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Student emailing a prof
August 10, 2020
6 mins read

Inbox (1): How to email your profs effectively

Navigating Online Learning

Dear reader,

Whether you have never emailed your instructors before or already consider yourself an email guru, we’ve got some tips that can help you get even savvier in maintaining effective—and professional—correspondence.

Before we dive in, ask yourself, “What am I trying to achieve by sending this email?” Emails flood your instructor’s inbox every day—so make sure you've tried looking for the answer yourself first. For instance, is your query related to:

  • Course logistics? Consult the syllabus.
  • Missed class? Connect with a friend for what you missed.
  • Homework help? Try resources (like Piazza) first. And if you can't find what you need, can you wait until your instructor’s office hours?

If you have 1000+ questions and/or are expecting in-depth, personalized responses, consider sending an email to schedule a more efficient means of communication, e.g. a Zoom meeting.

Pro tip: Run your email inquiry by a trusted, studious friend for flags.

Choose a “professional” email address

Students may occasionally use addresses that are likely to raise an eyebrow or unhinge a jaw. For example, “professional” wouldn’t exactly be consistent with sending emails from shawnchangissocoolomg (at) whatever, amirite?

If you already have a SFW email address and it’s been working fine, cool! But if you’d like to head to the next level, I’d suggest using your free UBC-hosted email—a.k.a. your cwl@student.ubc.ca—to communicate with your instructors, because it a) immediately shows your clear connection to UBC, and b) is less likely to flutter dejectedly into your instructor’s spam folder. Here are some FAQs that can help you better understand this email service!

Craft a send-worthy email 

When you start drafting, hold off on entering your recipient's email address in the "To" field, just in case you accidentally hit “Send” before you’re finished. “Undo” exists—but why take the risk?

Now follow these 5 steps to drafting a polite, effective email:

1. Write an informative, concise subject line

Include the course code/name and a crisp summary of what your email is about, e.g. “MATH 100: Homework questions” or “WRDS 150: Clarification about today’s lecture.” Going with a long subject line can lead to the fatal “...” that could hide your key words/phrases. 

2. Use the proper salutation and honorific

If spelling someone’s name wrong is like feeding them a ghost pepper, then neglecting to address them with the formality and/or title they expect is akin to feeding them multiple ghost peppers. Follow this quick guide to prevent your instructors from rocketing off the Scoville scale:

Salutation

Many instructors prefer students opening with “Dear.” “Hi” is a little iffy, and the casual “Hey” or “Yo” are off-limits.

Honorific
  • Say no to “Mr.”/“Miss”/“Ms.”/“Mrs.”/“Mx.”
  • Reserve “Dr.” for instructors who hold a PhD degree
  • Otherwise, stick with the more general “Professor”
  • Or, use their first name if they explicitly said in class that you can feel free to do so

Note that some instructors may be grad students for whom “Dr.” or “Professor” are inaccurate honorifics. It’s always safer to overcompensate, though—better to mislabel your instructor as a “Prof” than use a less formal title if you’re unsure.

Ultimately, pay attention during the first class, as your instructors will likely mention how they prefer to be called, and even tell you which salutation they expect. 

3. Tackle the body content

Run through exactly what you want to communicate before you get started. To prevent unnecessary back-and-forth, address everything you want to ask in your email, and use specific language to avoid having to clarify anything later on. Here’s an example of how the content could be structured:

a) Introduce yourself and your situation

Mention your name, course, and course section before communicating your situation, e.g. “I am writing to [specific verb: e.g. clarify, inquire about, schedule]…”

b) Elaborate on the situation

Raise your areas of concern. Be specific when asking questions, and bold, italicize, or underline key words or phrases sparingly. For example: “When you mentioned the X Rule, which exceptions should I know for the midterm?” and “Will this specific detail be explicitly tested?”

Attach a screenshot if you need to—just make sure you have vetted everything captured in them (e.g. private information and all open tabs).

c) Include action(s) required from your instructor where applicable

So, what do you want the instructor to do?

