How to Confidently E-mail Your Professors
You want to write clearly, concisely and appropriately to your professors — and they want to hear from you! E-mail is a great way start communicating, but it’s important to remember that the tone of your e-mail is like the body language that you’d use in a face-to-face conversation. Using the right “digital body language” — as WCWL leadership consultant Rachel Simmons says — helps the online conversation go smoothly so that you can start building solid professional relationships.
If you are going to miss a quiz or test...
Kate Queeney, Associate Professor of Chemistry
If students are going to miss a quiz, it’s important to check in, but otherwise I just expect them to get notes from someone else and make up anything they missed — it can get a little out of control in a large class if every student who has to miss a class e-mails me about it. Plus I trust that if a student does have to miss class, it's for a good reason. So to me size, or at least what the professor has said about this issue, dictates whether or not students should e-mail any time they’re going to miss a class.
If you need a letter of recommendation...
Joel Kaminsky, Professor of Religion
Professors are willing and often even happy to write recommendations for you. We want to help our students advance in life. But in order to get the strongest letter, it’s important to approach the right person and to give them a couple weeks lead time. Choosing the right person involves a bit of strategic thinking. Ask yourself: How close is this professor to the field of study/program in which I am applying for a spot? Have I taken more than one class with this professor? If only one class, was it a smaller course in which the professor had many interactions with me? Is this a professor I impressed with my work and my work ethic? Ideally you want to ask for recommendations from professors that know you well and that you “wowed.” The point is to empower the professor to write a strong letter for you.
Before E-mailing Your Professor...
...consider the timing and subject. Is e-mail the right way to communicate?
- If a question can wait, would it be better to ask in person — before, during or after class?
- If you are asking for feedback on a paper, exam or other class work, it is better to go to office hours.
- If you are asking multiple questions, it may be better to go to office hours.
- Try to avoid asking for information that is readily available online or that your professor has already given you (e.g. in the syllabus).
- Before writing about missing a class, look on the syllabus or class Moodle site to find information on the professor’s policy about missed classes.
- Your professors often appreciate your letting them know — before the fact, if it's a planned absence, or after the fact if you were ill.
- If it’s a large class, the professor may not want you to e-mail about missing it, unless you’ll be missing a test or quiz.
- If you DO need to miss a class, it’s best to ask another student (rather than the professor) for the notes from that class.
- No-brainer alert: Don’t e-mail the professor while you’re sitting in his or her class!
- Important: If e-mail is the best way for you to communicate, then use it rather than not communicating at all!
Beginning Your E-mail
- When e-mailing about academic/advising matters, always use your Smith e-mail address.
- Be sure that you have the right e-mail address for your professor.
- Identify your purpose for the e-mail in the “subject” box. It should summarize what’s in the e-mail.
- When you first write to a professor, it’s good to be very formal: Start with "Dear Professor XXXX."
- Identify yourself: "This is Linda James from your Research Methods class." Include the section number if appropriate.
Writing Your E-mail
- Keep your message short and specific. If you have a lot to say, an in-person meeting is a better idea.
- When making a request, make sure it’s written as a request and don’t assume it will be granted.
- If requesting a letter of recommendation, think of it as a two-step process.
- The first step is asking if your professor is willing to write the letter; you can say something like, “I’m wondering whether you might be willing to write me a recommendation for...” You can also add a line that says something like, “If you do think that you’ll be able to write the recommendation, then I will be sure to follow-up with all necessary materials in a timely manner.”
- The second step is preparing everything that your professor needs so that you can give the materials to him or her all at once. (Materials often include a resume and statement of intent.) Provide a list of all addresses and e-addresses to which a letter needs to go, and include the due date under each address.
For more tips on requesting letters of recommendation, refer to this hand-out from the Lazarus Center for Career Development.
Before Sending Your E-mail
- Read it over and make it shorter. How can you edit your e-mail so that the reader is able to quickly understand what you’re asking?
- Read it over and make sure the point of your e-mail comes at the beginning. You may need to cut and paste, moving your last couple of sentences so that they’re first
- Check spelling and grammar. Use spell-check if your e-mail program has it. If not, and if you have trouble with spelling, write anyway! (If it’s a very substantive or important e-mail, or if you have trouble with spelling, then you can write it in your word-processing program, spell-check it, and paste it into the e-mail.)
- Add a disclaimer: Consider adding a tag on the end of your e-mail if spelling is a challenge or if you regularly use voice recognition to write e-mails. It will help those receiving your e-mails to understand spelling or word errors.
- Don’t use slang and abbreviations: What passes as acceptable for communicating
by text is not appropriate for professional or academic communications.
One professor said, “I think the main thing the students should know is that e-mail to faculty should be considered formal communication.”
- If you are attaching a file, double-check that the label is meaningful; for example, “JamesPsy192LabA” instead of “LabA.”
- End with "Sincerely, Joan Doe."
- Avoid "P.S." comments, as they are easy to miss.
After Sending Your E-mail
- Wait 24 to 48 hours (not including weekends and holidays) before following-up. To follow-up, you can forward your original e-mail and say something like, “Dear Professor _______, I know that you receive many e-mails, and I’m not sure if you missed mine, so I’m following-up. You’ll find the text of the original below.”
- If you need an immediate response, then try to contact the department’s administrative assistant, who may be able to assist you or may know where to find your professor.
- When the professor replies, it’s a good idea to acknowledge the reply and thank him or her.
- that it’s not a good idea to e-mail at the last minute about why you can’t take an exam, unless you have a real emergency or sudden illness.
- that professors probably won’t reply in the evening or on weekends.
- that you should explain any attachment in your e-mail. (Don’t send a blank e-mail.)
- that you should first try to find the answer to your question in the syllabus or on the Moodle site.
- that you shouldn’t leave long messages on voice mail.
- that you shouldn’t submit papers by e-mail unless your professor asks you to do so.
The Wurtele Center for Work & Life developed this guide based on feedback from over thirty Smith College professors, and in conjunction with:
- Julio Alves, director of the Jacobson Center for Writing, Teaching & Learning
- Laura Rauscher, director of Disability Services
- Kate Queeney, associate professor of chemistry and director of the Liberal Arts Advising program
When you start your first job, you'll be glad you practiced this skill at Smith!
Stacie Hagenbaugh, Director of the Career Development Office, tells you why in this one-minute video.