Ever start an email to a professor and think, “Wait, I can’t even write the first line because I don’t know what to call her!” Yeah, me too.
Coming to college from the world of high school can be overwhelming for a wide variety of reasons. Why is everyone awake at midnight on a Tuesday? Why are those girls dancing on a table? Why do I have so much independence? And why on earth is that girl calling the teacher Erica and not Mrs. Anton?
The rules of teacher-student communication fall away on that first day of freshmen year, and it becomes apparent very quickly that each professor is going to have his or her own rules. Hopefully with this guide to emailing, and the insightful words of one English professor, you’ll feel better when you send your next email.
First or last name?
I suggest starting more formal. Addressing the email to Professor Anton, and not Erica, will show a little bit of respect that the professor will appreciate. It’s always better to be too formal than not formal enough. Then, if the teacher considers that formality unnecessary, she’ll immediately let you know, and you can drop the Mr. or Mrs. and start getting to know just Erica. And to make this one a little easier, most teachers will tell you what to call them on the very first day – so pay attention when going over the syllabus, it’s some of the most important info you’ll get all semester!
What should I say when I’ve missed a class?
Above all, do NOT ask the professor, “Did I miss anything?” Professor Jen Lee of the English department at Pitt says that nothing bothers her more, and she always thinks, “No, we actually just twiddled out thumbs the whole time!” Remember that the professor takes the time to prepare for each individual class, and will not be very happy if you imply that there’s a possibility that you missed nothing at all. Instead, ask, “What did I miss today?” so that the teacher knows that you value his or her class.
What about if an assignment is going to be late?
Professors appreciate honesty! If you completely forgot about an assignment, say that. Let the teacher know that you want to be able to get what he or she intended out of the assignment, so you do not want to bang it out in an hour and hand it in because you forgot. Ask if you would possibly be able to hand it in one class late, so that you can put real effort into it. You’ll very often be told that points will be deducted regardless, but every once in awhile the professor will appreciate your honesty enough to let you slide. Lee says that she definitely appreciates the candor, and prefers this explanation than a made-up excuse about a family emergency. “I cannot tell you how many grandmothers have died on my watch. It gets a little hard to believe.”
How do I ask for a letter of recommendation?
First and foremost, give the professor time! Don’t email him or her at the last minute and say that you need a letter by the next day. You will most likely receive a no. Professors write tons of these letters, so give them at least a few weeks, if not a month or more. Also, Professor Lee says that it’s good to remind the professor of something exemplary that you did in that class. Teachers have a lot of students, and they may need just a gentle reminder of who you are.
I want a seat in their already-closed class, what should I say?
Give a good reason! Was there a hold on your account for financial reasons? Is it the last time the class is being offered, and you really think you would benefit from the material? Did you mistakenly drop it and not realize? Whatever the reason, tell it. Don’t just ask for a seat and expect the professor to say yes – they get a LOT of these emails. Lee says that she gets five or six emails for each class each semester, and she gives the seat to the person who most persuasively tells her what they will bring to the class as a student. “DON’T say it’s because you need to graduate on time – everyone needs to graduate on time.”
Hopefully these tips will help you out next time you’re staring at a blank email to a professor, whether you just met them or spent a whole semester working with them. Close with your name and email and cross your fingers that he or she is receptive – and if you follow these rules I think they should be!