How to email a professor (and make them want to help you)11 Jan 2012
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:
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:
- Write a descriptive subject line.
- Write a salutation: “Dear Mr. Deaton” or “Dear Ben” is great.
- 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.”
- 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?
- Thank me for my time. I’ve got plenty on my plate, so this is common courtesy.
- 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.