I myself could never be a teacher, but I have friends who have taken up the challenge heroically. Friend #1 teaches kindergarten; she is responsible for twenty-seven (TWENTY-SEVEN) disorderly hellions who cry, poop, and throw Legos with impunity. Friend #2 is a college TA. When Friend #1 describes what sounds like a day of teaching the alphabet to war criminals, Friend #2 jokes, “Yeah, but at least you don’t have to deal with—” He shudders. “—student emails.” The pained, wistful way he says this, however, suggests he may not be completely kidding.
Nobody is born knowing how to write a formal email. You learn a great many things in college, like how to nap erratically, how to power through an existential crisis, how to eat Cinnamon Toast Crunch for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But by far the most valuable thing you will learn is how to write that formal, professional-sounding email—how to craft a thoughtful and well-reasoned message to the person who’s holding the fate of your GPA in their hand like a fragile butterfly.
So. Now that you’ve sat down, started typing the email, stopped, gotten a snack, made a second attempt, scrapped it, checked your various social feeds, watched four episodes of Riverdale, and Googled “how to write an email,” you’re ready to begin.
Address your professor how they wish to be addressed. Some professors want to be called Mr., Mrs., Ms., Dr., or Professor. Others will tell you to call them Carl, and they’ll always teach class outside, and they’ll give you extra credit for bringing them a Crunchy Taco Supreme. Make sure you get it right.
Remind them how they know you. Odds are you are just another face in a sea of faces. Tell them the class and the section number.
Keep it short and sweet. They don’t need your whole life story, especially if you’re asking for an extension or letting them know you’ll be absent due to illness or a death in the family. Skip the extraneous detail and stick to the facts.
Ask a question about the class without first checking the syllabus. When the apocalypse comes and our world is swallowed in darkness, the final words of a fading human race will likely be those of a hapless professor crying out “IT’S IN THE SYLLABUS.” If you’ve already looked, indicate this in your email; tell them you checked the syllabus. They’ll appreciate knowing you took the time.
Throw around informal verbiage, even if the two of you are friendly. It might be tempting to say “Hey, Brad” and cap it off with the finger guns emoji, but resist the urge.
Ask for an extension on your paper at the very last minute. They’ll smell the procrastination on you from a mile away.
Shoot them an email that’s littered with typos and incorrect punctuation. I know that you know this, but I have to say it anyway.
The result will likely look something like this:
Dear Professor [name],
My name is [first name] [last name]. I’m in your [whatever] class, section [# here] that meets on [day of the week]. I was writing to ask [your specific question]. I’ve checked the syllabus, but couldn’t find the information I was looking for.
(Alternately: I’ve been having a difficult week dealing with [mitigating circumstances]. Would it be possible for me to receive an extension?)
(Alternately: I will not be able to make it to class today—November 1st—due to illness. I will be sure to check in with my fellow students about the material I miss.)
I am available to meet during office hours to discuss this further. Thank you very much for your time and I appreciate any help you’re able to provide.
I hope you had a great weekend!
[First name] [last name]
Bottom line: all you really need to be is clear, concise, and polite. My friend who is a TA tells me that MOST student emails are respectful and well-written. It’s just that the ones that are bad are really, really bad. They are typo-riddled dumpster fires. The professor’s name is spelled wrong, the question is unclear, everything’s just a mess. Honestly, as long as you can clear that low bar without tripping over it, you should be golden.
So do it right, but don’t stress out about it. There is, after all, a very real chance your professor will respond like so: