Write an Email to Your Professor - and Get a Response
Edited by Sarah Maloney, Eng, Alma, Simpson
You might think that when your professors get back to their offices it is a formal, outfit complimenting herbal tea sipping, book discussing party of dullness. I can assure you, our offices are small ecosystems of concentration, assessments, venting, discussing, grumbling and sometimes downright whining. The last college office I worked in was a conversion of a classroom into a cluster of smaller offices clumped together into a larger common space. And we talked. A lot. We shared a lot of stories and we discussed our students, shared lessons commented on each other's strategies and sought advice on marking. Extraordinarily, the most shared stories were about emails.
Laughter complete with uncontrollable snorts, disbelief, frustration, screeches, squeals and complete bewilderment were all suitable responses to emails from students. It was not uncommon to see four professors all with Master's degrees in COMMUNICATIONS circled around a computer reading an email aloud, all four completely incapable of interpretation. It was also equally common to walk into class and have a handful of students questioning my lack of response to an email. The short answer to this question was, "I had no idea what you were asking me or what you needed," and was usually met with stunned befuddled and puzzled looks of confusion.
After a couple semesters of this lunacy, I began each semester with a class entitled "How to Email your Professor and Get a Response." This article will offer a summary of this class and teach you how to email your professor and get a response.
- 1Spelling and Grammar. Your professors are not going to Go Go Gadget Soviet Cold War Venona Project capabilities to respond to a student email.Advertisement
- 2School Email. Most if not all colleges and universities enforce a confidentiality agreement. These agreements specifically instruct professors not to respond to emails that they receive from student's personal accounts. Anyone can set up an email account with your name and email the professor on your behalf. So if you want a response, ensure you're using your school assigned email.Advertisement
- 3Be Polite. Please and Thank You will get you so far in life. Use them. All requests when writing should begin with a please, anything you've received back deserves a thank you.
There are two categories of emails.
- 1Informative. These emails are just to report information, instruct or inform.Advertisement
- For example, if you wanted to tell your professor you will not be in class, this is informative. If you want to notify your professor of a mistake on the calendar or in a Blackboard or Moodle posting or that the bookstore is out of the required reading material, this is informative. You are simply imparting information. Many of these types of emails don't require a response and the responsibility is on you to state clearly that you would like a reply.
- 2Persuasive. These emails are when you want to persuade, convince or influence your reader to do something. Essentially, anytime you need anything from your professor it is considered a persuasive email. Try not to think of a persuasive email that turns you into a commissioned based salesperson at a printer and paper supply store, anytime you are requesting anything even minor it is considered a persuasive email.
- For example, if you are emailing your professor that you will be absent and missing an important test, you want to convince your professor to allow you to reschedule, this would be persuasive. You want your professor to give you something (a rescheduled test). If you want to ask your professor for a meeting, this would also be persuasive. Again, you want your professor to give you something (a meeting). It may not be the same level of persuasion as missing a test date but it is still persuasion.
- 3An easy way to remember the difference between the two emails is informative emails are giving while persuasive emails are hoping to receive.
- 1Fill in your Subject Line. With a subject that makes sense and your professor can immediately identify what you want or what you're informing.
- Class Absence.
- Request for Meeting.
- Course Work.
- Question about Chapter 2.
- Check out this email:
- No matter what. This should be a routine that becomes second nature to you when writing emails. Each professor has a different level of formality expected and should establish the level with which they are most comfortable during the first week of school, however, the general rule is to begin any email to your professor with one of the following.
- Good Morning/Afternoon Professor (name spelled correctly),
- Hello Professor (named spelled correctly),
- Professor (named spelled correctly). These are perfectly acceptable commencements to an email. You may be used to starting your emails with Dear. Although still acceptable, this has become both an archaic too familiar and intimate greeting (Dearest) and an almost too unfamiliar way to start an email. Think of all the spam emails you've ever received from Nigerian Princesses who want to deposit millions of billions of naira into your account. They are start with "Dear," and because of this, Dear is becoming increasingly old-fashioned.
- Stay away from Hey, Hi, Yo, Greetings, Salutations, What's up? Don't try to be cute, informal or overly personal.
- Throw in a pleasant one-liner. Stick with something simple. You can personalize it if possible.
- Hope you're having a great Wednesday.
- I really enjoyed your class today.
- Hope your day is going well.
