Emailing a faculty member can be intimidating, especially if you don’t know them very well. Getting an email started can be the hardest part of reaching out. Below, you will find a few guiding rules that can help you start off on the right foot when writing emails to university staff in English.
Your email should have an informative subject line. Why? You want your email to be read, so draw attention to it by giving your email a concise and recognizable subject line. Make sure to mention the topic, as well as the course and/or module. It is redundant to put your name into the subject line. Emails with unclear subject lines may be ignored or treated as spam. Leaving the subject line blank only increases the chance of your email being sent to the spam folder. As with all sentences, subject lines start with a capital letter; however, you do not need to end with a period.
“Question about ditransitives (Lengua Inglesa 2)”
“Delivery date Assignment 2 (Lengua 2 – Reading)”
“Arranging tutorial on ergative verbs (Lengua Inglesa 2)”
“Absence Lengua Inglesa 2”
It is customary in emails to leave a blank line between all sections/paragraphs, including the greeting and the closing (see the example at the bottom of the page). This makes the email easier to read.
Greeting: forms of address
The easiest way to address a lecturer is to write “Dear [X],”. What to substitute for [X] depends on your relationship to the reader. If the addressee is someone who does not know you, then “Dear Professor Smith,” and “Dear Prof. Smith,” (mainly UK), or “Dear Dr. Smith,” (mainly US) are all appropriate. These forms of address are also appropriate even if you do know the addressee personally (e.g., as a student in their classes). If you are on a first name basis with your lecturer, you can write “Dear Sally,”. However, “Hey Sally,” is not recommended.
After the initial contact, the lecturer may reply with only their first name (e.g.: “Best wishes, Sally”). This may be taken as an indication that it is OK to use their first name from then on. Mind you that using a lecturer’s first name does not imply you have shifted into a colloquial, “chummy” paradigm.
Do not use “Hi“, “Hello“, “Good morning/afternoon/evening“, or any other colloquial greeting. Hybrid colloquial greetings such as “Hi Prof,”, or “Hello Professor Smith,” are also not recommended. Not using any kind of salutation is considered disrespectful.
Note that after the greeting there is a comma.
This is always a good idea when writing to people to whom you have no prior connection. Introducing yourself provides the reader with the necessary context in which to read the rest of your email. However, when writing to one of your lecturers, there is no real need to introduce yourself beyond, perhaps, a concise “I am a [year] [programme] student in your [name of] course” (and even that is not always necessary). You certainly do not need to once again provide your name: emails sent from your university account already clearly identify the sender by name; apart from the subject line, the most obvious field in an email is that which identifies the sender; plus, you will be providing your (full) name at the end of the email, anyway.
What is more important is that you…
Be specific and concise
If you have a (short) question to ask or little information to pass on, do not introduce it; state it outright. Only when you have many things to communicate is it a good idea to start your email by briefly summarizing your reason for writing. Then you can explain the issue further.
When asking questions in an email, please be specific and provide all necessary information to immediately situate your message/question/request: which course, which module, which slide, which exercise…? For instance, do not vaguely write “in our course” or “in the handouts“.
If there is some part of the course you do not understand, do not simply write to your lecturer “I don’t understand X“. Instead, be specific about what you do not understand and why. This may be difficult, but writing all this down will help you to think more clearly and minutely about your problem. Sometimes, this may even yield the answer and pre-empt having to send the email altogether. Writing is a powerful tool for thinking!
If you have a solution to your issue, suggest it and politely ask if it can be done. If you don’t, politely request help.
- Avoid slang and emojis. This is after all a formal email.
- Avoid spelling and grammar mistakes. Re-read your email once or twice before sending it off.
- Avoid unnecessary abbreviations: they only cause confusion and you are really not saving time or space. Of course, frequent abbreviations such as “p. 14“, “ch. 7“, or “ex. 5” are perfectly fine.
- Fluff language: “I just wanted to let you know that I cannot come to class on…”; “I was wondering if I might have a moment of your time to ask about…“; “I am writing with regard to…“. Such things are already obvious (either from the subject line, or from the very fact that you are asking a question or providing information) and do not require commenting on: simply state what you would like the addressee to know, simply pose the question you wish to ask. However, that does not mean you do not need to be polite in the process.
- On a related note, avoid meaningless niceties and overfamiliarity (e.g.: “I hope you are well“, “I hope you had a relaxing weekend“). More often than not, these come off as disingenuous.
You can choose from a whole range of closings (With kind regards, / Kind regards, / Best wishes, / Regards,). This is followed on the next line by your full name. (The correct spelling of your name may not always be obvious from your email address.) In subsequent emails (within the same email chain or thread), you can suffice with only your first name.
Refer to any and all attachments in the body of your email. Explain briefly why you are sending the attachment. Attachments that look fishy may cause your email to be regarded as spam.
Give your attachment a clear and recognizable name. Do not send it off with a name that was meaningful to you during the writing process (“essay-final2“, “grammar assignment“, …). Instead, provide a descriptive name that your lecturer will easily recognize (e.g.: “Assignment 3 – Reading Lengua Inglesa 2“). Ideally, you may also want to add your full name to the file (E.g.: “Assignment 3 – Reading Lengua Inglesa 2 – Jose Alvaro“). Incidentally, this is good guidance even when you upload files to Moodle. Remember, you only deal with a few assignments, lecturers deal with a few hundred. And you’d be surprised how many files with inspired names like “task” or “essay” lecturers receive.
Waiting for a reply
Sometimes it is not possible for the lecturer to answer his/her emails immediately and you will receive a delayed response. If you do not receive an answer within a week, it is possible and not impolite to send an email again.