Sooner or later during your college career, you will need to email your instructor. Many students fumble this task, and others will avoid sending necessary communication because they are afraid they will mess it up. It’s not really a difficult task, but there are a number of good reasons why students struggle with it. The primary reason is that it is a form of professional communication, and many students have not been exposed to this much. But don’t fret. This post covers the essentials, but remember, your instructor may provide you with specific guidelines you should follow.
Should I Email My Instructor?
Oddly enough, the first step in emailing your instructor is actually deciding whether or not you should email your instructor. If you are upset about a policy or grade, then waiting until you are no longer upset is advisable. Very few of us communicate at our best when we are upset, so letting an hour or even a day pass before communicating can help us organize our thoughts more effectively. Essentially, we want to compose an email to send to, not “fire” at, our target.
An additional consideration is to evaluate whether the circumstances are best handled via email or in person. This can sometimes be difficult to know. If it is a basic inquiry that you can explain in a sentence or two, then emailing is probably fine. With more complicated issues, it is often better to speak in person with the instructor.
Also, check the syllabus and other course documents to see if you already have the information. Most policies and procedures for a course are laid out explicitly in the syllabus.
Finally, it’s important to understand the difference between urgent and important. Urgent means that something is time-sensitive. Important means that something is significant. An issue or concern could be either urgent or important or both urgent and important. Recognizing this can affect your decision to email your instructor and how you craft that email.
Use the Right Account
This may seem silly, but many instructors do not reply to emails from outside accounts; there are good reasons for this. The college issues each student an email address as the primary channel for communication. Outside accounts are often flagged as spam and never even make it to your instructor’s inbox. As concerns with digital security continue to increase, colleges are developing stricter policies regarding email usage. Additionally, using your official email address will aid your instructor in prioritizing your message by showing that you are an actual student enrolled at the college.
Subject and Salutation
All emails should have subjects if we want them to be read. There are two reasons for this when emailing an instructor. You want to show professional courtesy, but this will also make it easier for your instructor to address your concern. If your instructor does not give you specific guidelines, then the course and section numbers make for a good subject. This ensures that your instructor will have some idea of the nature of your inquiry before even clicking on the email. Often this means an instructor can answer your email on a smartphone as opposed to having to look up a roster. Essentially, saving your instructor’s time by providing a meaningful subject is worth doing as it generally means you’ll receive a quicker reply. Also, avoid including words and phrases that appear demanding like “Urgent” or “Immediate Reply Required.” Recipients generally view this as presumptuous.
Conversely, the salutation is strictly a matter of professional courtesy. When communicating with friends, opening with “Hey” or skipping the greeting altogether is common and acceptable practice; however, emailing an instructor falls under professional communication, and this comes with other expectations. Historically, “Dear” has been considered the standard opening for professional communication, but “Hello” is becoming much more common. This greeting should be followed by a title and the instructor’s last name. Sometimes students are confused by the possible titles an instructor may go by. There are a couple of ways to get this right without getting into the minutiae of professor vs. instructor or doctor vs. professor and the various other challenges that exist. If you are enrolled in the course, checking the syllabus is the easiest way to determine what you should use as a title. If you are not enrolled in the instructor’s course, asking a fellow student may be the best approach, particularly if you can do this with ease. If this isn’t an option, using “Professor” is likely the safest bet. Avoid Mrs. and Miss at all costs.
This is the real meat and potatoes of the email. What you say here depends largely on the situation, so the guidance here will be general. Some people argue that it is best to start with a pleasantry of some kind (e.g. hope you are enjoying your weekend), and there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that. Others argue that skipping the pleasantry is preferred as nearly everyone is handling more communication now than ever before. If you know the individual, and it is or will seem authentic, then open with one. If not, a pleasantry should be very brief or be skipped altogether.
Next up is the actual request or information. Above all, be sure to make a request as opposed to a demand. Be brief here. If you are just requesting a meeting, ask the instructor when he or she would be available to meet to discuss the issue, including what the issue is in the process:
Good: Are you available during your office hour this Thursday to discuss the presentation on cnidarians?
Bad: I’m going to come by sometime Thursday to talk about the class.
If you are trying to address the issue strictly over email, then a few sentences explaining your concern or presenting your request is generally sufficient. Avoid the urge to overshare:
Good: Would it be possible for me to take the Unit 3 Exam on a different day? I’ll be having an outpatient procedure during our scheduled exam.
Bad: I need to miss next Wednesday. I’m having a colonoscopy. Last time I had a number of polyps and the doctor wants to check me out right away because I didn’t have one done last year because of my insurance. Anyway, I need to take the test sometime.
Finally, if you miss a class and want to get back on track, don’t ask if you missed anything important. Of course you did. Instead, ask what you need to do to get back on track for the next class period.
This is actually the easiest part of the emailing process. All you have to do is type “Thank you for your time,” and then your first and last name. Some people like “Warmest Regards,” but this generally comes off as inauthentic, while “Regards” is often viewed as a little abrupt. “Sincerely” does not always quite seem to fit. But a thank you always seems to be okay. And adding “for your time” gives you an all-purpose closing that makes sense even if you didn’t make a request.
- Always proofread!
- Be courteous, above all else.
- No emojis or emoticons.
- Avoid textspeak.
- Double-check the instructor’s email address.
Once you have sent the email, it’s important to have reasonable expectations regarding the reply. In particular, don’t expect an immediate one. Depending on when the email was sent and the relative urgency (assigned by the recipient, not the sender), it may take anywhere from a few hours to a few days. Also, if the email was just an FYI, the instructor may not reply at all.