- The group work we did in Monday's class really helped me understand the concepts in Chapter 2. Thank you!
- Remember when you wanted to ask your Mom or Dad to extend your curfew? You knew exactly who to ask and when to ask it. The reason you want to throw in a simple one line pleasantry is the same and very straightforward, you're subliminally cajoling or buttering up your professor.
- Your pleasantry will unconsciously make your professor engaged, create mutual respect and make your email stand out amongst the others. It seems simple, but your professor has between 500 and 1200 students a semester, all sending their own emails with their own requests and information. Most student emails are persuasive and almost all require a response. Email can be tedious and your professor may be sitting at the computer with a stack of exams to mark begrudgingly reading and responding to student emails.
- Don't go overboard.
- You're the best, greatest and the most well dressed professor I have ever had!
- You have really changed my life in these first two weeks of the semester.
- The way you teach is amazing. Although professors do love to hear compliments and often receive too few in between all the criticisms, these are comments you want to save for an end of the semester email or your end of the semester evaluation. Instead, keep it simple and to one line.
- Who. Identify yourself. This includes the course code, the class code, the day and time you meeting and/or your student number. The main reason I often do not respond to student emails or respond tersely is because I have NO IDEA WHO THE STUDENT IS. I know your name from your email and as a professor I pride myself on knowing the name of all my students BUT that does not always include last names. I also have between 4 and 5 classes a semester that often meet 2 to 3 times a week. I can't keep track of the course codes or the corresponding dates and times. If you want a response, make sure your professor knows who you are.
- For example, the semester I received this email:
- What. Identify your action items. Your action items are what you want to inform or what you need. This is the most important part of your email and need to come very quick in the email. Remember, your professor has hundreds of emails to respond to, present what you are informing or asking for quick. Action items may include:
- I am writing to inform you I am unable to attend the exam on November 9th.
- I would like to change my presentation group.
- There is conflict within our work group.
- I am requesting an extension to the reflection paper due Friday.
- I am requesting your permission to change my essay topic.
- Bam! Done. Your professor knows what you want and can now minimally respond to the request. When you don't state your action items quick, clear and to the point your professor has to use their Russian Cyrillic decoder, losing patience and probably throwing the email into their trash.
- Let's have a look at this email.
- Have a look at the subject line. I have no idea what day, what course, or what the issue is.
- I have no idea who this student is; I don't know what class they are in or what section.
- There is no salutation or pleasantry. I have already lost patience and interest and have essentially decided not to read any further.
- I have really no idea what the hard drive, the aunt, the apparent declaration that entire vast technological resources, applications, mechanisms, instruments and devices "suck," has to do with my 8:30 class nor do I have any idea what role Taryn and Bryar (no last names) are playing in this bizarre jumble of events.
- The Action Item? You will notice that is the very last sentence in the email. I haven't read that far. I gave up after the aunt surfaced.
- A much better action item placed much sooner in the email would be: I am having issues printing my assignment. Please find it attached to this email. Please let me know if you would like me to drop off a hard copy later in the day.
- I should note that in my classes I ONLY accept hardcopies of major assignments. This is important. And the reason it is important is because this email reads to me like an excuse. I would bet my two pizza box sized collection of baseball cards from the 1990's that this student has not completed the assignment. This might be true; it just as easily might not. But the email reads like it's incomplete. If a professor insists on a specific format but something like this does happen, your action item should outline that you are unable to hand in a hard copy by the deadline. Then you attach the file that is completed with a promise to deliver a hard copy to their office by noon. After years of teaching I have complete faith in printers, computers and the fact that the school library is equipped with adequate supplies of both. Broken printers, hard drives that have "crashed," these all read like excuses. We don't buy any of them. Use your resources if something does happen. I promise your school has them.
When and Where.
- Clearly state the deadline or when the event will occur as well as where. Clearly. Very clearly.
- I will drop off a hardcopy in your mailbox time stamped before noon tomorrow, Wednesday 12th.
- Could you kindly let me know sometime today if this topic change is acceptable?
- The best time for me to meet in your office is Monday, Wednesday or Friday between 10:00am and 11:30am.
- Clearly state the deadline or when the event will occur as well as where. Clearly. Very clearly.
Why. The Why is a bit tricky. Let's start by separating informative from persuasive emails.
