When you are taking an online course, especially without meeting times, you don’t have the option to stay after class to ask a question. Most likely, you’ll need to email your professor at some point in the semester. But when you haven’t met the instructor before, that can be intimidating! Here are some guidelines and examples of the most common types of emails to professors to help make you the star of their inbox.
First up, here are a few general guidelines to keep in mind when writing an email to faculty.
Include a greeting, ideally with their name.
Simply saying hello is a great first start! But the name thing can sometimes be tricky at a university. If the professor tells you what to call them, go with that (first name requests are common). Otherwise, stick with “Professor [Last Name].” Or you can use “Dr. [Last Name] if you know they have a doctorate degree. Avoid Mr., Ms., or Mrs. (which make assumptions about education level, gender and, for the last one, marital status) unless you have been specifically asked to use the title.
Unless you have a strong relationship with the faculty member, it’s helpful to note the class name and section you are enrolled in. This can save the instructor a fair amount of time tracking you down in the online course.
Stay in your comfort zone.
There’s no need to give a lot of details about why you are missing a class or turning in work late. It’s perfectly OK to stay vague, like “I have been ill” or “I’ve had a family emergency.” If you need any support navigating this, reach out to the Center for Student Rights and Responsibilities who can help you speak with your instructors.
Use your voice.
In an online class, these moments of one-on-one conversation via email are some of the best ways for instructors to get to know you. While this is not the time to go super-casual, you also don’t have to sound like a robot. Feel free to mimic how you would talk to an instructor in person. A lot of online faculty miss the opportunity to get to know their students more, and this is a perfect chance!
Examples of emails to professors
Even though it’s best to write an email that sounds like yourself, it can be helpful to have an idea of what these different messages to professors could look like. Here are examples of four common types of professor emails. Use them as a jumping off point to write in your own words.
Professor Email #1: The Heads-Up
Are you going to miss an upcoming Zoom meeting or make use of the stated late policy? Use this model when you are letting a professor know about something, but you aren’t making a specific request.
Hi Professor X,
I’m enrolled in your BIOL 101-02. I wanted to let you know that I will miss next week’s scheduled Zoom meeting because of a family trip. I’ve made a plan to meet with another student when I return to discuss notes. If I run into trouble, I’ll come to your office hours.
Hope you have a good week!
Professor Email #2: The Content Question
Most instructors live for this one! Use this model when you are confused by a course concept or if you are interested in learning more about a subject.
I’m in your ENG 101 class, section 06. I had a question about the Butler reading this week. Do you have a good resource to help me understand “performance” in this context? I can’t make your regular office hours, but I could schedule a time if it would be easier to explain face to face.
P.S. I’m already excited about next week’s reading list!
Professor Email #3: The Requirements Question
Can’t find the word count for the life of you? Use this model when you need clarification on an assignment or other course requirement. Pro-tip: make a note of where you looked for the information.
Subject: Final Project Question: History 101, Section 1
Hi Professor Y,
I’m working on the Final Project, and I had a question about the project guidelines. Is there a minimum word count you are looking for? I looked through the assignment description on Canvas and on the syllabus, but wasn’t able to find a requirement.
Thank you for your help!
Professor Email #4: The Negotiation
Need more time on an assignment or to ask for an exemption from the policy? Aim to keep the request simple, but be specific with what you need.
Hello Dr. Z,
I’m currently in Art 101-03. I wanted to check in because I am currently struggling to meet assignment deadlines. I have been fighting off an illness that has really slowed me down. I would like to request an extension for this week’s discussion and assignment. Just two additional days would be really helpful, turning in the discussion by the end of day on Tuesday and the assignment by Thursday.
I am really enjoying your class and am looking forward to getting caught up.