How to Email a Professor: Guide on How to Start and End an Email Conversation

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The other day, I saw a post involving this hilarious exchange between a drunk student and his professor.

Luckily for Patrick Davidson, Mr. Martin took this drunk email in stride. Here’s his reply. I don’t recommend you trying this out on your own college professors, though. While Mr. Martin took this email pretty well, some professors might be offended and won’t take it just as lightly.

We’ve all had to send emails to our professors at one point. But what is the proper etiquette of emailing your professors? Surprisingly, a lot of students do not know how to write emails meant for their professors. Here’s how to start and end an email to your professor properly.

Email Subject Line

The subject line is the first thing your professor will see. Assume your professor is a busy person and does not have time to waste, so vague-sounding subject lines are likely to be skipped over. And if you’re unlucky, they might forget to get back to your email or just not bother with a reply.

Right:

[CRITIC1] Question Re: Giuseppe Tornatore Critic Paper

ECON201 Request for Consultation re: Final Paper

BUSMATH Request for Special Exam

These subject lines are concise and give your professor an idea of what to expect in your email. Expect that your professor handles multiple classes and different courses in their field. If they know your name, it will be easy for them to determine what course you’re taking.  But, just to be safe, indicate the course you are taking on the subject line so that they know that your question is related to that course.

Wrong:

CRITIC1 HOMEWORK QUESTION

Assignment Question

CRITIC1 QUESTION – Samantha Lopez – Re: Giuseppe Tornatore Critic Paper – Are we allowed to…

The first wrong example is wrong because of the formatting. While your professor knows this is a question regarding your course, it’s an eyesore to see a subject line written in all caps. Think about those times you receive spam email from businesses and sketchy websites – they’re in all caps with the attempt to be seen, but they just end up being eyesores you skip over.

The second one is even vaguer. You have a question about your assignment. What assignment? Course? What about it? This subject line requires your professor to do a lot of guesswork on their part – something they may not have the time for.

The third example is the wrong subject because of how lengthy it is. While it does establish which course you’re taking under your professor, there’s an unnecessary introduction. It’s implied that you should be using your university email for academic-related correspondence, so your name should already be on the side of the subject. And while this example establishes what the question will be about, you’re not supposed to put the entire question on it. If your subject gets too long, they won’t see it anyway.

Starting an Email

Observe proper politeness and respect when writing to your professor – this is the number one rule regardless of circumstance, context, or the content of your email. You are writing in an academic position, so even if you’re sending an email in the direst situations (say, asking if classes will continue if your college is destroyed by a natural disaster), you must always be polite.

To do this, it’s best to greet the professor before getting down to the body of your email. In a formal setting where you and your professor are familiar, start with a “Hello,” “Good day,” “Good morning,” or “Good afternoon.” Use “Hi” or “Dear” if you and your professor are less formal with each other or are on a friendly first-name basis with you.

Notice that I did not add the greeting “good evening” among the choices. Some professors only answer emails during office hours, which is usually in the morning or afternoon. They may find it rude of you to presume they can answer your emails at any time of the day, so only use this if it’s plausible to expect your professors to read emails at night or if your professor tells you to email them even after office hours.

Be sure to use honorifics when greeting them. Those with PhDs and other Doctorate-level degrees can be called either Dr. or Professor. On the other hand, lecturers who do not have doctorates can only be called professor. Less formal professors may prefer you drop the professor and simply go for an Mr./Ms./Mrs. followed by their first or last name. They’re likely to tell you which they prefer on the first day of lectures.

Right:

Dear Professor Angelo,

Good day, Ms. Montes,

Hello, Dr. Wentz,

These greetings are simple and a polite way to start an email. Be sure to double-check for any spelling mistakes to their name.

Wrong:

What’s up, Doc,

Gd moring, Professor Norbert,

Dear Professor Smmith, (To a professor whose last name is Smith)

The first example is extremely informal and should only be used if you are very close and have an informal relationship with your professor. The second one is full of typos and should have been proofread before being sent to the professor. And the third one spelled the professor’s name wrong, which some professors may take offense to.

Body of an Email

What most students get wrong in this part of the email is that they often think that formality and politeness often equate to a long email. This is not always the case. Remember: your professor is a busy person. Keep it straight to the point and don’t beat around the bush trying to say just one idea.

