Academic Writing AdviceAcademic, Writing, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

7 Mistakes to Avoid When Emailing Professors

Much changes when you begin college—new friendships, a new living space, and new knowledge that will propel you into the career of your dreams. Among these changes, you'll need to learn how to communicate effectively with your professors and it's surprising how many university students don't know how to do this properly.

Perhaps you've never needed to communicate much with your teachers throughout high school. Or perhaps your university experience includes a change in culture as well, as you study in America after spending significant time in another country. In both cases, understanding the proper way to email your university professor will help you have success in your academic experience, regardless of the obstacles you face.

So, what should you avoid when emailing your professor? Read below to find out the top seven mistakes that most people make when communicating with their higher-ed teachers. Avoid these mistakes and you'll be well on your way to successful communication and (hopefully) a well-earned college degree.

Mistake #1: Being wordy

Professors are busy people. In between a certain number of classes that they're required to teach, they must grade papers (sometimes hundreds per assignment), prepare lesson plans, and conduct research/write papers that are required by the university in order to keep their post. In addition to this, they have hundreds of other students besides you to teach. Somewhere in the middle of all of that, they have personal lives.

Often, students forget that all of these other things are happening in a professor's life when they email him or her. The result is long emails, full of unnecessary details or extended requests, assuming that the professor has all the time in the world to read them.

When you email your professor, the best way to avoid this mistake is to imagine that every one of your fellow students in the class (sometimes this can be hundreds) is also sending an email. When you imagine this to be happening—and let's face it, it could very well be happening—you'll keep your communication succinct, only when necessary, and to-the-point.

This includes a subject line that is easy to organize based on the student (you) and the class. For example, if your email concerns a report in your American History class, your subject line might read: Question regarding report – American History 101 – [Your name]. This will help your professor sift through emails to determine which need attention first based on the purpose of the email.

Mistake #2: Asking questions with answers that can be found elsewhere

As mentioned previously, professors are busy—sometimes extremely busy. This means that if you are emailing to ask a question with an answer that could be found elsewhere, you're wasting your professor's time. And we've already established that extra time is not a commodity most professors have.

So how do you avoid this common mistake? First, before you send an email asking a question, read through the syllabus and class webpage (if there is one) to see if you can find the answer to your question there first. Second, if neither of these resources provides the answer you seek, contact a fellow student in the class to see if they know the answer. It's always a good idea to get the contact information of other students in your class for this exact reason, especially if you are working in groups or on group assignments. Third, ask yourself if the question must be answered immediately, or if it can wait until the next time the class meets.

If neither of these options provides answers for your question, or if your question can't wait for the next time you're in class, then (and only then) is it acceptable to email your professor to ask. Remember: keep it short and to the point when you do. And make sure the subject line offers your professor a good idea of the topic of your email.

Emails to professors should be short because they are busy
Keep your email communication with professors short and succinct, showing that you value their time. Photo by Tra Nguyen on Unsplash

Mistake #3: Being informal

Regardless of how informal or easy-going your professor seems when teaching the class, never make the mistake of being informal in your email when communicating with him or her. This can be taken as a sign of disrespect and includes emails written to graduate assistants who might be helping your professor with the class projects, grading, and instruction procedures. The simple fact that they are teaching you and providing you with needed knowledge to pursue your life goals means they a) know more than you about the topic and b) should be granted respect.

In many cultures, speaking informally to a teacher is considered highly disrespectful. Some even insist that a student should not look a teacher directly in the eye or address him or her in a demanding tone. While Americans aren't as formal as many other cultures, it is still a sign of disrespect to address your professor by his or her first name (unless you're asked to do so) or make demands as if you were a peer. Your professor has a degree that you do not have (yet) and is imparting his or her wisdom to you so that you might earn your degree. For this simple reason, being informal is a sign of disrespect, and should never happen—in an email or otherwise.

Mistake #4: Telling your life story

As an editor, I have copyedited literally hundreds of emails that students have sent to me before sending it to their professor. In the process of doing so, I have run across emails that are pages long, detailing specific reasons why the student missed class, made a bad grade or needs to withdraw. In each of those situations, I made the same recommendation that I make here: Don't. Just…don't.

If you have a unique life situation that compels you to miss multiple classes, fail tests, or miss assignments, an email is not the proper method to use to discuss this with your professor. Rather, you should request time to meet with him or her and discuss your personal situation in person—whether after class or during conference hours (which all professors will have posted and usually include on their syllabus).

Obviously, there will be life situations that arise that bring challenges to your academic pursuits. You can't control these. Professors understand this and for the most part, are willing to work with you to resolve them while still allowing you to pass the course. However, since you'll need to provide specific details, and since emails should never be overly wordy, don't use emails to communicate your need. If the situation is personal enough to request extended time to turn in assignments or excused absences, it is personal enough to discuss face-to-face with your professor.

Mistake #5: Demanding grade changes or unique privileges

This mistake goes along with mistakes #3 and #4. When you demand grade changes or unique privileges (such as freedom to miss class while others are penalized for it), you run the risks of informality and providing details in an email that should be discussed face-to-face. If the situation is important enough for you to request special privileges that other students don't get, then it is important enough for a private conversation with your teacher.

Remember—a professor is not required to grant leniency to you based on your life situation or the challenges you run into that keep you from attending class and making passing grades. There are no rules at the university level that require faculty to make these exceptions for students. It is strictly granted on a case-by-case basis and at the professor's discretion. In such, these are requests that you should ask for humbly and without expectation or assumption of privilege. In either case, neither request belongs in an email.

Any situation that requires detailed explanation should be reserved for a face-to-face conversation with your professor
Any situation that requires detailed explanation should be reserved for a face-to-face conversation with your professor. Photo by Charles 🇵🇭 on Unsplash

Mistake #6: Grammar/spelling errors

When I mentioned previously that I've copyedited many emails to professors, it's because students understand that an email sent with excessive grammar or spelling errors will not be taken seriously. This is why if English is not your original language—or even if it is and you're not the best at communicating or spelling things correctly—get an editor.

Even if you consider yourself to have excellent English writing skills, it's still important to copyedit your email before sending it, as an additional precaution. If you can't hire a proofreader or copyeditor to do this for you, at least use the grammar tools available in many word processing programs or online.

Mistake #7: Emoticons and all caps

Finally, let's look at mistake #7, which is connected with the mistake of informality. Never use emoticons in an email to your professor, as these are considered to be informal communication. Even though many young adults use emoticons often due to smartphone technology and social media prevalence, they have no place in formal communication with your teacher.

Additionally, using all caps is considered to be rude. It is the same as yelling at someone, except you're doing it in writing instead of in speech. While many people assume that all caps is a way to highlight words or a point, this is a false assumption. If you want to highlight a word or a point, use bold font or italic font. You can also use an exclamation point, although be careful of this, as excessive exclamation point usage is considered to be poor grammar (and poor taste). Whatever you do, avoid using all caps at all costs.

Get in-depth guidance delivered right to your inbox.