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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.

From the Faculty

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?

  • 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.

Beginning Your E-mail

Writing Your E-mail

  • 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

After Sending Your E-mail

Please Understand...

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The Wurtele Center for Work & Life developed this guide based on feedback from over thirty Smith College professors, and in conjunction with:

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.