Who grades the papers? Your professor. Who writes the recommendation letters? Your professor. Who loves respectful, brief, to-the-point emails from students? You might find this hard to believe, but it's actually your professor. If you're of the generation that prefers to communicate via below-chin Snapchat selfies and emoji-laden chain text messages, you might need a refresher on how to craft professional, non-annoying emails that communicate your ideas, questions, or issues to your professor clearly and succinctly. Even if you're not, it never hurts to brush up on netiquette.
Wait! Don't make any sudden moves. Check your syllabus. Nothing is more annoying to a professor than having to take the time to reply to a question that's already answered on the syllabus.
Your professor is the appropriate source for your query only if you can't find a reliably correct answer to your question somewhere else— the syllabus or a fellow student for homework/deadline inquiries, Google for simple questions on subject matter or how to cite sources, etc. If you're looking for an extension, want to schedule a meeting for an in-depth explanation of a complicated subject, or if you want to raise an issue with the way your professor is handling the subject matter and potentially find a time to discuss that issue further, your professor is probably the person you should contact. A rule of thumb: if there's nowhere else to go, go to your professor.
Stick with something more tailored to your needs, which will let your professor know what your situation is, and bring you closer to getting the help you're asking for without wasting your professor's time.
Stay away from:
In the body of your email, don't jump right into your request, as it can come off as demanding and too blunt. Try addressing your professor as if you are writing a letter to an older, wiser, potentially tenured friend. This is not as difficult as it sounds. Keep it sparse, respectful, and formal. For example: Dear Professor Lastname...
This one is optional but always appreciated: feel free to acknowledge that your professor is a living, breathing, person with a whole life outside the hallowed halls of pedagogy.
Open with something like:
You could ask a question and receive a reply, or you could ask a question, receive a reply, and acknowledge your professor's humanity, all at once. The choice is yours. Be careful, though— you might be tempted to use excessive exclamation points with this kind of opening, and your professor doesn't want to feel like a chihuahua is leaping out of Gmail and nipping at her eardrums. Tempting though exclamation points may be, especially when you're trying to express that you really, really care about something, periods are the standard for a reason, and should be your go-to in a professional scenario.
Always provide context. Your professor could have hundreds of students, multiple courses, no conception of who you are, and no ability to localize your confusion. In the first paragraph of the email, you need to let your professor know your name, the name of the course you're taking, and the exact geographical coordinates of your bewilderment.
Dear Professor Lastname,
My name is Jimothy Yollins, and I am a sophomore undergraduate student in your Bombastic Rhetoric course, Tuesday/Thursday at 10 a.m. I live on the corner of Stressed about Midterms Street and I Need an Extension Avenue, right in the neighborhood of I Haven't Been Attending Lectures Due to Chronic IBS.
Okay, forget the geography thing—but do let your professor know your name and your course title and section.
Your profs are busy educating tomorrow's leaders and whatnot, so when one of tomorrow's leaders (you) needs some extra attention, it's best to keep it concise.
Mostly, you just need to avoid superfluous personal details, i.e. My cat ate half of my problem set and then I photocopied my friend's so that I could use that instead but then I could hardly bring myself to put pen to paper because my son and I are experiencing extreme flu symptoms, if you know what I mean, and it's stressing me out and it's just a total mess, and for those reasons I would really love an extension on my problem set.
Instead, try something like: My four-year-old and I have both been ill this week, and it's been difficult for me to work. Would it be possible to get an extension on my problem set?
Grammar. Please. Check your grammar. There's a plethora of apps out there to help you make sure your grammar and spelling are spot-on, even at the nittiest, grittiest level:
Just download one of these guys and you'll be set. Hey, there's a lot of info out there on the tyranny and elitism of extreme grammatical correctness, and linguistic anarchy can be delightful. Just not in an email to a professor.
Trust us, we know. Being a skilled emailer can only help you, both in school and later on— you can gain clarity on different subjects, curate the way you present yourself, connect with others on a more individualized level, and build relationships—so fuel up on some of that dining hall chocolate milk and get typing.
Questions or feedback? Email firstname.lastname@example.org