Communicating with Instructors
Emailing your professor or lab instructor can be stressful. Here are tips on how to do it effectively.
- Identify the purpose of your message before writing it. Who is the most appropriate person to contact for this purpose? What are you asking for?
- Be respectful and professional. This may feel unnaturally formal at first.
- Be brief and clear. Re-read your message before sending it to be sure it flows well.
Here are specifics for how to accomplish this and examples you can follow.
Why Are You Sending this Email?
- Quick clarification of an assignment or material.
- Confusion with Moodle or other course software, including reporting broken or missing links.
- Schedule a meeting. You might do this if you:
- Have a conflict with office hours
- Are struggling with a homework assignment
- Are confused about a concept
- Are concerned about your class performance
- Want to go over a quiz or exam
- Ask how to resolve a scheduling conflict with class, lab, or exam. (Check course information documents first and follow any instructions there.)
- Request an extension on an assignment, in non-emergency circumstances.
- Before asking, read course policies about extensions (usually in the syllabus).
- Ask as far ahead as possible, and no later than the early evening before the assignment is due. After an assignment is due, the professor will apply the course's late policies.
- Explanation/apology for missing classes or getting behind in assignments.
- Most professors are understanding, and want to help you get back on track! Don't be afraid to admit a mistake.
- Review the course's policies about missing class and late assignments before writing.
- Briefly describe your plan for getting caught up. Ask for their suggestions for the most strategic ways to spend your time.
- If you are struggling with time management, contact a student academic mentor (SAM) or a dean and tell your professor.
- Communicate your respect for the professors' time, and that you don't assume they will repeat missed class material for you in office hours. Get notes, do readings, or watch recordings, and then ask questions about the things you don't understand.
Less frequent but important purposes:
- Notify your professor of an emergency (death or other major family disruption, major illness). Sometimes the deans help with this, but professors always appreciate hearing directly from students.
- Discuss future classes (particularly but not only at registration time) or research opportunities.
- Request a recommendation or reference.
- Requires the professor to know you reasonably well (normally taken at least one class with them) and to be in a position to say positive things. Think about why you are asking this particular person and if they are your strongest possibility.
- Always offer to schedule a meeting to discuss your request if desired.
- Give them ample time to respond to this request, especially if they need to write you a letter of recommendation. Two weeks is the absolute minimum if a letter or form is required.
- If more than one letter is required, organize the information about what is needed in a single document or message to minimize the work your recommender must do. Don't expect your recommender to spend the time needed to sort through multiple emails.
- Some professors may ask for more information about you and your reasoning for applying for the program, job, or internship.
- Have alternates in mind to ask if your request is declined.
- Don't use an instructor's first name unless they say they prefer that.
- Introduce yourself in the first sentence if you have never emailed this person before.
Examples of Headings:
- Hello Professor (Last name), or Hello Dean (Last name),
- Only use the titles, Mrs., Mr., Mx., etc if you are sure the recipient isn't a professor.
- Dear _______,
- Greetings ________,
- Good day ________,
Examples of Sign-Offs:
- Sincerely, (Your preferred name)
- All the best,
- Thank you,
- Use the subject line to distill your email down to a specific request or phrase such as:
- Request for Extension on Lab Report
- Meeting to Go Over Exam
- Advising for Fall 2021 Classes
- If it's urgent, say so in the subject line.
- Put times you are available in the email so your professor can more easily schedule a meeting with you.
- Before sending, read over your email to check for the tone and to fix any typos.
- For particularly important messages, if you're comfortable, have a friend review the email to see how it reads.
- If you make a mistake (such as providing the wrong time, or not including someone on the email), send a new message as soon as you realize it.