f you’re just starting college, halfway through, or almost across the finish line with your degree, you’ll likely need to contact one of your professors.
If you’ve already done so, good on you! Communication is essential during university to keep all of your assignments and projects in line. But if you haven’t yet reached out to one of your professors, or if you’re still a bit unsure how to do it, there are a few things you need to keep in mind.
While some professors can be quite relaxed, others can be a bit of a stick in the mud. You’ll want to know about things like email etiquette and format, but it’s also important to understand when it’s appropriate to contact a professor and when to reach out to a teaching assistant or an administrative professional.
But lucky for you, Adultist has all of the information you need to make you an email genius when it comes to communicating with your professor. After reading this article, you’ll be able to email your instructors for anything you might need and make your college career a whole lot easier in the process.
How to format your email
When emailing a professor, one size doesn’t fit all. This is especially important for incoming freshmen to know. Some instructors prefer to be addressed by their last name, some by their first, and some don’t even care at all.
The first place you want to look is in the syllabus. A professor will typically include all of the relevant information for the course here — including how to properly address them.
However, some professors might forget to include this valuable information in their syllabus, leaving students to take a few guesses on what the instructor likes to be addressed as. If this is the case for your class, the best course of action is to err on the side of formality.
Some of the salutations below will help you keep your email formal and professional if you're not aware of what your instructor likes to be called.
- “Good morning, Professor,”
- “Dear Mr. Smith,”
- “Hello, Professor Jenkins,”
Of course, if you address your instructor by the title “professor,” you definitely want to make sure that professor is their title! It can be a little awkward if you use the term professor for someone who is a teaching assistant or a lecturer.
While these salutations might feel stuffy, it’s better to lean toward overly formal rather than too casual. Some professors are sticklers for respect, and you don’t want to accidentally insult them by calling them by their first names during a course.
After you have your salutation down, it’s time for the body of the email.
This is pretty straight and simple. Try to keep your email as short as possible since your professor is likely inundated with emails all day long from students just like you. If you need to communicate your question in more than a paragraph, make sure to separate the text into two paragraphs (if the question is long) so that your instructor won’t just be reading an enormous block of text.
When it comes to the signature of the email, make sure to include your first and last name. If you don’t go by the name that is on your student ID, feel free to note this in the signature. Otherwise, stay away from nicknames as they can be confusing for instructors who might not know who you are yet.
You might also want to consider adding your student ID number. This is sort of a case-by-case type of thing, but if you go to a large university, chances are you share a name with at least one other student at your institution.
Including your student ID number in your email signature can help your professor easily identify who you are and how they can help you.
What is the email etiquette for emailing a professor?
The content of your email will vary with each professor you have. As mentioned before, some professors prefer a greater level of formality than others, but as a general rule, stick to more formal emails rather than laid-back emails.
And when you’re writing, don’t forget to be polite!
We don’t want to sound like your mother here, but always make sure that you thank the professor if appropriate. When students ask questions (or for extensions on deadlines), the addition of a please or thank you can go a lot farther than you think.
Politeness can be a rarity nowadays, so do your part to spread a little bit of kindness, even if it is only through an email.
If you’re still confused on what the tone of your email should be, check out this handy guide to email etiquette from Arizona State University.
Should you always email your professor?
Like you, professors have a lot to do in college. They often teach many classes at once and have a whole host of students demanding their attention at any given moment.
Because of this, sending off an email to your professor might not get you the speedy reply you want. Beyond the timeliness of a response, sometimes your professor just isn’t the right person to reach out to when you need help. But there are plenty of people who can help you.
When to contact a teaching or graduate assistant
Once again, your class syllabus will be your best friend here. The syllabus will list the names of any other instructors for the course you’re enrolled in. There might be teaching assistants or graduate assistants, or sometimes even a counselor filling in for the professor in case of an absence.
These instructors usually serve as the middleman between students and professors and can help you with some of the smaller-scale questions that you may not need to call the attention of your professor for.
Teaching and graduate assistants, for example, are great resources to email if you want to check your grades in the course, get clarification on an assignment, or know when the exam dates are.
When to contact your professor
For the bigger stuff, you’ll want to contact your professor directly. For anything related to extension requests, feedback on your grades, or requests for recommendation letters, emailing your professor directly is the way to go.
At the end of the day, your professor is paid to help you, so you should always feel that you can contact them, even if they might not seem like the perfect person to answer your questions.
When to contact someone else
For requests that are outside of the typical parameters that a professor or teaching assistant would handle, you might want to email your school’s administration. If you’re having problems with your enrollment or accessing any online course materials, your school’s administration would likely be the best option.
Administrative professionals or IT workers can usually be found within the college or department that you’re studying in. If your degree is in English, for example, that degree might fall inside of the College of Humanities at your school.
Staff within that department should be able to help you regarding administrative problems within that college. But your university should also have IT helplines and broader administrative support for issues that go beyond the scope of the college or department you’re studying in.
Of course, still keep your instructors in the loop should you run into an administrative issue, however, your instructors likely won’t be able to troubleshoot an IT problem as well as a trained professional will.
Just hit send
With so much to keep in mind when you’re composing an email, you might feel some hesitancy before sending your message off into the void (aka the inbox of your instructor).
But once you’ve proofread your message, checked your spelling, and made sure that you have the email address correct, you’ve just got to hit send.
Email anxiety is a real thing, and you don’t want to become too obsessive about your messages — whether that’s checking them or sending them.
At some point, you have to trust that everything is okay and send your message into the world. And, even if there is a mistake, everyone is no stranger to errors. You’re not the first student to make a mistake in an email to a professor, and you certainly won’t be the last.
Try not to sweat it too much.
Reaching out to a professor can seem scary, unnecessary, or just plain old boring. But professors — and the other university staff members who support them — are an invaluable resource that you should feel comfortable using no matter what, or who, you need to ask to receive help.
Regardless of what the problem is, if you know who to reach out to for help, your time as a college student will be much, much easier.