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Professors are some of busiest people around. They have to lecture, hold office hours, work with graduate students and colleagues, attend conferences and other public events, and conduct, publish and present research. But even though they’re short on time, there are ways to communicate with them via email and get a timely response so you can continue doing your work with fewer setbacks.
Put a Face to the Name
It’s ideal to meet your professor in person before sending off that first email. Introduce yourself during the first week of school. Let your professor know about your interests, your questions, or something else unique to you. Showing that you care enough to get to know them more personally encourages them to respond timely when it comes to your requests. The better impression you leave, the better they can remember you.
When it comes time to sending that first email with questions about an assignment, your professor will be able to put your face to your name. That helps them put your email into context. If they’ve already successfully communicated with you in the past, they’ll be more willing to communicate again without hesitation. And perhaps they’ll already trust that you’re a serious student.
Use a Detailed Subject Line
The subject line is everything when it comes to getting a timely response to email. First of all, when people receive email from senders they don’t know, they look to the subject line for clues. Based on subject line alone, they may delete mail that looks spammy or simply unimportant to them.
Now, professors are obligated to respond to student email for administrative and class-related matters. But the subject line is still important for getting through to your professor fast. Craft a subject line so that upon seeing it, your professor opens and reads it immediately — rather than filing it for later reading. (The next goal is to craft the email in such a way that right after reading, your professor immediately responds, but we’ll get to that in a later section.)
So before sending your email narrow it down to its specific purpose. State that purpose as directly as you can in the subject line.
Instead of using, “I’d like to enroll in your class,” state specifically the class name and how they can help you enroll:
The more specific you can be, the easier you make it for your professor. A very specific headline lets them know in a glance what’s expected of them.
Be Courteous and Formal
Once you’ve used a good subject line, you need to make sure that your opening doesn’t prevent your professor from reading the full message. You don’t want to say “Hey” and then go on with your message. That sets an unprofessional tone that can be a barrier to effective communication. You want to err on the side of courtesy.
Write your message as politely and respectfully as you can, even if it means allowing some inaccuracy. For instance, let’s say you’re taking a community college class over the summer to fulfill general requirements. Your instructor is not technically a professor, but has just started teaching part-time this year.
You still want to address them as “Professor” because it’s formal, polite, and it shows that you’re eager to establish a good communication. Err on the side of courtesy until corrected — when your instructor insists you to refer to them as “Mr. Bob” or “Joey.”
Here are some other ways to keep your message courteous:
- Always sign off with your name — preferably first and last if there are a lot of students in the class.
- Close with a sentence or phrase that demonstrates your appreciation for their reading your message. It can be a sentence before signing your name, such as, “I appreciate your looking into this Professor John.” Or it can simply be a “Thank you,” followed by your name.
- Stay on topic; going on tangents indicates that you don’t really respect their time, as they probably have hundreds of other emails to get to.
- Don’t assume that they will do whatever it is you request. There are some things professors must do for students, such as giving you permission to enter a course if you meet the prerequisites. But even so, don’t assume that they will do whatever you ask. You don’t want to show disrespect or give them reason to reconsider how and if they want to help you out. So ask politely, indicating as few assumptions as possible.
Use Proper Names and Labels
As already covered, use proper labels within your specific subject line and refer to your professor courteously. Make sure to have labels, numbers, dates and times correct. If you’re not clear about a meeting time or accidentally reference the wrong test, your professor will have to spend extra time to double-check and possibly email you again for clarity. This turns a potentially quick response to a conversation that spans across multiple emails.
Stick to the Point
When you go on a tangent in an email or divulge more (personal) information than is necessary for the task at hand, it ultimately wastes your professor’s precious reading time — as well as your own time. Sticking to the point is one of several ways to cut back on time spent sending email and reduce the need to write extra emails for clarification.
Strike out unnecessary words and phrases, like, “I was wondering if,” or “Do you think that you could possibly…” Instead, just ask the question. It may be intimidating to be so frank with your professor, but with practice it won’t be the case for long. Because you’ll learn to get the point in professional way, and that builds confidence.
Here’s an example of a message that takes longer to read and is more distracting in its longer form:
As you can see, the condensed form gets the message across more effectively:
Keep it Short
Keeping it short is similar to staying on point. Ideally, you don’t want more than three to four sentences in a paragraph. And you don’t want to stuff one message with too many paragraphs. Unless, that is, you’re sharing feedback or a personal story that will help your professor get to know you and better understand how they can help you out.
Make a Direct Request
Even if you have a great subject line, you still need to follow-up in the message itself. You do so by making your request direct. It may be clearer if you phrase the request as a question. Or if you use the opener of “Please… [request here].” Keep in mind that if you are emailing your professor just to get their opinion on a topic, that’s still a request because you are asking that they take the time to share what they know.
Make your request so clear that your professor won’t have questions about what you ask of them. If you can accomplish this important step, you can help your professor take action immediately after reading your email. And not only will you get a quick response from them, but you’ll also get into that wait listed class much sooner.
Even if you successfully apply the above principles in emailing your professor, and you don’t get a timely response, it could be that your professor hasn’t yet gotten to your email or is currently unavailable for a time. Don’t worry about what the reasons are, simply follow up courteously if you haven’t heard back from them in over two days. Different campuses have different policies or cultures (even if unwritten) for what’s considered a timely response, so it may vary depending on your institution or the context.
Apply the sample principles listed above to your follow-up email. If for some reason you’re still not getting through, another follow-up email may be appropriate after another three to four days (again, depending on the situation). Or it may be time to talk to your professor in person. If that’s the case, make sure you find out from them how to best communicate via email.
Effectively communicating with your professor as needed greatly improves your chances for succeeding in a particular class. Keep that communication timely, smooth and productive so that you can stay focused on your work.
Melissa Karnaze is an experimental psychology masters student. She's interested in how we can use technology with greater mindfulness, writes about emotional productivity at Mindful Construct, and loves how the web is changing the world.
- Published 09/29/10