Emailing your professor

Angelica Cofer is a recent graduate of Hartwick College. She has her B.A. in English and Creative Writing. Angelica lives in Nice, France and teaches English as a foreign language at the Université Nice Sophia Antipolis. She’s passionate about stories, television, social justice, and YouTube. Follow her on Twitter here:

We’re used to texting. Our language gets sloppy online. We can’t be bothered to check autocorrect! Hello, it’s the 21st century and time is money. Or something.

I understand—I do. But taking 10 extra seconds to check what you’re writing—to make sure it’s grammatically correct, sure, but also to check how you sound—won’t kill you. This is especially important for the e-mails you draft to your professors.

It’s a professional relationship. The teacher you may not love on the first day of class might be the potential writer of a recommendation for your dream graduate school or job. So, first of all, be nice to your professors. In person, but also in e-mail.

Writing is underrated these days, but people will judge you for incorrect grammar and tone, especially professors. It’s not something they’ll consciously hold against you, but it is something they will note and file away. Because the way in which we write leaves an impression. Make sure your impression counts.

Don’t use first names. Even if the professor encourages you to call him “[insert familiar name here],” use his title when you address him in your e-mails. If you aren’t sure if the professor has a PhD, just use “Professor.” “Professor [last name].” It’s a simple trick, but it’s essential. You want the professor to know you understand and respect formality, and this small gesture helps.

“Dear Professor [Blank].” You’ve got the first part down—what’s next? Say what you need to say—whether it’s asking for help, turning in an assignment, scheduling a meeting, what have you—but be polite. You can be upbeat and professional at the same time. You want to avoid coming across as cheeky or tactless. Don’t use easy language you might use with your friends.

After you’ve drafted your e-mail, don’t send it right away! Take a moment to read over what you’ve just written. How do you sound? Do you get your message across effectively? Are you polite? Do you even make sense? Sometimes we write so quickly we don’t realize we’re incomprehensible. This is also the time to use spell-check. This technology is readily available. It doesn’t cost money. It can help you avoid embarrassment. So just use it. And if you aren’t sure about something, look it up. The Internet is here for you.

Finally, when you’re sure you’ve said what you need to say and you’ve said it correctly, sign your name. Signatures can be confusing and, frankly, overwhelming. Some people try to avoid the operation altogether and use a short “–[Name]”. Don’t do that. Don’t use a dash to sign your name. You are better than that. I suggest these three beauties: “Thanks,” “Sincerely,” and… “Best.” They are foolproof (just make sure you use them appropriately). If you’re asking for something, like help or an academic favor, use “Thanks, [Your First Name Your Last Name].” “Sincerely” is more formal, but gets the job done just as well as “Best” does. After all, it’s the best.

Remember, your professors will become important people in your life. They will open doors for you. Show them that you respect what they do for you by taking care in your e-mails. And, hey, writing professional e-mails now will prepare you for when you need to do the same in the workplace. Think of it as getting ahead. And good luck!

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