How to Email a Professor (or just about anyone else, too)

This is inspired by/based on this great post from way back in 2005 by Michael Leddy, “How to e-email a professor.” 

The Basics

Yes, you do have to use email. No, texting is not the same thing. One of the trends I’ve noticed in recent years is the increasing number of people who just “don’t” email. I see it mostly with students and I suppose it is generational to an extent, though I don’t receive and send as much email as I did say 5 or 10 years ago either, probably because of the rise of both texting and social media.

But email is still important and texting is not a substitute for all sorts of reasons. Text messages are great for short and conversational exchanges, but it isn’t a very good format for longer and more detailed messages. It’s a lot easier to send and deal with attachments with an email than it is with a text message. Texting generally requires a phone number, and while I can easily look up your EMU email, I can’t easily look up your phone number. (Also, I would just as soon not share my number; you might feel the same way). And while it is true that most of you send and receive many more text messages than email messages, email is still the primary medium for communicating in professional settings.

You need to use your EMU email account for EMU activities. For one thing, if you send an email to a professor or other professional from an address like stevedude1@gmail.com, the person who is receiving that email will have no idea who you are. Further, you will need to use your EMU Google account for other things too– Google Docs, for example.

You need to check your email every day. Every. Single. Day. This is especially true if you are actively involved in something where your primary means of communication with your instructors and with other officials at EMU. When I am at my computer, I tend to monitor my email– which is to say I check it multiple times a day– but at a minimum, I’d recommend making it a habit to check at least once before working on homework or going to class.

Generally speaking, I respond to emails from students (and almost everyone else, too) within 24 hours, depending a bit on when I receive the email. For example, I’m not likely to respond too quickly to an email sent to me on the weekend because, like you, I do take time off from work sometimes. But even then, it’s unusual for me to not to respond within a day.

You should set up your mobile device to read and send email. It is just as easy to configure your cell phone to read and send email as it is to read and send text messages, which is to say not having easy access to a laptop or desktop computer is not a good excuse for not checking your email.

Actually Writing the Email

Include a useful subject line. Unlike a text message, the standard convention for email is you include a subject line to help out whoever is receiving your email. Your subject line should include specific and useful information about the topic of the email message– again, an aid to your reader.Not including a subject line in an email message is considered rude and unprofessional.

For example, when an email with a subject line like “Assignment?” is not helpful because it doesn’t tell me anything about what assignment or what class you are in.  (And keep in mind that most professors and instructors teach more than the one class you are in, and if you are trying to email the instructor teaching a large class, there’s a good chance they won’t recognize your name or email address). But an email with a subject like like “Question about first assignment in WRTG 225” is helpful because it tells me what the email message is about.

Remember email is closer to a traditional letter than it is a text message. I say closer to because email messages are usually more informal than traditional letters, even in professional settings. But email messages are usually more formal than text messages because of the relationships between most people who text with each other (that is, most of us are more likely to send and receive text messages from friends and relatives rather than people we don’t know as well), and also because of the way we tend to use multiple texts to communicate with someone.

So, some of the things to think about as you write your email messages:

  • Have an appropriate greeting. I always tell my students they can call me “Steve” or, if they aren’t comfortable using a teacher’s first name like that, “Professor Krause.” (And when in doubt as to what to call your instructor, it’s better to be too formal than not formal enough). So “Hi Steve,” or “Hi Prof. Krause,” are good; skipping the greeting entirely or just writing something like “Hey!” are bad.

An important and related point: figuring out what to call your college teachers/instructors/graduate assistants/professors/etc. can be tricky. Perhaps you heard about the outrage from a lot of academics about a Wall Street Journal editorial about Dr. Jill Biden’s use of the title “doctor” because she has a EdD and is not a medical doctor. Those of us who have PhDs take great offense at this, mainly because it is a lot of work to earn that title of Doctor. Along these lines, a lot of faculty who have PhDs do not like being called “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” Miss,” or “Ms.,” again because they have earned the right to call themselves “Dr.”

At the same time, there are a lot of college teachers who are not “Professors” nor “Doctors.” The title of professor generally refers to someone who has a permanent and “tenure-track” position at a college or university. College teachers who are not professors and who have “non-tenure-track” positions or who also do not have a doctorate degree are usually not called “Professor” or “Doctor” — or at least they shouldn’t be called that. My point is I can understand why it’s confusing.

So, what should you call this person you’re emailing? Ideally, your teacher will make it clear to you what they prefer to be called. Pay attention to what they say they prefer, use that title, and realize different faculty have different preferences on titles for all kinds of complex reasons. I have always told my students they can call me by my first name, Steve, though as I’ve gotten older and as I have met students who are uncomfortable calling any teacher by their first name, I have told they can call me Professor Krause too. At the same time, I have many colleagues who would be quite insulted if a student called them by their first name. When in doubt, be more formal than necessary and call them “Professor.” No one is going to be insulted by being called professor, and if that teacher isn’t a professor or would prefer to be called something else, this is a chance for them to tell you that.

  • Write in complete sentences and use conventional grammar. Again, email is more formal than texting. So while it’s usually acceptable to skip things like punctuation and capitalization in text messages, it is not acceptable to do this in email messages.
  • In the first sentence or so, make sure note the specifics of why you are writing. Be sure to message the specific class (especially if you didn’t do this in the subject line), and be sure to note the specific request. So a sentence like “I’d like to set up an appointment to meet with you about the first assignment in WRTG 225. Can we meet on Tuesday at 2 pm?” is good; “Can we meet?” is bad.
  • Be sure to “sign” the message with your full name. This is especially important if your email address doesn’t make your name clear. Again, instructors and professors usually have multiple classes and thus multiple students who are named “Steve” or “Melissa,” so you should end your message with your first and last name.

When you get a reply, be sure to promptly answer and acknowledge the email. This is particularly important if your instructor is expecting you to reply– for example, to confirm the time of an appointment. And of course, it’s always nice to say “Thanks” when appropriate, too.