How to Write an Email to Your Professor

The bane of my existence as a college instructor was emails. I would groan every time I saw student emails in my inbox. And the reason is that many students seem to be clueless about how to write an email to someone who is not a close friend. They would also make it difficult for me to answer them, requiring me to look up information they could easily provide or writing their email in a way that’s confusing. I knew I could easily spend up to 2 hours a day answering student emails, even when I was only teaching 3 classes. The key to your professor’s heart is to limit your emails to what’s necessary and making them easy to answer. To that end, here are a few guidelines to help you write successful emails to your professor:

1. Don’t ask anything that could be found in your syllabus or prompts. One of the most exhausting and annoying things to encounter in your inbox is 10 emails from students asking what your absence policy is, what the reading for next class is, how many words/pages the essay has to be, and when and where your office hours are. No professor writes that long syllabus (or assignment prompts) for their health. It’s precisely so we don’t spend all of our time answering these types of questions. At the beginning of the semester, read all of your syllabus. Carefully. Maybe even do it twice. When you have a question, look at it again and make sure the answer isn’t in it. When you receive a prompt, read it. Carefully. Twice. When you have a question about that assignment, make sure the answer isn’t in it.

If your questions aren’t answered in the document in question, and you have the time, I suggest asking in class. This gives your instructor the chance to answer it in front of everyone, helping your fellow students and you understand the policy or assignment better.

2. Write in complete sentences. I’d recommend “standard” grammar as well, because lots of professors will judge you based on that. Be clear and as concise as possible. Don’t use emoticons or text speak in your emails; this indicates a level of intimacy that’s not particularly appropriate with an instructor.

3. Include your name and course information in every email. Professors often have hundreds of students and multiple classes. If you send an email that looks like this:

Ms. Stoker, is the assignment due tomorrow to be submitted by hard copy or email?

I’m going to have no idea how to answer it. Your name isn’t in the email, so I can’t look up what class you’re in (which I don’t want to do anyway), and if I have three different classes with three different schedules the next day, I have no idea what’s due for you tomorrow.

Make your instructor’s life easier and include your full name, class title (like Composition I or Gender and Biology), and class meeting day and time (say, MWF 11 AM) in every email you send. You can include them in the text of the email or as part of your signature. This will ensure that you get any questions answered quickly and you won’t annoy your instructor.

4. Be brief. No one wants to read a novel in email, and your professor is no exception. If what you need to ask is long and complex, then…

5. Ask for an appointment or visit office hours if it’s a complex or sensitive question. Anything that would require your or your professor to write more than a couple short paragraphs needs to be handled in person. Email your instructor, give them the basics, ask for an appointment, and give them possible meeting times when you are free. For example:

Dear Ms. Stoker,

This is Kara Welsh from your Composition II class on MW at 2:30 PM. I’m emailing because the material for class next week includes many readings with strong language. These required readings make me uncomfortable, and I’d like to discuss it with you. I have work during your office hours, so I was hoping we could meet sometime this week or early next week before the day in question.

I am free on Friday before 11 AM, Monday after 2 PM, and all day Tuesday. Please let me know if you can fit me in!

Thank you,

Kara

Or:

Ms. Stoker,

I’ve been working on the rhetorical analysis essay for a week or so, and have a draft I’d really like to discuss with you. I’m worried that I’m not understanding how to do rhetorical analysis, and want to get your feedback. I have another class during your office hours, so I’d need to meet with you outside of them.

I’m free Tuesdays and Thursdays before 10 AM and after 3 PM. Could you meet with me soon on one of those days?

Thanks so much!

Tom Buckner

Composition I

TR 12:30 PM

This holds especially if you need help with an assignment, you have a problem/are offended by an assignment or course material, or you have an emergency that is making it difficult for you to complete your work. These are simply not conversations that can happen easily over email. It’s too easy to misread, get the tone wrong, or simply not end up with all your questions answered.

6. Never send an email asking what you missed in class or your grade in the class. If you miss class, your instructor is not responsible for providing you with notes; it can feel demanding and rude when asked for in an email. Approach your instructor before or after class, or during her office hours, to see if she can possibly provide you with anything from the missed class. Check with fellow students as well for notes and class summary. Remember that you are responsible for all missed material.

Grades cannot be discussed in emails, at least in the U.S., because of FERPA. Your professor will not tell you what grades you’ve received through email, so ask in person instead. Do not ask “what grade do I have to make on X assignment to make a B in your class?” type questions. You have all the information you need to do that calculation in your syllabus if you have your assignment grades from the semester. Don’t force your instructor to do unnecessary math when you can do it yourself.

Requesting an Extension

A special type of email is the request for an assignment extension. Many college students don’t know that this is something they’re allowed to ask for, but professors are often flexible with deadlines if you are a good student (participate in class, hand in assignments on time, have good attendance) and have a good reason. Even if your reason doesn’t feel like an “emergency,” it doesn’t hurt to ask. The worst that can happen is that they deny your request.

The best way to ask for an extension is in person, but it can be done by email if necessary. You want to follow the guidelines above and include the reason for your request and a proposed due date. Be realistic about when you can turn the assignment in; they’re not likely to grant you another extension if you miss the deadline.

An email asking for an extension should look something like this:

Dr. Smith,

I just received my work schedule for the next two weeks, and I am working double shifts almost every day. This is unusual, but my boss says that we’re short-staffed those weeks and I need to work all the hours scheduled.

I’ve started the rhetorical analysis essay, but I’m worried that with these extra hours, I’m simply not going to have the time I need to turn in quality work to you. Is it possible for me to get an extension of one week? That would give me the time I need to do the assignment well.

I understand this may not be possible, and I appreciate you considering an extension for me.

Thank you,

Courtney Stoker

Composition II, TR 5:30 PM

If you’re going to be vague about your reason (family emergency, personal emergency), your professor is much less likely to grant the extension. If it’s too personal for  you to discuss over email, go see your professor and discuss it face-to-face.

The most important thing about asking for an extension is timing. Ask as soon as you know you need one. If you ask the day before a deadline (or worse, the day after a deadline), your chances of getting an extension are significantly worse than if you ask a week or two before the assignment is due.

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Written by Courtney Stoker