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How to Email a Professor

Writing an email to a professor can be intimidating, especially if you don't have much practice doing it. But it isn't as hard as it sometimes feels. In this video, the RSI (Rhetorical Situation Investigator) explains how to write more effective emails to professors by understanding the rhetorical situation that you're writing in.

After you watch the video, feel free to refer to the RSI's case notes below to jog your memory the next time you're writing to a professor:

Addressing a Professor

  • If your professor has told you how they want to be addressed, address them in that way. You can also see how they sign their emails to you and address them that way

  • When in doubt, "Professor [Last Name]" is always a safe bet

  • Be personable: a quick friendly sentence (e.g., I hope you're having a nice day) can go a long way towards setting the right tone

What to Say

  • Be clear and specific in the subject line so that your professor knows what to expect (Don't leave the subject line blank!)

  • Make sure your question hasn't already been answered somewhere else: check the syllabus and previous messages from your professor (It's such a bummer to write to a student, "As it says in the syllabus...)

  • Provide helpful information: if you want to set up a time to meet, include your own availability so that your professor can only offer times that work for you

  • Avoid providing too much information: Your professor doesn't need to know your medical history--so let them know why you'll be absent, but avoid the graphic details

How to Say It

  • Be straightforward, but not terse. Polite, but not timid: Being overly abrupt or overly deferential can start the email on the wrong foot and make your professor less receptive

  • Avoid picking fights, blaming, or offending: even if you think your issue is your professor's fault, they'll probably be more inclined to help if you're not making accusations (e.g., I can't seem to find the submit button on this week's assignment--am I missing something? vs. I don't think you set up the assignment right, so I can't turn it in.)

  • Talk like a person talking to a person: professors are people too. Give them the same easy respect you'd want them to give you, and you'll be fine.

How to End it

  • "Thanks," is a great way to sign off. "Best," is not.

  • Like in the beginning, it also doesn't hurt to say something friendly. Email is a social relationship, not just an informational transaction.

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