to their professors. Here are some ways to do it well:
Choose an appropriate greeting. “Hi/Hello Professor [Blank]” is always appropriate. Substitute “Dear” and you’ve ended up writing a letter; leave out “Hi” and your tone is too brusque.
Avoid rote apologies for missing class. Most professors are tired of hearing those standard apologies and acts of contrition. If you missed class because of some especially serious or sad circumstances, it might be better to mention that in person than in an e-mail.
Ask politely. “Could you e-mail me the page numbers for the next reading? Thanks!” is a lot better than “I need the assignment.”
Proofread what you’ve written. You want your e-mail to show you in the best possible light.
Sign with your full name, course number, and meeting time.
Maggie Simpson English 3703, MWF 10:00
Signing is an obvious courtesy, and it eliminates the need for stilted self-identification (“I am a student in your such-and-such class”).
One don’t, and one last do:
Don’t send unexpected attachments. It’s bad form. Attaching an essay with a request that your professor look it over is very bad form. Arrange to meet your professor during office hours or by appointment instead. It’s especially bad form to send an e-mail that says “I won’t be in class today,” with a paper or some other coursework attached. Think about it: Your professor is supposed to print out your essay because you’re not coming to class?
When you get a reply, say thanks. Just hit Reply and say “Thanks,” or a little bit more if that’s appropriate. The old subject line (which will now have a “Re:” in front) will make the context clear. I don’t think that you need to include a greeting with a short reply, at least not if you refer to your professor in your reply. And you don’t need to identify yourself by course number and meeting time again.
Many e-mail messages end up never reaching their intended recipients, for reasons of human and technological error, so it’s always appropriate to acknowledge that someone’s message got through. It’s also plain courtesy to say thanks. (Your professor will remember it too.) When you reply, you should delete almost everything of your professor’s reply (quoting everything is rarely appropriate in e-mail). Leave just enough to make the original context clear.
So what would a good e-mail to a professor look like?
Hi Professor Leddy, I’m working on my essay on William Carlos Williams and I’m not sure what to make of the last stanza of “Spring and All.” I’m stuck trying to figure out what “It” is. Do you have a suggestion? Thanks! Maggie Simpson Eng 3703, MWF 10:00
And a subsequent note of thanks:
> “It” is most likely spring, or life itself. But have > you looked up “quicken”? That’ll probably make “It” > much clearer. It sure did. Thanks for your help, Professor. Maggie Simpson