Emailing Your Professor

Outside of seeing her in class or in office hours, email is the most common method of communicating with your professor. Accordingly, it is important to use email well as a communication tool.

On this page, you'll find helpful hints and examples of what to do and not to do when corresponding with your professor via email.

Emailing Your Instructor: An Illustration by Professor Renee Field

Review the email below. Notice that it is rife with errors and other features that will hinder clear, consise communication with your professor.

Below the email are helpful hints.

Sample Email

Read the email below and ask yourself how the sender of this email presents themself to the professor.

----Message----
From: 190989@houndmail.macc.edu[1]
To: dchallis@macc.edu
Sent: Monday, January 18, 2014  11:49:22 PM
Subject: absent
Hey,[2]

i[3] am in your class[4] this semester but i missed the first 4 days[5] do to some unexpected problems with work and family ;)[6] I would like 2 make up the work if u can send me the syllabus and all the handouts. and also if I missed any important info.[7]
also will we b needing the book this semester[8] because i am on a budget LOL![9]
Thx
_________________________________________

Issues

  1. Without your proper name in the address, subject line, or anywhere else in the email, your instructor has no way of knowing who sent this correspondence.
  2. This greeting is inappropriate, especially so early in the semester. Open with something more formal and respectful: “Dear Professor Challis,” or “Good Morning,”
  3. Use Standard English; this includes appropriate capitalization, spelling, and grammar.
  4. Which class? Your instructor likely has at least 3-5 courses (100+ students).
  5. If you have missed 4 days already, that is probably about 2 weeks of class. Your instructor will wonder why you haven’t emailed sooner.
  6. There is nothing that warrants a “wink” in the previous sentence, nor do you have a familiar enough relationship with your instructor to be using emoticons.
  7. Whether you intend it or not, this is offensive.  The faculty members who are responsible for your education take pride in not wasting your tuition or time. Every class session is “important.”
  8. Some instructors do under-utilize the required text(s) but you should not assume that any class is textbook-optional.
  9. Your “textspeak” and poor editing reflect badly on you, and at this point your instructor is likely debating whether to encourage your continued enrollment in his/her course.

Revised Email

Below is a revised version of the above email with some of the suggested edits made.

----Message----
From: 190989@houndmail.macc.edu
To: dchallis@macc.edu
Sent: Monday, January 18, 2014  11:49:22 PM
Subject: Question about Absenses in PHI251-03


Good afternoon, Professor Challis.

My name is [Your Name] and I am in your PHI251-02 class and I have missed the first four days due to unexpected problems with work and family.

If possible, I would like to make up the work I have missed. What do I need to do in order to catch up?

Is it possible to access materials, such as handouts and the syllabus, before the next time I see you?

Finally, I'd like to set up a time to meet with you during office hours to discuss my situation. What would be a good time to meet?

Regards,

[Your Name]
_________________________________________

Much better, right?

Additional Tips & Resources

In addition to the above, the following tips and resources will help you craft better, actionable communications with your professor.

Note: These tips hold in nearly all types of email (business, education, etc).

Core Problem: Information Overload

People, especially your professors, are subjected to email overload, which results in cognitive overload.

Because of this, it is easy for emails to be lost or to be misread.

Given that you and your professor are both interested in solving your issue, there are several strategies you can use to reduce the cognitive overhead needed to process your email.

Core Solution: Clear & Consise Signaling

1) Use Clear, Consise Subjects

Most people have to wade through a kabillion emails on a daily basis, meaning they have to devote considerable cognitive resources . The subject line is often the first signal the reader processes, so make it count.

  • Bad Subject: Class
  • Good subject: Question about 10/4 Class in PHI251

The professor knows immediately that you have a question - and can respond specifically and concretely because she knows exactly what class you have a question about.

2) Be short and to the point

While it is paramount to be professional in your emails, it is also just as important to be clear and consise in your emails. The less your professor has to read and process, the quicker they can respond.

3) Ask Specific Questions (Help me help you)

Often students will present problems and leave it at that, forcing the professor to probe for possible solutions, which then adds a few more emails to the email chain, lengthening the amount of time needed to solve your issue.

Students will do this in order to defer to the professor or to not come off as rude. And this is understandable, but unhelpful.

Instead, be sure that your email states quite clearly your central purpose or issue that prompted you to email your professor. Make sure that it is stated clearly.

4) Make sure your email is scanable.

Look at the two columns of text below. If you were searching for something specific, like "Sed nisi", in which email would you be able to find what you are looking for with the least amount of time and mental work?

Figure 1: Wall-o-Text

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Integer nec odio. Praesent libero. Sed cursus ante dapibus diam. Sed nisi. Nulla quis sem at nibh elementum imperdiet. Duis sagittis ipsum. Praesent mauris. Fusce nec tellus sed augue semper porta. Mauris massa. Vestibulum lacinia arcu eget nulla. Class aptent taciti sociosqu ad litora torquent per conubia nostra, per inceptos himenaeos. Curabitur sodales ligula in libero. Sed dignissim lacinia nunc.

Figure 2: The F-Pattern

Lorem ipsum dolor

Sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit.

Integer nec odio. Praesent libero. Sed cursus ante dapibus diam.

  • Sed nisi
  • Nulla quis
  • sem at nibh

Elementum imperdiet. Duis sagittis ipsum. Praesent mauris.

Fusce nec tellus sed augue semper porta. Mauris massa. Vestibulum lacinia arcu eget nulla.

Class aptent taciti sociosqu ad litora torquent per conubia nostra, per inceptos himenaeos. Curabitur sodales ligula in libero. Sed dignissim lacinia nunc.

That's right, the "F-Pattern" easily beats the "Wall-o-Text," even thorugh the exact same text is in both columns.

Using things like:

  • headings
  • bullets for lists of items, and
  • short, active sentences

to make your emails scanable and therefore more readable. Readable emails are more readily answered than emails that take time to decode.