For my first-year readers out there, what do you think of university after the first 3 weeks of school? Are you enjoying it? Is it a breeze? Do you feel like someone is hitting you repeatedly with a mallet? Let me know in the comments or e-mail me!
Speaking of e-mails…
One question I get from many first year (and even upper year students) is “What is the proper way to write an e-mail to a professor (or another member of the university community)?” Should the e-mail be super formal or can it be relatively casual? How should I address whomever I’m e-mailing? What information should be included? Should the message be concise or detailed? And what if it is not class-related?
Below, I have broken down the structure of an “academically professional” e-mail (i.e. e-mail to academics) into 4 parts. Follow these guidelines and you will be e-mailing like a pro in no time. As well, these tips can be used to e-mail any on-campus personnel, not just professors!
Section 1: Salutations.
Salutations of an e-mail can be tricky. If you recall from “Terms Every Student Should Know before Starting University”, there are many types of “teachers” and campus personnel you could encounter. There are professors, instructors, lecturers, TA’s, Deans, etc. Not all can be addressed as “professor” and not all have PhD’s.
B.G. (Before Google), you might have been able to get away with calling your professor by a wrong title. However, with the internet, there is no excuse for messing up. Google the professor’s name followed by your university and the first few results should contain who you are looking for. The rule of thumb I use is that if the person has PhD. or M.D. (regardless of their role on campus), address them as “Dr.” If the person doesn’t have a PhD, the use Mr. or Ms. If you’re not sure of their gender in the latter case (e.g. if it is an instructor you have never met and you want that person to present at a conference you are setting up), use their full name. In those really rare cases where Google doesn’t turn up any useful information, use “professor” just to be safe.
Is it ok to use “Hi”? That depends. If your professor is “old school” or you’re not really sure what their attitude is, stick to “dear”. If they are young or casual, it’s fine to use “hi”.
Is it ok to call your prof by their first name? If they told you it is fine, do it. If you aren’t sure (especially if it is the first time you are e-mailing him or her), use the last name. Keep using last names unless you’re told otherwise. And please, don’t use “hey dude”.
Section 2: Introduction.
This is the first paragraph of your e-mail. Always include the following information:
· Your full name.
· Your student/course/lab number or ID.
· Your course.
· Your section number.
If you want, you could attach all of that information in a signature line. However you present it, make sure the above information is in EVERY e-mail you send to your professor. Academia is busy and professors deal with dozens if not hundreds of e-mails a day – don’t expect them to remember who you are from e-mail to e-mail.
Section 3: The Message.
This is the second paragraph of your e-mail and it should state – clearly and concisely – why you’re e-mailing. If you’re inquiring about an assignment or an exam, specify which one. Write “midterm 2 on thermodynamics” not “the last midterm” and “assignment 5 on Margaret Atwood”, not “an earlier assignment”.
Do not use the 5 paragraph essay format! Don’t bother with 3 body paragraphs and never use a conclusion. Your e-mail should never be long enough to be taken as an essay.
Section 4: The Closing.
This is where you say thank you or sincerely. Feel free to be creative (providing it’s not rude or offensive). Sign off with your full name and student number.
· Keep the message short – ideally under 100 words.
· Use URL’s to simplify your message.
· Be extra courteous if you are asking a prof to do something not related to a course.
· Do not say anything creepy/stalkerish. In fact, don’t get personal (e.g. asking about their family) at all unless you know the prof fairly well.
· If you are e-mailing TA’s, first names are probably fine and you can be more casual.
· Check your spelling and grammar! An occasionally typo is not a big deal, but an e-mail riddled with spelling errors and run-on sentences will hit the recycling.
· Give the prof time to respond! Give anywhere between 72 hours and 1 week for them to answer. Don’t e-mail a prof with urgent matters unless there is absolutely no way around it. Go see them or call if possible first.
· Don’t expect answers 2 hours before an exam. If you are cramming the night before a midterm and suddenly hit a question you can’t do, don’t e-mail your prof and expect them to explain it to you before your exam. In fact, many professors have a “24 hour rule”, which states they will not answer questions pertaining to an exam in the 24 hours leading up to it.
Phew, this was a long post! I really want to show you some examples of good and bad e-mails, so stayed tuned for the next article!