Word Nerd: How to write an email to your professor

5 Jun

Thanks in part to films such as The Absent-Minded Professor (a Disney classic from 1961), the 1963 film The Nutty Professor (remade in 1996 starring Eddie Murphy, and as an animated version in 2008), and the 1989 film Dead Poets Society starring Robin Williams, the eccentric professor has become something of a stereotype. The reality, of course, is that some professors are more eccentric than others, and all of them are busy people with lots of students and responsibilities.

In high school in many countries, the relationship between student and teacher is formal and scripted. You know what you can say to your teacher, and what’s off limits. In many countries, you’re not encouraged to question what the professor says. However, if you enter college or a university in countries such as the US, things can seem disorienting at first. You are expected to raise questions in class. Many professors are happy when you seek them out in or outside class, for clarifications, to discuss an idea or first draft, or to share your thoughts on a class topic. Some professors may encourage you to address them by their first name, or bring candy or pizza for the class. None of this changes the fact that they are your professors, and not your buddies.

So when you send them email, how can you ensure that you are not being informal to the point of being borderline disrespectful or annoying? Here are a few tips.


Read the syllabus

At the beginning of the term, your professor may give you a syllabus. If you lose the hard copy (but don’t lose it!), you can probably still find it on the web. It is full of information about the course – office hours, course materials, weekly readings, exam schedule, how you will be assessed, and information on plagiarism rules, disability access, and other important concerns. Before you email a professor, check whether the information you’re seeking is in the syllabus.



Don’t start your email with ‘Hey, prof!’

Yes, this actually happens. ‘Hey’ or ‘whassup’ are appropriate greetings when you run into your roommates or classmates in the dining commons or gym. Not so much when you’re writing to your professor. The safest is “Dear Professor Einstein” or “Dear Dr. Einstein” or, if you have permission, “Dear Albert”.



Use the professor’s first name only if you have permission

Just because Professor Einstein said you may call him “Albert”, that does not mean this is the general practice at the university. Nor are you at liberty to shorten “Albert” to “Al”. Use the first name only if the professor clearly said you may do so, and pronounce it as they did. Do not take the liberty of changing “Magdalena” to “Maggie”, or “Siddharth” to “Sid”, unless that’s what the professor asks you to call her or him. And any time you’re in doubt, stick to “Professor [Last Name]”.



Use the subject line

Professors are busy people. Many have more than 100 students a semester, and other responsibilities besides teaching. They deal with a large volume of email. Make life a little easier for your professor by putting some thought into the subject line to say exactly what your email is about – for example, “Request for appointment”, “First draft of History 201 term paper”, “Horticulture 101 exam schedule conflict”.



Indicate how the professor knows you

Unless you are absolutely sure the professor knows exactly who you are, it’s best to say something like “I am in your Horticulture 101 class which meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays”, or “I took your Finance 411 class last semester”. Professors have hundreds of students, so be nice and help them out a little.



Be precise

It saves the professor’s time, and your time too. For example, rather than saying “I wanted to find out more about next week’s reading”, ask exactly what you need to know – which readings are optional, a particular assigned reading is unavailable, etc.




There’s no need for robotic precision – opening pleasantries are OK (for example, “I hope you are enjoying the beautiful weather today” or “I watched ‘Dead Poets Society’ after our discussion last week and really enjoyed it”). But don’t prattle. Remember, your professors have dozens of students at various levels, class preparation for multiple courses, research and writing of their own, perhaps administrative responsibilities on faculty committees, books and articles to review, assignments to grade, and of course a life outside of work. So be considerate of their busy schedule and keep your email as short as possible.



Give the professor enough time to respond

Don’t email a professor hours before your paper is due, asking for an extension on the deadline or comments on a draft. Don’t ask for letters of recommendation that are due in two or three days either – professors put serious thought into each letter. Remember that poor planning on your part is not an emergency on their part.

Check out more #WordNerd posts here!


By Uma Asher


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