How to email a professor (and make them want to help you)

I get emails every day from students seeking help with various things. Most of them have a decent grasp on how to handle this exchange professionally, but I still manage to get emails that look like this:

From: eecummings@gatech.edu

To: me@gatech.edu

Subject: problem

Body: i cant get the answer to 3.14

What is wrong with this? Plenty: nondescript subject line, no greeting, no proper capitalization, no punctuation, no signature, no “thank you”, and most critically… no actual question!

These types of emails don’t usually get a super helpful response from me. I’ll typically try to give a quick pointer related to what I think they’re trying to ask, but it’s a shot in the dark.

Instead, if you want to get awesome help, here is how to write a professional email to a professor:

  1. Write a descriptive subject line.
  2. Write a salutation: “Dear Mr. Deaton” or “Dear Ben” is great.
  3. Give some succinct context. “I’m a student in your MW COE2001 course. I’ve been working on the homework and am stuck on problem 3.14 (on page 56). I’ve tried methods A, B, and C.”
  4. Ask a clear question with a direct call to action. In other words, make it obvious what you want from me. Do you want to set up a meeting? Do you want a pointer on how to set up the moment equilibrium equation?
  5. Thank me for my time. I’ve got plenty on my plate, so this is common courtesy.
  6. Sign your full name.

A final anecdote. I have a three year-old daughter, and one of the ways we discourage her from whining is to respond to it by saying, “Daddy doesn’t understand whining; use your words and ask politely.” Undergrads: don’t make us resort to a similar approach with you! I jest, of course.

Disclaimer: Some assistant professor friends of mine put me up to writing this post so they could circulate it among their classes.

Update (2012-01-15): A reader pointed me to Michael Leddy’s How to Email a Professor, which is a great read on the topic.