Digital communication skills are necessary for today’s workplace. Learning those skills in college is valuable yet often overlooked. Many young students do not take digital communication seriously, believing they communicate just fine. As a professor of over 1000 students per year, I receive multiple emails from students who are unaware of how their communication is being received. This post is meant to help you, a student genuinely trying to make the most out of your college career. This is not an attack on anyone. I give students the benefit of the doubt when it comes to email communication.
It’s important to be able to email your professor, adviser, RA, or other college officials in a precise and respectable manner. Up to this point, you probably haven’t put much thought into an email. You’ve communicated mainly through Facebook messenger, Twitter, Snapchat, or even something old-school like texting. I’m not here to dismiss communication of this kind. I use all of these forms of communication too — even Snapchat (mainly to send videos of my dog to my wife). This is meant to provide advice to students interested in adding professionalism to an e-mail. There are similar posts to mine which perhaps are better. But to me, these are important tips on how to email a professor:
Put your name and class/section in the subject line
The subject line of your e-mail is the first thing the recipient sees. It helps your professor sort emails and saves them time as there will be no need to look up which class you are enrolled in. You can trust me, any way you can save your professor time is great. Even if you have a great relationship with the professor and they know who you are, it does not hurt to include this information on an initial email.
Have a professional signature.
Program a signature to end all of your emails. Even if it is as simple as your name and your graduation year. Also, feel free to include any significant leadership positions you may hold. My advice would be to limit the signature to two additional leadership positions. More than that gets too busy. If you don’t have anything you feel like adding, that’s fine too.
Western New England College ’08
Student Council Grievance Chairperson
Address your professor
Dear Professor. It’s simple. Depending on the instructor they may want you to call them by their first name or Dr. ______. Whatever it is I suggest using it at the beginning of your email. If you aren’t sure, Dear Professor is a safe bet and if you feel comfortable, feel free to ask how they would like to be addressed in future emails.
Make sure the answer is not in the syllabus
Asking about office hours? About the time of the exam? About the final exam location? Well… is it on the syllabus? The list of things that will upset your professor more than getting an email asking a question whose answer is on the syllabus is not long. Save them some time and let your professor keep some of their hair by checking the syllabus before emailing a question.
Other faculty members: To try and cut down on emails I have developed an FAQ page for my students (feel free to steal it if you want).
Check for spelling
This may seem obvious, but please check your email for spelling and grammar. Most email clients and phones will do this for you. However, rereading your emails is a good habit to get into.
As professors, we understand everyone isn’t perfect. Yet, simple errors send a signal of not caring. My guess is you don’t want that to be the impression given.
Get straight to the point. There is no need for fluff in your email. If you are asking about a question on homework, just ask the question. You do not need to start with, “I was doing my homework in the library last night because I had practice today so I wouldn’t be able to get to it which is why I was starting it early…” Just ask the question in a precise, respectable, and professional way and we will return your email as soon as possible.
Allow some time
Give your professor 48 hours to answer your question before following up. This means you should not be upset if you ask a last-minute question and do not get an answer. Too many times I receive an email the night before an assignment is due asking a critical question. While there are times when your professor is working late and able to reply quickly, many times they will have other commitments and cannot respond.
I can say with certainty that your professor has many outside obligations. Administrative work for the university, answering other students’ questions, and preparing for lectures to name a few. Not to mention, your professor most likely has a pretty cool life outside being a professor.
If you follow these guidelines you will notice a faster response time and much friendlier email response from your professor. Also, please don’t use emojis or smiley faces 🙂
James Tierney is an improviser and economics instructor. Follow him on Twitter for some amusement. Here are some more posts for students: