Emailing professors: a general how to

You’re staring at the screen. A simple request of a professor or TA has turned into three paragraphs. You’re trying to be casual and intelligent and not needy when in fact you need something.

OR

You have just failed a test or missed a deadline. In a paniced frenzy you type two sentences into your email app on your phone. You fire it off, realizing you forgot a detail and didnt even start with an introduction.

I am here to talk you off the email ledge in both of these situations.

Before we begin, teachers dont hate speaking to students. If they did, they chose the wrong profession. What many teachers are not fond of, however, is cryptic communication. An email that is too long, with too many details, without a direct ask, is cryptic. An email that is sent from your iphone about being disappointed in your grade without mentioning any details on what specific assignments you are referring to is cryptic.

So, how do you properly email a professor or TA?

  • First of all, read the room. And when I say room I mean syllabus. Many professors are specific about their email etiquette, others not. Some professors receive a lot of email, and may ask that you give a specific subject line so they can find your email in their chaotic inbox. If they don’t say anything on the syllabus, it is never a bad idea to ask in class how they prefer to be contacted. Also, the answer to your question might be in the syllabus.
  • This might be a question for a TA!! Email them first if you think they may be the best point of contact, and ask them to forward to the professor if they cant answer themselves.
  • Address who you are. Teachers meet a lot of bright and wonderful students, and although they may not need a refresher on who you are, it cant hurt. Say what class you are (or were) in. If you went to office hours or asked specific questions, mention it breifly. “My name is Paige and I am a student in your 9am math 102 class. Last week in office hours I had questions about differential equations”
  • Be specific. What exactly do you need? Say it immediately. Do not hide your request in a paragraph. ” I am contacting you to request additional feedback on the free response questions on quiz #2….”
  • Refrain from going overboard on details. If a conflict got in the way of you submitting something, refrain from the page long sob story. Provide just enough details and offer to provide them more if they wish to hear it.
  • Provide options in methods of response. If this is a large conflict or discussion, it may be easier to resolve face to face. Provide some times that you are free, and mention that you will be flexible with whatever works best for them. Can you do zoom? Office hours? Let them know!
  • Stop apologizing. If you made a mistake, make a short and sincere apology and move on. If you’re asking a question, don’t apologize! More apologies wont make your situation better or make any teacher respect you more.

Finally, when you’re thinking about firing your email off, ask yourself a few short questions:

  1. Do I repeat myself in any of these sentences?
  2. Would any of this information be in the syllabus?
  3. Will this question be easy to answer? If it’s difficult have I suggested meeting in person?

Now don’t overthink it and fire away!

Finally, if you don’t receive a response in a timely manner, don’t take offence. If you need a response, first follow up in person either at office hours or after lecture.

Still no response? Forward the email to a TA.

STILL no response? Reply to the email and ask them to check out your prior email or question.

Best of luck! (and dont forget, READ THE SYLLABUS)

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