  • Respond to your request? “Please let me know what your thoughts are on this suggestion”
  • Agree on a meeting date/time? “Please let me know if any of the following 5 sets of dates and times works with your schedule”

Avoid sounding demanding, e.g. tweak “Please get back to me as soon as possible” to “I look forward to hearing from you soon.” Also, when scheduling a meeting, share how long it will likely take, e.g. “It will take no longer than 15 minutes of your time.”

If you’re scheduling a meeting, try to avoid ambiguous terms like “today” or “tomorrow” (especially when you’re sending the email around midnight), or at least clarify by mentioning the specific date, e.g. “Could we meet tomorrow (the 10th)?” 

d) Compose a polite closing

Remember to thank your instructors—use “Thank you for...” rather than the more informal, quippy “Thanks for...”

If you need ideas, here are some 50+ sample email signatures you could consider using—I like to use “Best regards.” Include your full name to remind your instructors who you are (sometimes people reading a long email may forget whom it’s from and have to scroll to see the sender’s full name). Oh—and don’t forget to add your student number somewhere by your name!

4. Make your email content scannable

Ideally, your email should be short enough that your instructor won’t have to scroll that much. If it has to be longer, here are some tips on making it more digestible:

  • Use block format (no indented paragraphs)
  • Limit the number of sentences in each paragraph 
  • Try to use cardinal numbers, e.g. 1, 2, 3—don’t spell them out (this saves space!)
  • Use bullet points and numbered lists where applicable, e.g. when listing times you’re available for a meeting or specific homework questions you have

If you notice that your email’s getting longer than your average chapter of The Lord of the Rings, consider scheduling a meeting instead. 

5. Review your email

Read your email out loud and make tweaks where necessary. Check for spelling, grammar, and concision. Each sentence should transition sensically to the next—and for formality, avoid contractions, fancy fonts, ALL CAPS, and emojis/emoticons. Also, since you’re corresponding with individuals who’ve reached the pinnacle of academic achievement, make sure that your language is simple, to-the-point, and free of big, “intelligent” words.

Check your email’s tone: A small tweak in word choice can make you sound more respectful. For example, tweak “I wanted to ask...” to “I was hoping to ask” and “Would you be able to” to “Would it be possible for you to…”

Now, enter the recipient’s email address. Correctly. Also make sure you've attached your attachments, and that they are the right ones. 

Sending your email...and following up

When you send emails actually matters—mornings can be a good call. Avoid sending emails on:

  • The weekends: Your instructors may be taking a break; your email may land somewhere at the bottom of their inbox when they check on Mondays. And on that note:
  • Mondays: These are typically really busy workdays (your instructors may be catching up on emails accumulated over the weekend)

Okay, you’ve just sent it. Now, you wait—remember to check your inbox frequently. Allow for some time to hear back. Be patient, and wait more than a few days before sending a (short and concise) follow-up email. You could try, “I would like to follow up on my previous email...” or “I was wondering if you had a chance to take a look at the email I sent you on [date]; if not, that is all right...”

If you still don’t get a response days after the follow-up email (which may be rare...but it happens), try reaching the instructor through other means. For more urgent matters, consider contacting the department head.

If you've found your answer or solved your issue while waiting, reply to your previous email right away to update your instructor. This way, you can prevent them from having to invest time in responding to your inquiries/requests...when a) you no longer need help, and b) they could be helping someone else who actually does.

Don't put off replying after you hear back from your instructor. Keep your follow-up formal. If you feel like they haven’t addressed your question, consider rephrasing, being more explicit, or scheduling a meeting. 

By the way, if your instructor replies using a casual tone or signs off with mere initials, that doesn’t mean you can do the same or address them by these initials. And yes, it can feel a little surprising to get like, a 6-word response, but avoid taking it personally, even if you toiled away at crafting a most elegant email.

Emailing your instructors can take some adjusting to, but it’s a helpful segue into workplace communication.

Cheers!

P.S. For another guide, check out this quick and informative guide from a UBC Mathematics prof!