Having questions as a college student is okay, and everyone, including professors, recognizes that you will need to ask them – in some cases, many, many times!
However, if in doing so you write an improper and inattentive email, it will prove to be counterproductive and can negatively affect the impression of you some of the most important people in your college life will have.
Here is your checklist to avoid making terrible mistakes:
Don’t Ask the Obvious!
The most important rule of emailing a professor is being perfectly sure that such an email has to be written in the first place. Try a little harder and make sure the question you plan to ask doesn’t have an obvious answer or hasn’t already been answered in a course material, online or in print, such as the very syllabus of the course you’re taking.
Just consider this: why would any professor take students who ask the obvious seriously? Wouldn’t it automatically suggest that in your opinion, some classes are not worth paying attention to?
Use Your University Email Address, Not That High School Nonsense!
So, if you are certain that you need to shoot that email now, then the first thing you need to check is whether you are using your official student email because otherwise, your message will face a higher risk of ending up in a spam/junk folder or will be disregarded, if not ridiculed.
Know When to Be Formal or Casual
Now, you need to pay attention to the tone of your writing.
Your first-ever email to a particular professor should be formal. From the subject line to salutation to the body of inquiry or explanation and to your signoff, everything must be as formal as possible.
You may, though, indicate how important your email is right from the subject line. “Urgent question” will do just fine there. And for salutation, referring to your professors’ title rather than to their gender will do a better job. So, choose to address them as “Dear Prof./Dr. Walker” rather than “Dear “Mr./Mrs. Walker.”
That being said, you should also learn to follow your professors’ lead in later correspondence. If you’re now, for instance, well acquainted with a particular professor or have already exchanged emails in which he or she has indicated that you might call him or her in a certain, more personable way, then you could be more casual than formal. In fact, insisting on formality might even be wrong now, since it might suggest you are trying to put an uncalled for distance between you and your professor.
Introduce Yourself Properly
Let’s face it: professors are busy people and reading emails is not something they particularly enjoy doing. Receiving tons of such online messages every day, it is very hard for them to follow up on each and every single student and situation. That, however, should not intimidate and prevent you from writing, either. True, your email will add on a thick stack of messages. However, that cannot be a reason to not write an essential message, but it is just another reason to do it right. And for that, a proper introduction is a must.
Let your professor know who you are and which class you are taking. That’ll be beyond kind.
What is equally important is to continue setting the context for your professor’s comprehension following a proper introduction. So, tell them what else needs to be told to relate your individual situation. If, for instance, there is a previous experience you two shared, take liberty to highlight it to establish a better connection.
Optimize the Length of Your Email
Skipping introduction and other key information will probably lead to an email too short that just won’t deliver the message. Unclear and incomplete, they will hardly merit a reply, let alone the answer you seek.
On the other end of the extremity are emails that are rather too long. They will either end up being only partially read or will be utterly incoherent and confusing.
Your best course of action with the length of your email is, therefore, optimizing it. That is, writing everything that needs to be written and not a single word more. And a brilliant way to ensure that is go over your email when you feel like you are done with it before hitting the ‘send’ key. Simplify, simplify, simplify. You will discover it’s a magic cure to any writing.
Avoid Slang, Grammar and Spelling Errors
Making sure your writing lives up to high standards in terms of both grammar and spelling may require a little more time looking for errors. Getting your email proofread by someone who is good at it is perfectly normal. So, don’t be too shy to ask for help.
Stating the obvious here, but do not have slang, abbreviations, or emoticons in your email.
You may have skipped a class or, even worse, an exam and are kind of short on excuses. In that case, the first thing that crosses almost any student’s mind is to make up one to avoid consequences.
Well, a lie will always feel troubling but admittedly, it is materially the same as the truth as long as you can cover it.
To sum up:
- make sure there is no obvious answer to your question
- have an informative subject line
- be formal: Dear Dr. Smith; Sincerely, Your Name
- introduce yourself properly
- don’t write too much, make your point clear
- do not use slang, abbreviations, or emoticons
- avoid spelling errors