Here’s the context of the email I want to write. My Literary Criticism professor has given my class an assignment on Thursday, to be submitted on our Monday lecture. However, my Financial Management professor has required his class to attend a whole-day conference on Monday, so I will be unable to attend my Literary Criticism class and turn in my paper. I want to ask my professor if I can submit my paper via email instead or if he’ll allow me to pass my paper on the next lecture scheduled for Wednesday next week. Here is the right way and wrong way to do so.

Right:

I will be attending a business conference this Monday as a requirement for one of my business courses. Since it will be a whole-day event, I will be unable to attend our Monday lecture and personally turn in my paper. Would it be possible to submit my paper via email instead, or could I pass it on our Wednesday lecture?

Thank you!

Because I already put a summary on the subject line and have already greeted my professor at the start of the email, I can get straight to the point at the body. This isn’t a catch-up email between friends, so you don’t have to start with a paragraph asking how they’re doing and so on.

Wrong:

I hope this email finds you well. I am your student from your class, LITCRIT101 (class number 12345, 2:00 PM – 4:00 PM, Lecture Hall 122A) and I have a question regarding the Deconstructionism assignment you gave us after class last Thursday (July 25, 2019).

One of my professors, Professor Charles Marlow of the Finance Department, has required our FINMAN1 class to attend the Business Leaders’ Conference at the Hotel Denouement Conference Room this coming Monday, July 29, 2019. The conference will be held from 9:00 AM until 4:00 PM. 

In line with this, I will be unable to attend our Monday lecture and cannot personally turn in my paper. Would it be possible to hand my assignment in through email or submit the paper on the following lecture on Wednesday?

I appreciate your immediate answer regarding this matter. Thank you for your time reading my email.

This email beats around the bush for a question that can be asked in just one paragraph. First, assuming you’ve done the subject line right, you do not need to introduce yourself as a student of one of your professor’s courses nor provide the details of the class. You might think you are trying to jog your professor’s memory of you or try to prove that you indeed are a part of their course, but all you’re doing is being tedious.

Next, the entire second paragraph is unnecessary because it provides a lot of unnecessary details. Some might say this is necessary because you need to be able to prove that you do have an event to attend. However, more likely than not, your professor isn’t going to go out of their way to research if such a conference exists or reach out to your other course’s professor to check if you are indeed required to attend. While some professors will likely take your word for it, you might have to have a certificate of attendance or just a picture of you in the conference to prove you were there.

The third paragraph is the meat of your email. However, there are almost a hundred words before it, so it will be very tedious for your professor to read all that fluff in your email that your professor may be annoyed and not respond in your favor.

Since this is a university-related email and not one between friends, there is no need for a lengthy conclusion like this one. A simple “thank you” will suffice. It also seems unnecessary thanking them for their time because they really do need to give their time to you.

Ending an Email

There’s a sort of debate between whether or not email sign-offs are necessary. Some would argue that they are no longer necessary, given the changing format of letters. Others, however, believe it is still a form of etiquette that should be used in a professional setting. Whichever you agree with, it is best to stay on the safe side and leave a sign-off on your email.

Right:

Sincerely,

Roberta Norris

 

Thank you!

Miriam Kelly

 

Respectfully,

Warren Blake

These three are examples of polite email sign-offs. You can use whichever is the most appropriate. Also, leave your full name to avoid any confusion.

Wrong:

BRGRDS,

Roberta Norris

 

Respectfully,

Warren

These examples are wrong because they are both too informal. The term “BRGRDS” is used as a shortcut to “best regards,” but some teachers may not understand this shortcut. Also, while it’s highly likely that your university email will appear on the subject line, don’t use that as an excuse not to sign your full name to end the email.

Don’t Expect Your Professor to Be Just As Formal

Even if you get the email etiquette down, some students complain that they spend a long time drafting their email only to receive responses that don’t necessarily follow the etiquette they practiced. These can include:

While some professors will reply to your email following email etiquette, some professors will choose to forgo this when a simple reply will do. This really depends on the professor’s level of formality and their preference. However, the safest option would be to stay on the formal side so that you come off as respectful and polite.

Exceptions to the Rule

But of course, there may be exceptions to these rules. For example, if the context of your relationship varies, then you are free to change the rules accordingly. If you are failing a class in college and you want to ask your professor for extra credit or ask whether they’re grading on a curve, then time becomes of the essence and you need a more urgent (but still polite)-sounding email.

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