Writing an email to your professor – A Primer for Students

keep-calm-and-follow-netiquetteTypically I receive several emails per day from my students and I am amazed by what I read, often the messages I receive do not qualify even as a “barely decent” piece of communication.

Here I collect a few basic recommendations to write a decent email message starting with the assumption that you are writing to someone covering an official position (professor, officer, president, CEO, etc.).

The recommendations below are more specific than generic Email Netiquette

Subject

If your email recipient gets hundreds of email per day, writing a clear subject line increases the likelihood of your message to be read soon.

  • Do provide a subject line: emails with empty subject are often ignored or classified as spam
  • Provide in the subject the main key words that allow your recipient to understand what your email is about. Typical bad examples (actually received) with my comments:
    • Subject: Email: yes I know it is an email..
    • Subject: Error: concerning what??
    • Subject: Exam: I teach several courses and administer tens of exams every year, which one?
  • Use reply if there is a previous email that sets the context, that typically is a good subject line (provided the original sender wrote a good one)

Opening

  • Use a formal opening: “Dear Professor“, “Dear Professor X Y” or just “Professor“, or even a formal salutation e.g. “Good Afternoon” or perhaps “Hello“.
  • Avoid an informal friendly salutation e.g. “Hi!!” or “Ciao Professor“.
  • In a close sequence of back and forth emails, you can even skip the opening from the second or third email you send in the sequence.
  • Keep the opening salutation on a separate line

Body of the message – Style

  • Write sentences with proper punctuation, leaving spaces.
  • Leave one empty line between sentences that are not closely related, it will be easier to read the message.
  • Avoid using fancy colors and fonts, I personally prefer pure text messages (without any formatting) but that is not strictly mandatory.
  • Avoid all UPPERCASE or all lowercase.

The following is a (actually received) bad example:

hi,professor.it is okay now.thank u so much[…]. so now i am very worried about the number of error whether  will it effect so much about my final result.because i really did a lot of practice to prepare the exam.and i really want to pass it this time.anyway now i am going to fix my project.

Body of the message – Contents

  • Provide the full context for your message, e.g. who you are, what is your message about, add any additional information required. For instance “I run the program but I got an error.” is not enough: what kind of error? What is the exact error message? Is your program something that is available? Provide a copy or a link to that program.
  • Clearly list your questions and/or requests

Attachments

  • Provide attachments if they contain useful information
  • Use standard format as far as possible so people can read them in the proper way
    • For compressed archives ZIP is standard, while .7z.rar, or fancier formats are not
    • For text: PDF is standard and appears consistently across different operating systems and versions, .doc, .docx etc. are not, and their appearance might vary from system to system.
    • For images: JPEGPNGGIF are standard, and should be used for pictures only, sending a text file (e.g. a brochure) using an image format is gross.
  • Avoid sending too large attachments, as a rule of thumb (year 2015): if your attachment is larger than 1 MB, please consider uploading it to some online storage and send a link
  • Use links if documents are available online, otherwise it is an annoying waste of time and bandwidth

Replies and longer email exchanges

  • In general if you are replying to some message, the best way is to use the Reply command in your email client, that will automatically provide an appropriate subject line and insert the full context inside the email body.
  • If you were not the only recipient of the original email use Reply to all by default, unless you consciously want to reply only to the original sender. For instance, if your professor sent an email to you, with the course Teaching Assistant in CC, it is polite to reply to both (so everyone is informed)
    • On the other hand if your message is relevant to only one person, please avoid annoying everybody else by putting them in CC.
  • It is polite, when someone provides you a useful information or a correct answer that solved your problem, to provide a feedback saying that you got what you wanted. Thanks are not required but usually appreciated.
  • In case you receive a time and date for a meeting it is fundamental that you confirm so all the parties involved can mark their calendar

Signature

  • Provide your full name: while it is nice to know your nick name, that is not relevant for an official communication
  • Provide your official organizational ID, e.g. the unique university student ID, if you own one

Concluding, email is a powerful tool, provided you can use it in the proper way. Apply a few basic rules and your email will be understood properly, and replied fast.

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One thought on “Writing an email to your professor – A Primer for Students

  1. Pingback: Educazione Digitale – Email di Richiesta | Marco Torchiano

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