How to Write an Email to a Professor

Learning how to email a professor is critical in college. Here, we cover the basics of email etiquette for students and the biggest do's and don'ts.

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by Staff Writers

Updated April 20, 2022

Edited by Hannah Muniz
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How to Write an Email to a Professor
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College offers a unique set of challenges. While you need to excel in your courses, you also need to think about how you're interacting with your peers and, more importantly, your instructors.

Communicating effectively, whether by email or in person, is essential for growing your network. However, it's a skill that unfortunately doesn't always get much attention in college.

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Ready to start your journey?

Learning how to email a professor can put you on the path to academic and professional success. But how should you set up your emails to ensure you make a good impression?

Email Etiquette for Students: 5 Essential Tips

Email etiquette is important to get right in college. Here are some tips to help you learn how to email a professor in a polite and effective manner.

1. Introduce Yourself

Students often fail to realize that a professor may not know who they are just yet, especially at the beginning of a semester or in a large lecture class. Instructors may also teach multiple classes or sections, so specifying the class or section number in your email is essential.

When you email a professor, it's helpful to begin with something along the lines of "My name is Amy Nakamura, and I am in your ART 150 course this semester."

2. Use Polite Language

Remember that the instructor you're emailing is in charge of your grade. If you have a request or question, adding a "please" or "thank you" is an easy way to convey that you appreciate their help and time.

3. Keep It Brief

Professors are often strapped for time, so don't send them an essay explaining why you can't turn in a paper by the specified due date. Instead, explain your issue concisely. If you have a request, get straight to the point in your email.

For example, if you need to miss a day of class, two sentences is more than sufficient: "I'm sorry, but I'll have to miss next Monday's class due to an appointment. Will this impact my participation points for that day?"

4. Be Honest and Direct

Instructors are experts at detecting dishonesty and excuses. And believe it or not, most tend to be understanding and accommodating if you have extenuating circumstances.

If you're stressed and need an extension on an assignment, be honest about what's going on and approach the issue directly.

For example, if your job is particularly busy one week, you might phrase your request to your professor like this: "I'm so sorry, but my work schedule this week is extremely hectic and I'm feeling very stressed. Is it possible that I could have an extra day to complete the assignment?"

The instructor may or may not agree to your request, but they'll appreciate the directness and honesty.

5. Spare the Details

Professors can be valuable mentors, but it's important to respect boundaries, particularly in the early stages of a student-teacher relationship.

An instructor doesn't need to be privy to every detail of your personal life, so it's best to stay general, rather than getting overly specific, in your communication with them.

If you need to miss class because of an injury, just say that — there's no need to go into detail about your blood loss and emergency room visit.

How to Email a Professor: The Do's and Don'ts

As with any type of correspondence, there are some general guidelines you should try to follow. This ensures you come across as polite and respectful of your recipient's time.

When Emailing a Professor, DO:

  Pay Attention to Your Subject Line

Many students don't know what to write for the subject line of their email. The worst approach is to leave the subject line blank. Just writing something simple, like the title of the course and a quick reference to your question or request, is an easy and effective way to grab your professor's attention.

  Address Them in a Respectful Manner

Unless an instructor explicitly says they prefer being called by their first name, address them according to their academic position. If you're unsure of their exact position or title, you can always look at the class syllabus or find their faculty profile online.

In general, it's best to address them as "Professor" or "Prof." followed by their last name. Never address them by their specific title, such as "Assistant Professor Fernandez." The term "professor" is a great catch-all for any kind of formal academic appointment.

Some professors, most of whom have doctorates, might prefer the form "Dr. [Last Name]." Instructors who aren't professors, such as postdocs, might also prefer the title of Dr. if that's the highest degree they've earned.

  Immediately State the Reason for Your Email

It may seem polite to begin an email with "How are you doing today?" But this can ultimately be a waste of time when a professor has a full inbox.

Instead, state why you're emailing them in the first or second line. A sentence like "I won't be attending BIO 102 this Friday due to a family emergency" is clear and concise.

  Offer 3-5 Meeting Times If You Need to Meet in Person

It's not uncommon for professors to get emails with vague, open-ended questions like "Can we meet to talk about the assignment?"

First, make sure you're aware of the instructor's office hours. If you can meet during those times, give the instructor a heads-up in a quick email so they know to expect you.

If you can't meet during normal office hours, or if the instructor already has appointments during that time, be sure you provide in your email at least three times you're available to meet up. Ensure these times are at reasonable hours on different days and that the windows are large enough for the instructor to squeeze in a chat with you.

If you don't propose specific times, you're essentially forcing your professor to email you back with options, which wastes their time. If none of the proposed times work for the professor, they can offer their own.

When Emailing a Professor, Do NOT:

  Omit Essential Information

Once you're done writing an email to a professor, reread your message to confirm you haven't left out any important details, such as your full name and the class you're enrolled in.

If you're emailing to say you'll miss class, be sure you include the class date in question.

  Be Curt and Informal

Emails riddled with spelling errors and with no formal greeting or closing can be frustrating for professors. If you're taking the time to email an instructor, make sure you consider how you're coming across and how professional you're presenting yourself.

  Ask Questions That Are Already Answered in the Syllabus

Before you email an instructor with a question, check the syllabus or assignment sheet. Doing so can save you from the embarrassment of getting an email back with a response like "This was covered on the syllabus."

Reading the course materials thoroughly can save both you and your professor time and effort.

  Wait Until the Last Minute

If you don't think you'll be able to complete an assignment on time, email your instructor immediately. Waiting until the day an assignment is due to ask for an extension is generally looked down upon.

The same goes for grade calculations. Come finals week, many professors' inboxes get flooded with emails from students asking what scores they need on the final to pass the class.

You can calculate the grade you need yourself by tracking your grades throughout the semester.

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