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Email a Professor Without Being Annoying

02 Jul 2019

For many college or university students, professors are some sort of idols – their focus on knowledge, their life experience, but also their high morals and beliefs make many students revere these people but also make them feel some distance. Additionally, the level of cooperation and the quality of personal communication with professors can determine a student’s attitude towards a certain subject and even his or her academic achievement.

Given those mentioned above, students might oftentimes feel frustrated or hesitant about communicating with their professors. For many of them, this happens in particular when faced with the need to communicate in a written form given the expected requirements for formal written language.

One specific scenario is communication by email. This is an act of one to one written communication with the professor as part of which you will be receiving his or her full attention with regard to your issue(s). Hence, this needs to include very efficiently and clearly formulated thoughts, questions, or clarifications, all in a formal language.

Email a Professor

Main Reasons to Email a Professor

Students might need to email their professors for a number of reasons. Below is a general list of such possible reasons along with email samples corresponding to each situation:

Late submissions

Before writing such an email, you should inform yourself about the late submission policy accompanying the task – the latter might clearly describe penalties according to the degree of lateness. Even when there are such clear policies in place, writing your professor is often still both wise and necessary. First, it is important to let the professor know how much late you expect to be and that you are still working on the task. Second, students sometimes encounter extreme circumstances that make fulfilling an assignment impossible or of secondary priority. Such events could include extreme events, funerals, power or Internet outages (provided the latter can prevent work on the corresponding task). Letting your professor know might result in an empathic decision that could abolish the penalty. But avoid lying or presenting unrealistic excuses - these can make your situation much worse. Also, when you are at least in part guilty (for instance, by postponing a term paper to the last 3 days of the term), acknowledge this guilt rather than denying it.


 

Sickness

Everybody can get sick so that work capacity is lost either partially or entirely – this could include anything from accidents resulting in physical trauma to powerful migraines. Obviously, it is always good to have some proof to demonstrate you are not lying. Take care to make it clear how a certain health issue prevented you from performing a task. Both in terms of late submission and sickness, it makes sense to announce the professor about the problem in advance – if this happens enough time before the deadline, he or she might have less suspicions that you’ve made up an excuse because you are simply out of time.

 

 

Clarifications of homework

Oftentimes, the reason for emailing a professor is simply the failure to understand the requirements for a given task. Apart from clarifying these for yourself, you might be doing a favor to other students or even to the professor’s himself or herself. Ideally, one should carefully examine the instructions or even discuss them with a few colleagues to check out whether they have similar trouble understanding the task. Clarifications could also involve checking how appropriate a source of evidence is or seeking approval for a freely chosen essay topic.


 

Key Conventions When Emailing a Professor

Emails are rather formal messages – they resemble very much traditional letters, hence, certain conventions and requirements apply when formulating them:

  • Avoid vague or inappropriate subject lines or what’s worse - no subject at all. These email titles are meant to be short but informative and should help uniquely describe the content of your message. This is necessary considering that professors often get dozens of emails daily and clear subjects allow them to navigate this message pool much easier. 
  • Address and greet your recipient properly. The absence of an addressing line in the first email of a thread looks almost like bad manners or at least, very unnatural. Fortunately, in most cases, you could simply use the word "Professor" (or the professor’s title, for instance, Dr.) followed by the last name. Putting a "Dear" in front of this is also perfectly fine and standard, but if it feels really uncomfortable, you could skip it.
  • Use an appropriate ending, such as "Best regards", “Regards", "Sincerely", "Respectfully" – the latter two followed by your first name. Also, be careful with your email signature, especially on mobile devices. These signatures can append unnecessary info, specifying either the device or app from which the email was sent. Alternatively, such signatures can insert ending formulas which might double your manually written ending.
  • Use standard language, punctuation, capitalization, follow spelling and grammar rules. Avoid informal language by all means - this looks unprofessional and even incomprehensible (we are talking about a generation gap here). Correct punctuation makes written text more readable and exact. Avoid emojis and other enhancements (GIFs, colored text) used routinely in messaging apps. Always proofread your emails for missing words, sentence structure mistakes, typos, autocorrected text. 
  • Simplify things for your professor. Provide links to documents you are referring to, add screenshots of the respective pages as email attachments. This will help the professor address easier the matter of the question would also lead to a faster reply.

Writing an email shouldn’t be a great challenge, especially if these general recommendations are followed. A key thing to note is that ultimately, this is yet another form of communication, which despite some requirements of formality, is intended for maximum efficiency and clarity.