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2016 August 11

Email to professors

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:37
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This is the time of year when many semester-based colleges are starting classes again, so there are the usual spate of blog posts from faculty trying to orient the new students.  On perennial theme is on how to communicate with faculty, since so many students seem clueless about it.  (Two years ago, I plugged the book Say This, NOT That to your Professor, which I still recommend.)

Today, I happened to see the post How to Email Your Professor (without being annoying AF), in which Laura Portwood-Stacer provides a template and explanations:

10 Elements of an Effective, Non-Annoying Email

Here’s a template you can follow in constructing your email to a professor. Each element is explained further below.

Dear [1] Professor [2] Last-Name [3],

This is a line that recognizes our common humanity [4].

I’m in your Class Name, Section Number that meets on This Day [5]. This is the question I have or the help I need [6]. I’ve looked in the syllabus and at my notes from class and online and I asked someone else from the class [7], and I think This Is The Answer [8], but I’m still not sure. This is the action I would like you to take [9].

Signing off with a Thank You is always a good idea [10],
Favorite Student

Element #1: Salutation …

Element #2: Honorific 

Element #3: Name …

Element #4: Meaningless Nicety…

Element #5: Reminder of how they know you …

Element #6: The real reason for your email …

Elements #7 and 8: This is where you prove you’re a wonderful person …

Element #9: Super polite restatement of your request …

Element #10: Sign-off …

The hidden Element #11: The follow-up …

I don’t think that Ms. Portwood-Stacer is a professor, as her advice seems more appropriate for freelance writers than for students.  It isn’t bad advice, but I’d recommend something slightly different.

First, I don’t care much whether students include elements #1, #2, and #3, though I agree with her that “Hey!” is offensive. I don’t mind students using my first name, and I tell them so, but I agree that it is probably safer to use “Professor X” if you don’t know the person’s preferences.  In a formal business letter, the proper salutation is important, but in an e-mail without CCs it can be omitted.  (In an email with CCs, it is important to indicate who is being addressed.)

I disagree strongly about #4. I read a lot of email every day, and don’t want to have to wade through meaningless noise.  Skip the chitchat and get to the point—don’t waste my time.

Along the same lines, move #6 to the front. Ask your question or make your request directly, don’t bury the lede. After you’ve made a clear request, then provide the background information: who you are and what you’ve already done to try to get an answer. Make this more complete—if you are asking for something in my role as undergraduate director, for example, I need to know your major, your concentration, and which year’s catalog you are following.

The “thank you” at the end is nice, but a followup thank you message after my reply is appreciated more—the extra trouble taken makes the thanks seem more sincere.

One missed point—provide your full name and your nickname if you go by that in class right at the beginning of the message: This is Ridiculous Name Overly-Hyphenated, who goes by “Rid Overly” in class. I have to read my university e-mail with Google, which does an absolutely horrendous job of showing me who messages are from (there are probably 40 people it identifies to me as just “David”).

Use the official University e-mail address, as FERPA rules require me not to discuss your academic record with anyone but you (unless you’ve given explicit permission otherwise). We’ve had incidents of people pretending to be students to get information they had no right to, so I’m trying to be careful to respond only to the official email addresses. Remember to edit your campus directory entry, so that your email is associated with your real name, and not just your userid (I have no idea who “alkim345” is).

So rewriting her example for a classroom question:

This is Ridiculous Name Overly-Hyphenated, who goes by “Rid Overly” in Class Number. 

This is the question I have or the help I need.

I’ve looked in the syllabus and at my notes from class and online and I asked someone else from the class, and I think This Is The Answer, but I’m still not sure.

This is the action I would like you to take.

Thank you.

For an advising question:

This is Ridiculous Name Overly-Hyphenated, who goes by “Rid Overly”. 

This is the question I have or the help I need.

I’m a bioengineering major in the bioelectronics concentration, following the 2013–14 curriculum. I plan to graduate in Spring 2017.

I’ve looked at the curriculum charts, in the online catalog, and at the online advising web pages; I asked the professional advising staff; and I was directed to ask you.

This is the action I would like you to take.

Thank you.

If you need to meet with me, which is not needed for a lot of routine things, but is sometimes quite useful, add

May I come to your office hours next week at 3:15 p.m.?

Technically, you don’t need an appointment for open office hours, but those who have reserved slots ahead of time take priority over those who drop in. If you can’t make scheduled office hours and want to meet in person, say something like

I have a conflict during your office hours, but am free at the following five times …, would any of those times work for you?


  1. I’m about half-way through reading the book “Quiet” (which even has it’s own Wikipedia entry. .
    One of the things the author mentioned was that introverts tend to prefer to talk business first, then talk niceties afterwards.

    I was struck by your desire for students to leave out [4] (the meaningless nicety), mostly because I 100% agree with that. I fully subscribe to the business first, chat afterwards (which is apparently typical of introverts).

    Comment by Mike — 2016 August 11 @ 11:44 | Reply

    • Yes, I am somewhat introverted. One problem with putting the social stuff first is that often nothing but the social stuff happens.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2016 August 11 @ 20:01 | Reply

  2. Yes, that article is just advertising for her consulting business. If it came from a professor it would have started with “Use a descriptive subject, not your name”. I just love e-mail from Joe Studious that has Subject: Joe Studious. That is worse than leaving the subject line blank. And not mentioning FERPA is another tell. I reply to such messages with a CC to the student’s real address telling them I will reply to their campus address.

    The problem with putting the social stuff first is that the recipient might not see what comes next. Once I learned that my Fearless Leader reads almost all e-mail on a phone the instant it arrives, I understood completely why a second subject (or even just a second paragraph) never got read. I always see the entire message, but I have learned to limit e-mail to a single thought. I will send two replies if there are two things that need to be answered.

    BTW, my favorite form of formal address is “Dude!”. What a character that kid was.

    And a big “ditto” regarding a thank-you reply. At minimum, it tells me the message was received. It drives me nuts that no one (and I mean no one) in our administration (top to bottom) acknowledges they got something important. A simple “got it” or “Thx” will suffice.

    Comment by CCPhysicist — 2016 August 15 @ 20:34 | Reply

  3. I completely agree about dropping No 4. It annoys the crap out of me, and while I am introverted I can simulate an extrovert quite well, am not shy, and can engage in small talk with the best of them.
    Why does No 4 annoy me? Because I know you want something from me and you know you want something from, we both know the thing you want is the sole reason for you contacting me, so why the hell are we all pretending that you give a $hit if I am having a nice summer/fall/weekend/Christmas break or not? I am in the Midwest and I have colleagues who are Midwestern WASPs and who I know for a fact don’t give a $hit about me personally, yet they always waste my precious time on Earth with these meaningless niceties (in person and via email). I am pretty sure they think I am super rude because my emails cut to the chase right away, but I cannot stomach the pretense.

    I am happy with “Hi Dr/.Professor Xykademiqz, This is Student (Stu) Brilliant from your XXX 123 class. I need this and that. Thank you! Stu”

    Comment by xykademiqz — 2016 August 26 @ 15:18 | Reply

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