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7 Etiquette Tips to Email Your Professor

Contacting your professor outside of class isn't as straightforward as raising your hand, and for international students unfamiliar with local etiquette, the process can be stressful. Here are 7 tips for emailing your professor while studying abroad and at home.

Sep 6, 2023
  • Student Tips
7 Etiquette Tips to Email Your Professor

Contacting your professor for help outside of class isn't as straightforward as raising your hand. For international students, who may be unfamiliar with local customs or have basic language skills, contacting a professor can be stressful. In most universities around the world, professors hold regular office hours and, when in doubt, stopping by to ask your question in person is the best option. If this isn't an option, nearly all university professors utilize email to communicate with students. Face-to-face meetings might be preferable, but there times when email can be essential – if you have to miss class, for instance, and would like to submit the day's assignment. If you do need to email your professor, it's a good idea to follow these 7 basic etiquette rules, particularly when you're in a foreign country.

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1.Ask the locals

Local culture and customs can have an impact on the student-professor relationship and will direct your correspondence with a professor. Before contacting a professor, ask local students how they address their instructors. They'll be able to guide you in the right direction, and it's a great way to meet your classmates! If you're still unsure, it's best to use formal greetings when corresponding by email with a professor. Use the professor's title and last name (Dear Professor Smith). It's better to overestimate an instructor's credentials and flatter than to underestimate and offend. Remember that credentials differ from country to country. In the U.S., 'Professor' and 'Dr.' are often used interchangeably, but in the U.K., Germany, and other countries, the title of 'Professor' is more prestigious. Avoid more informal titles (Mr., Mrs., etc.) and never, ever, refer to a professor by their first name unless they invite you to do so.

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2.Think if you have a good reason to write to your professor

If a professor has office hours, it's better to use those for questions or assistance. Professors are very busy with many responsibilities, and a response to your 'simple' question may require a lot of effort. Before writing, think whether an email is the most time-efficient means of communication. When in doubt, use email only to relay information (absences/emergencies), to ask a very specific question, to thank your professor for help, or to apologize. All other eventualities are probably best addressed in person. And, before you even think of sending an email with a question about class or an assignment – CHECK THE SYLLABUS. It's likely that most of your questions have been answered there already.

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3.Use your college or university email account

You may love that hotmail.com account that you made when you were fourteen, professors won't take you seriously if you ask to redo the midterm in an email sent from [email protected]. Worse, your email might end up in a spam or trash file if your professor doesn't recognize it. To make sure your professor receives your email, always send correspondence to the address the professor specified on the syllabus. It's also helpful to give very clear information in the subject line of the email – your class and section, and a concise subject – so that the professor can keep track of your request.

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4.Be concise

Your email should be short and sweet. If you're relaying information, give only the pertinent points (I have to miss class tomorrow for emergency dental surgery). When asking a question, make sure it wasn't answered in the syllabus and that it relates directly to your class/assignment. If you need a favor be polite and try to suggest an alternate form of assistance (I'm struggling with the introduction to my term paper. Can I meet with you to go over it? If not, would it be possible to send it to you for some critique?) If you have multiple questions, number them, but keep the questions to a minimum. If you have a lot of complicated questions, it's probably best to schedule an appointment with your professor instead.

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5.Proofread, proofread, and proofread again!

This is particularly important if you're not writing in your first language. If your email doesn't have spellcheck, write a draft in a word processor first. Use complete sentences and check for correct grammar. This is not Facebook or a text message so avoid abbreviations, slang, emoticons, and all-caps text. Keep your message polite and organized. Start your email with a formal greeting and end it with a gracious salutation that includes your whole name (no nicknames!)

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6.Be nice

This goes without saying, but you're more likely to get a helpful response if you are polite. Email is definitely not the medium for issuing complaints or criticism – save these for the end-of-year review. Don't issue demands or speak disrespectfully. Appreciate that your professor is busy and graciously accept any and all assistance. Always acknowledge a response with a thank you and follow up on any instructions or questions in your professor's reply.

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7.What if there's no answer

After all that, your polite, concise, pertinent, proofread, and clearly addressed email received no response. Before sending angry follow-up emails demanding a response, consider whether your email was actually worth a response (did your question get answered in the next class?) If you still believe your email deserves a response, try waiting a few days. Perhaps your professor was busy, or away from email for short time. After that you can send a similar, polite follow-up. Or you could try to contact your professor in another way – did they provide a phone number on the syllabus? Have you stopped by during office hours? Is there someone else you can ask first – a classmate or a TA? In the end, real persistence will at least demonstrate that you take your studies seriously and are willing to work to get the answers you need.