We've all been taught how to email and write letters. It's something you learn in grade school. Something I did not expect to struggle with in college was email etiquette. How do I write proper emails to professors? Do I write more friendly or formal? What do I sign off with? If you've struggled like I have, don't worry, I've got you. Here's 5 email tips to help out your email game.
1. Keep it concise
My biggest email pet peeve is an unnecessarily long email. Why use 20 words for something you could say in 5? While you may gain points by writing superfluously and decoratively in your essays, you will likely lose points and your recipient's attention if you do the same with emails.
This is particularly true with staff at your university: professors, advisors, TAs/GAs. Most staff don't have time to read extremely long emails, so it's important to keep your emails shorter rather than longer.
For example, if the purpose of the email is to propose a meeting, there is no reason to ask about someone's day or drone on and on about why the meeting is needed. Propose the meeting, give necessary details on what the meeting will entail, and then sign off. If people are confused or need more details, they can reach out to you, and you can elaborate, but in my experience most things are pretty straightforward.
In the interest of brevity, I'll stop here, before it gets too long.
2. Make your point clear
Nothing is more confusing than receiving an email and having no clue what the sender intended. Is this email posing an idea or asking a question? Is it doing both?
It is OK to have multiple points or things to say, though it's also essential to make sure those topics are all important (see above), but you need to ensure it is clear what those points are. One of the most common email mistakes is a lack of paragraphing. And I know, you may be thinking to yourself, what is this, an essay? But paragraphing is important in emails because it distinguishes topics and makes the discussion more coherent. There's a difference between these two emails:
This is Rebecca from your Stats class. The last class was really confusing. I lost the notes and the slides were really unhelpful. I don't know what the homework assignment is either.
Hello Professor so-and-so,
This is Rebecca Smith from your 8am STAT261 class. I was wondering if you could help me with a few things, because I was really confused by the end of last class.
Firstly, I think I might have accidentally left my notes in your classroom, so I was wondering if you might've found them?
I was also hoping I could set up a meeting with you. I found the slides particularly confusing and I was hoping you could go over them with me.
Lastly, I can't find the homework assignment anywhere online. Did you tell us in class, and I just missed it?
Thanks so much,
The second email does two things better than the first one. First, it implements paragraphing which, while not necessarily essential in a smaller email like this one, organizes the writer's thoughts into easier chunks. Second, it asks direct questions or makes direct requests.
The first email is extremely confusing because the writer doesn't make it clear what she wants from the recipient; she just writes a few ambiguous sentences. So, to be clear, try to paragraph and make direct requests or questions. You got this.
3. Use something other than “Dear Professor”
Throughout grade school, I was taught to begin every letter or email with "dear" and sign off with "sincerely". Neither of these suggestions are necessarily wrong, but they aren't the only way to write. Quite honestly, they're very typical and pretty formal.
So, if you are comfortable with the person you are writing to, it's perfectly OK to begin with "Hello, Professor," or "Hi, TA Smith". This sets a positive, friendly tone, and, in my opinion, is a better option than simply "dear".
However, slight disclaimer: if the email is meant to be extremely formal, as in an internship/scholarship opportunity or to someone you will never email more than once, "dear" gets the definite go-ahead.
4. Have a go-to sign off
Like I mentioned earlier, I was always taught to sign off with "sincerely", but it's fun to jazz it up a bit! For example, if you are asking for a favor or posing a question, you can end with something like "Thanks!" or "Thank you so much." If you are going to see the recipient soon, you could sign off with "See you soon/tomorrow/next week".
These are nice to use because they are somewhat situational, so it reestablishes the topic at hand (e.g. saying thank you reminds the person of your request). However, it's also nice to have a simple go-to sign off, so you can have an automatic (but still interesting) sign off.
Some great options are "best", "warm wishes", "cheers", or "take care". If you want to be formal or professional, you could also substitute in "regards" instead of "sincerely". Worrying about a sign-off may seem picky, but it's so easy to just choose a sign-off to use regularly instead of being forced to use "sincerely". Sending you warm wishes on your sign off endeavors!
5. Understand the tone
Let me ask you a question: when you email a classmate about a project, do you write the same way that you would a professor? If you said no, pat yourself on the back. One of the most important things to understand about emails is how your words will sound to the recipient.
For example, it would be mildly inappropriate to call your professor "dude", but the same word would not carry the same meaning with a classmate. So, it's very important to evaluate what your relationship is with the recipient. If they are your friendly academic advisor you've known for a while, there's no problem with writing with a more informal and conversational tone, because you're familiar with them and they probably like you to some degree.
However, if you are emailing an infamously strict, no-nonsense professor, it's probably best to err on the side of respectful and conventional. While I enjoy jazzing up my emails with different salutations and sign-offs, if you are unsure what tone you should use, it's always better to defer to formal rather than informal. Good luck, and watch your tone!