Even if you’re paying attention and attending every class, sooner or later, you’re going to have to email your professor. Don’t be nervous — it’s a great skill to develop now before it’s really high stakes. But sending a respectful and courteous email is a new skill for a lot of students and there’s a definite art to crafting just the right one. Here are eight rules to follow each and every time you email your professor.
Address him or her correctly.
Unless you’ve been explicitly told otherwise — i.e.: you’ve had a conversation with your professor where they’ve said, “Please call me [First Name]”— address your professor by the right salutation and their last name. Their last name should be easy: just look on your syllabus! If, horror of horrors, you’ve lost your syllabus, ask a friend or at least look to your professor’s email address for guidance. The right salutation is a little trickier. Addressing them by Mr., Ms., or Mrs. is wrong on all accounts: it’s “Professor,” regardless of gender. The only deviance from this rule is if your professor holds a doctorate, in which case, it’s Dr. Last Name to you. If you’re in a serious bind and you’re not sure, use the Professor salutation.
Know what kind of student you are and your relationship to this class.
It sounds like this requires a lot of introspection, but it doesn’t. Is this a class that you have been chomping at the bit to take, but you’re finding it challenging? Is this a class that’s required for your major, but you’re really struggling with it? Or is this part of your chosen study and you just have a question because this subject material is of special interest to you? If any of those things are true, this is a great time to clear the air! You don’t need to spin a sob story, but letting a professor know, “I took this class for fill X requirement, but I’m really struggling with it” isn’t going to be a red mark on you. It will alert your professor to your efforts made in class and open the door for further help down the road. Likewise, if you’re asking because it’s something you’re interested in pursuing, be direct and let your professor know. Just be sure to be professional and courteous; even if you took this class as a last ditch effort, your professor was hired because he or she has a specialty in that area. So express your situation, but don’t be rude about his or her area of expertise.
Identify which class you’re writing about.
“I’m in your X class that meets Y days at Z time” is courteous at a larger school where your professor might not know what class you’re writing about. At a smaller school, you can get away with just listing the class name if it’s not listed more than once. If you’re in a small school with small class sizes and it’s early enough in the semester, you may want to identify yourself if at all possible (i.e.: “I asked you [X question] at your last lecture”).
Identify your question as quickly and succinctly as possible.
What are you asking your professor about? Lay it out in as clear, concise terms as you possibly can. Now is not the time to be coy about what you’re looking for. An example might be: “I’m working on my XYZ paper and I see that you want us to address how X relates to Y in terms of Z. So far, I understand X and Y, but I’m having difficulty with Z.” Let your professor know where you are in your process and exactly what you would like him or her to do to help. Even if you’re looking to schedule a time with your professor’s office hours, it’s courteous, but not mandatory, to let them know what you’d like to discuss ahead of time.
Identify the channels you’ve already exhausted.
You have already checked the syllabus for your information. You’re already Googled it. If you haven’t, do those things first! If neither addressed the information you’re looking for, here is where you get into the nitty gritty of it. “When I looked at XYZ Textbook, I see that it addresses X and Y, but I don’t see how that relates to Z.” If you’re asking about office hours, parrot back what is in the syllabus into your request: “I see that you have office hours on X day from Y-Z time, can we plan on meeting at this specific time?”
Sign off professionally.
Be sure to thank your professor and sign off with something professional. If you have a less-than-studious sign-off on your phone, turn it off before you email your professor or any other professional contact. Use your first and last name.
Follow up in a respectful manner.
It’s okay to send a followup! We’re all busy people are it’s very possible that your professor has simply forgotten your request. Don’t shame or passive-aggressively sulk in your followup; just say that you’re following up on your earlier request and reiterate your earlier email. Replying to your own earlier email so there’s a paper trail for your professor to read is the best way togo. If at all possible, let a week pass between your initial request and your followup, unless it’s urgent.
Remember that this is a skill you’ll need for life.
Don’t take the tone that you’re emailing your professor as someone who’s indentured to you. This isn’t only counterproductive in the short term, but it robs you of the experience of learning how to write and make requests to your superiors. And no matter what field you end up in, this is going to be a valuable skill to have. Practice now and gain the confidence you’ll use for years to come.