- For the most part, you don't really need a why in informative emails. You're just passing on information, so often times there won't even be a why. If you need to miss a class, there is very little reason for you to let your professor know why. Really. You simply state the information. That's good enough. If you've visited the bookstore and a required material is sold-out you do not need write the entire tribulation or conversation between you and the bookstore employee.
- For persuasive emails, this can be a little bit tricky. There is little reason to tell your professor everything surrounding an issue or request. Especially, as we learned in the above email, when some of the information will raise red flags. The excuses I have received, large detailed emails with antagonists and protagonists, comprehensive dialogue and meticulous conflicts are impressive and if such energy was placed into the completion of the essay for which the excuse is intended it'd be done and we could go on with our semester. It's human nature to give reasons and guilt is a prominent subconscious response making it difficult to forgo the elaborate excuse. But your professor doesn't need to know it and these reasons tend to become long rambles filled with emotion. From dying hamsters to dishwasher flooding, dying distant relatives to car accidents/flat tires/batteries, injuries, sickness, technology issues and one peculiar incident involving a llama, a goose and an umbrella (you just got the meme now, right?) I have probably already heard the excuse and I know it's an excuse.
- Try telling the truth. Just try it. Some of the best emails and the students that I was most responsive to were truthful.
- Professor Maloney, my apologies but I was unable to complete the paper that is due today. I know I will receive a deduction but will you please accept it tomorrow? I am struggling with managing my time effectively since moving out on my own but am trying to get better.
- I forgot the deadline and will submit the assignment due tomorrow.
- I am unable to make it to class today due to illness. This is sufficient. I have to work with you the rest of the semester and being given animated descriptive details about the color of your vomit, the amount of nasal mucus, your nasal irrigation schedule, the degree of your fever and images of personal medical appointments, please, you do not need to tell your professors these details.
- For persuasive emails, you do want to persuade your professor and sometimes that will include personal information or circumstances. If there is something extenuating that occurs, absolutely tell your professor. Most students don't know the safeguards colleges and universities have in place for these exact circumstances. There are actions your professor can take to help you complete the semester. If you are notifying your professor through email, follow the format presented here, notify your professors immediately and continue communicating with them.
- If you could please let me know before Thursday I would really appreciate it.
- Could you let me know before next class?
- Could you please reply that you've received this email?
- Thank you so much for your help.
- I hope you're having a great day.
- I look forward to your input.
Tips and Tricks
- Only email your professor when it's absolutely necessary. If you're not sure about a due date, check the schedule, your class discussion board or ask your classmates.
- Remember professors are people too and sometimes we do simply forget. Be patient.
- Your professors are there to help and if you follow the steps outlined here they should be as accommodating as possible.
- If you have a question about a grade or an assignment these are better discussed in person. Don't be afraid to ask your professors before or after class or make a meeting to discuss with them.
- If you haven't received a reply on a time sensitive issue, try to stop by during office hours and ask in person.
- An example of an acceptable email:
Questions and Answers
How to postpone a presentation due to another prior activity?
I have a job interview the same time as I have a presentation and it is too late to reschedule the interview
This actually happens a lot - especially when you near the end of your degree program. Do your very best NOT to schedule non-school appointments during class. You know when you have class and most appointments can be scheduled around your classes. As a lot of work interviews are often for student's first "real" jobs, they can feel apprehensive about asking for a reschedule or a different interview time. But it is perfectly acceptable for you to inform the company representative that you have class during that time and request another interview time.
If it is too late to schedule the interview, there are a couple things you can do:
- 1Write your professor as soon as possible and using this article as a guide explain the situation.
- 2Identify what you are requesting from your professor. Are you asking for an alternate presentation date? Make sure you state this clearly and early in the email.
- 3Do explain that the conflicting appointment is a work interview. Briefly explain you were nervous and apprehensive about requesting another interview date as you really want this job.
- 4See if you have a classmate that is willing to trade presentation date/time with you. If you can set this up prior to emailing the professor and explain that you have a classmate willing to trade this might sway your professor to agree (you've solved the problem for them).
- 5Apologize profusely and highlight your positive performance in class. Hopefully you've been a participatory member of the class and have an excellent attendance record, if so, point this out in the email to your professor.
Generally professors are used to conflicting work appointments, it happens. Follow the steps in this article, be polite and offer a solution and hopefully your professor will be amicable.