Re: wut assignment lol?!?

If you’re a college student today, you’re probably accustomed to instantaneous connection; for you, there’s likely little difference between email, chat, and text. Yet if you’re a professor, email might be something you had to learn, or at least a form of communication that is measurably distinct from casual, shorthand platforms like text. So while it’s reductive to say different groups of people think about email differently, we do! And when those differences cause misunderstandings—or genuine offense—it’s worth taking a few extra minutes to get it right. 

Emailing your professor in a manner that demonstrates respect and consideration and avoids alienating or annoying them can take a bit of practice (and some code-switching), but we’ve put together a simple template that should help you nail it every time. (Ed note: I had a college professor who refused to use email, and would only respond to handwritten letters. It could be worse!)

To the professors: Include your email preferences—including how you prefer to be addressed, what information you want to see in an email, and how quickly you can be expected to respond—in a prominent place on your syllabus (and include a link to this piece!). Use Quicklinks in Unicycle to provide shortcuts to commonly-requested information, like your calendar, office hours, or request forms for letters of recommendations. Want more email tips and simple templates? Check out 6 Common Student Emails - and How to Respond.


A simple, no-fail student → professor email template


Our keywords here are CLARITY and CONCISION. Your professor might be teaching hundreds of students at any given time, and that doesn’t include students from previous terms asking for letters of recommendation, their advisees, etc. Many also do their own research or other service work, not to mention administrative emails. The clearer and more concise you can be, the more likely you are to get a prompt and favorable response.

⚠️ Before you start composing an email, ask yourself: Have I looked for an answer to my question in the syllabus? If it’s not a personal question, have I asked another student in the class for their help?

SUBJECT: Use a clear subject line that contains your request, ie Question about tomorrow’s assignment; class absence last week, etc. 

SALUTATION: Dear [Whatever name they have asked you to use; default to Professor Last Name if you have any doubts],

EMAIL CONTENTS:

  • Introduce yourself, making sure to include your class name/number/when it meets/TA “I’m Meg, in Bio 101 section 245, the MWF class with TA Bob”.  
  • Explain clearly and concisely what the concern or need is. If you can’t explain it clearly and concisely, avoid sending a long and confusing email and instead bring it up during office hours, or ask to schedule a 1:1 meeting. 
  • “Can you please X…” where X is a clearly defined action, such as provide the answer, help me figure out who I should speak to, meet with me on X date at X time. Your prof should know exactly what you’re expecting by the time they finish reading your email. 

SIGN-OFF: Thank you, [Student full name]

Dear Professor Jenkins,

This is Jane, from your T/Th ECON 250 class. 

I wanted to let you know that due to a family emergency, I will be missing class next Tuesday. I know we have a quiz that day, and while I checked the syllabus, I wasn't able to determine whether you allow make-up quizzes in these circumstances. Could you let me know if that would be possible?

Thank you for your time, and I hope you are having a good week!

Sincerely,
Jane Smith

And that’s it! Simple, professional, and clear. We can’t guarantee your professor will respond the way you want them to, but we can promise they will feel respected and seen.

Extra-credit emailing

  • Yes, use full sentences and proper punctuation. No, don’t use slang/curse words. Yes, this may feel unnatural. No, you won’t regret it. 
  • Use your school email and be consistent about this: you don’t want to risk your message getting flagged as spam, or having to add an extra step to your prof’s workload as they puzzle out who “dojocat2229@gmail.com” is. 
  • Your prof is a person, too; feel free to acknowledge that with a benign comment about the weather, their adorable dog they showed you a photo of last class, how much you enjoyed the recent reading, etc. 
  • And you—yes, you’re a person, too! Be genuine. If an assignment is late because you’re feeling overwhelmed, acknowledge your own responsibility while also being honest. A genuine request for empathy is better than a bad excuse. 
  • Haven’t heard back yet? Unless your prof has explicitly told you otherwise, don’t follow up on a weekend or before 48 hours have passed unless the request is urgent (and if it is urgent, make sure you note that in the subject line). When following up, respond to your earlier email and politely ask that they take a look when they can. There’s no need to re-state the issue or badger. If the question is truly urgent, make an appointment or go see your prof during office hours. 
  • A note on formality: If your professor cultivates a relaxed classroom atmosphere, it may seem unnecessary to be as formal as this template suggests. But remember that some professors, especially minorities, are often afforded less respect than their peers and subjected to language that undervalues their education and position. You may be working against your own unconscious biases here, so there’s no reason not to put in the extra effort. 
  • Do a final read-through of your email before sending, and put yourself in your professor’s shoes. Is it clear from scanning your note a) what you want, and b) that they have all of the information they need to help you? 
Checklist prior to emailing your professor

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash