How to write an email to your instructor

If you’re reading the title of this post and thinking to yourself, “What? I already know how to write an email – I probably send out at least a hundred each day!” I would still urge you to keep reading. We could all use a little refresher.

So: what inspired this post today? This Ph.d comic will explain:

Ph.D. Comics

If you’re thinking to yourself, “no one would actually send an email like that,” I encourage you to ask your professors about the craziest emails they’ve ever received from students.  (For the record, mine began: “what up, teach?”) And, as we head into the stressful final stretch of the semester, the number of crazy emails received mysteriously seems to increase as well.

How can you avoid becoming one of these anecdotal stories and practice being professional? Follow these 7 easy steps:

  1. Use an informative subject line. We’re all busy people with overflowing inboxes. If you are letting us know that zombies have eaten your homework so you will not be able to attend class today, give us a hint in the subject line so we can try to respond promptly. If you’re lucky, we might even offer the latest zombie-prevention techniques.
  2. Use a salutation and an honorific.

    Even though we live in California, “Dude” is not a proper way to greet your instructor (unless, of course, “the dude” is teaching your class but that’s another day, another discussion.) Instead, rely on a more professional “Dear Professor [last name],” or “Hi, Professor [last name].”  Don’t assume we all have doctorates – some of us have different graduate degrees. However, we are all instructors and the easiest way to acknowledge that role is to call the instructor “Professor.” Also, don’t assume the instructor’s gender identity or marital status by using “Miss,” “Mr.,” or “Mrs.”  If the instructor stated it’s fine to refer to them by first name, then you may do so via email. Otherwise, do not assume that you have reached that level of familiarity with your instructor.   

  3.  Be a humanLike the old saying goes, “you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” In other words, it’s always best to be polite. A quick sentence “I hope you had a great weekend!” or other niceties at the start of your message can go a long way to improving your odds of having your request granted in an email.
  4. (Especially if it is the first time emailing them or in a large university): Remind professors who you are. Remember that first week freshman year when you met a hundred million new people, got lost on the way to your first class, and accidentally misspelled your instructor’s name on the quiz? Your professor has a similar experience every. single. semester. with all the names of all their students in all their classes.  So, just like I said above – be a human – and jog our memories before asking us your question / stating your point.  Look at this example for help: “I’m in your T/R 9:30 AM Accounting 180 class and was wondering…”
  5. Be concise and precise. Even if you’re a huge fan of Charles Dickens’ long, descriptive sentences, odds are a wordy email would annoy you. So, as politely as possible, try to state your point directly without making a bunch or excuses or demanding the impossible.  A good rule of thumb: if you can’t state your point in two or three sentences, ask for an office hour appointment so you can talk directly to your instructor. If the instructor would prefer to just hash it out via email, then you can send your massively long letter in a follow-up.
    • Part of being precise also means avoiding spelling or grammar errors.  It’s also a good idea to avoid texting abbreviations.
  6. If you can figure it out, don’t ask. Do you enjoy answering email at the end of a long day? Guess what? Neither does your instructor because they, too, are human.  If the answer is on the calendar, the syllabus, and/ or the course website, it’s your job to look it up. Consider it this way: by putting all that information at your fingertips, your professor was trying to save you the time of composing an email to ask them about it.  So, do the same and respect their time.

    phd comics…again!
  7. Sign off. If your email address is “,” and you didn’t put your name in your reminder phrase, your instructor won’t know who is sending them this lovely email.  So, always be sure to sign off your email.  Not sure what sign off to use?  Grammarly has you covered. Personally, I appreciate seeing “Thanks” when a student is sending a request.  Again: being human can go a long way.

Bonus Tip: Be timely. 

You’ve sent a polite, short email with your request and you refresh your email. No email. Where the heck is the response from your professor? If it’s been under, say, twenty-four hours and your subject line didn’t indicate the item was urgent, give them a little while to respond. You can always ask your question before / after class or the next time you see them.  If they are usually prompt with email and you can safely assume that the email got lost in the shuffle of work that week, feel free to send a polite follow-up email “checking in” to see if they have a response.

Pro tip: If you are sending the email at the wee hours of the night and the paper is due early the next morning, odds are your professor isn’t awake.  In that case, you needed to ask your question earlier to get a timely response.

Need more help?  Check out our homegrown handout!

Best wishes on your emails!




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