A few weeks ago, an email a student sent to her professor went viral.
I got over my fear of sending emails to professors, and reached out to a number of them. Here’s the advice they had to give:
- “I think a good rule of thumb for all of us on email is to be more formal — it’s always better to become more casual over time if your relationship develops. It’s never good to start out with a ‘hey what’s up how r u can I come to office hrs??? :)))’” – Sophie Godley
- “Sign your name. Identify the class you’re in, especially in large lectures. Proofread. Proofread again.” – Marisa Milanese
- “Read the syllabus before sending the email! I don’t have time to answer emails asking what pages in the textbook they should read for the next class. If I receive an email and my response would be “read the syllabus”, then I delete the email and do not respond. Unfortunately, that sometimes leads to students re-emailing the question, which I again delete and then remind the entire class that if they have not heard from me within 24 hours, they should read the syllabus.” – Jeremy DeSilva
- “I know some faculty members get their undies in a wad about this and I understand. Students should be professional in dealing with people, but I give students a lot of slack when it comes to email…I recall once, years ago, getting a call from a student at 3:30 in the morning. ‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘Did I wake you?’ So an email is much preferable to a 3 am phone call. Nothing tops an actually conversation, though.” – William McKeen
- “The only e-mails that make me sad, and sometimes actually enraged, are the grade-grubbing ones. I particularly loathe the ‘dear professor, I haven’t really talked to you all semester or even appeared all that interested but all of sudden I didn’t get an A as a final grade so now I’m reaching out and what can I do to get an A in your course (which ended a week ago)????’ Those emails make me insane.” – Sophie Godley
- “Some years ago, I received an email that said (to paraphrase): ‘I was sick today, did I miss anything?’ There was no salutation and no goodbye. In other words, no way to tell if the email was really meant for me or who it was from. Plus, the person’s email address did not have a clear name in it. I wrote back that he/she probably had missed something, but since I didn’t know who the email was from or to, I couldn’t tell if he/she had missed my class. I got an apologetic email back immediately and discovered that the student was one of mine. So, greetings and goodbyes are helpful.” – Benjamin Varat
- “If you have to miss class, avoid describing bodily fluids.” – Marisa Milanese
- “Don’t tell professors about other work you have or the demands on your schedule from other classes as a reason for why you cannot do work, meet a deadline, have to reschedule an exam, etc. in the class you are emailing your professor about. Basically, the professor hears this as ‘your class is not that important and this other professor’s is, so please make an exception for me. Yikes!!!!” – David Shim
- “Don’t send a blank subject line, use effuse praise in order to get something (‘I’ve heard your class is wonderful, so please please let me in’), wait until the last minute to email about something important, question your grade (math errors are rare), or, worse, explain why you desperately need a certain grade.” – Gary Duehr
- “No naked selfies (It actually happens).” – Clifford Backman
Throughout my email correspondence with a number of professors, I got the sense that although formality is always best, it is important to remember that professors are people too. They are able to laugh about things, and some even have a great sense of humor (shocking, I know).
But if you get one lesson out of this article, whatever you do, never send an email like this one that a BU Writing Professor, who preferred to remain anonymous, actually received: