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Communicating With Your Professor: How to Write an Email

September 22, 2015

September 22, 2015

By Kelly Pedersen

You’re preparing for one of your first assignments in graduate school. You’ve bought your books, you have done the reading, and you are sitting down to start your paper. You realize that you don’t quite understand something about the assignment and want to ask your professor a question. It’s time to fire off a quick email right? Wait! First make sure that you understand the rules of email etiquette.

A common complaint among college and graduate school professors is inappropriate communication from their students. One of the most consistent issues is the proper use of email. Many students grew up texting in shorthand and are used to having a relaxed relationship with authority figures, but in graduate school it’s important to maintain a respectful relationship with your professor in your digital communication.

If you find that you aren’t prepared to write a clear, cohesive message, here are some tips to keep you from making email mistakes and to help you retain your professor’s respect.

  1. Read the syllabus: One of the top complaints from professors is that students email them questions whose answers can easily be found in the syllabus. There are all kinds of exciting things in there, so read it! Faculty members usually strive to provide clear descriptions of course expectations and assignments on their syllabi, so make sure to read it thoroughly before sending an email that asks when an assignment is due. The syllabus may also include the professor’s communication preferences or expectations, such as hours that your professor will and will not answer emails from students.
  2. Keep your subject lines short and clear: Don’t type “question” into the subject line. This is not helpful in determining whether they need to answer your question immediately. If you have an inquiry about your class, include the course number in the subject line. This gives your professor an immediate frame of reference for your question.
  3. Do not mark your email as high importance if it isn’t: Your question is important to you, but give your professor some time to answer with a thoughtful reply instead of demanding immediate attention. Try not to send an email late at night and expect it to be answered immediately. Annoying the person who makes decisions about your grade is not your goal.
  4. Be Respectful! : Repeat after me: “My professor is not my peer.” No emoticons, no shorthand or slang, and use spell check. Begin your email with a formal greeting and end with a respectful phrase, such as “Thank you for your time.”
  5. Use a professional email address: This is self-explanatory. Your email address should usually be some form of your name. The time for humorous email addresses has passed. It should not be “deezboyz55@yahoo.com” or “fluffybunny4u@gmail.com” Now that you’re in grad school, you should be projecting professionalism. More appropriate examples of email addresses are “john_doe@gmail.com” or” Doe.John.R@gmail.com”. Include numbers IF YOU MUST, but try to avoid it. As an aside, remember that some faculty require students to use their GMU email addresses for school correspondence, so please adhere to their preferences.
  6. Be Careful of CC, BCC, and Reply All: A writer from gradhacker.org comments, “All three of these email features are immensely useful when they are used under the correct circumstances. BCC should be used when you are emailing lots of people and you want to avoid that long list of emails at the beginning. Be careful that you are CC’ing only those who need to receive the email. And finally, remember that a LOT OF LISTSERVS default to REPLY ALL.  I managed a listserv with this function once and every time an intended single recipient went REPLY ALL we would hemorrhage members. This was often due to the delightful “Please remove me from the list” REPLY ALL cycle. Please don’t do this. And if you do: don’t send a REPLY ALL apology. In my vision of listserv nirvana, we would all agree that we understand it could happen to anyone.”

Do you need help with your writing skills? Contact the Mason Writing Center, which has locations at the Arlington and Fairfax campuses: http://writingcenter.gmu.edu

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