Many students have told me that they feel uncomfortable when having to write an email to their professors/instructors. There is really no reason for that. Here are a few basic rules. If you follow them, you surely won’t get in trouble and increase your chance of getting your desired outcome, i.e. an answer to your question, a meeting scheduled, etc. (Almost all of these rules equally apply in a corporate setting!)
Use email for what it is supposed to be.
An email is neither an instant message, nor an essay. Don’t expect an instant reply. Professors do not constantly check their email. Most of the time I answer emails in batches. I recommend that if you don’t get an answer within 48 hour, send a quick reminder.
If you are asking a technical question and you expect the answer to require more than two or three sentences, come to my office hours instead. It is highly inefficient to formulate complex concepts in an email.
Write short sentences - this is not a novel. An email is a functional tool of communication.
Salutation and Closing
“Professor” or “Dr.” (if the person has a Ph.D.) followed by their last name and preceeded by “Dear” or “Hello” is never wrong. Don’t use “Hi” or “Hey”. While some professor might be fine with it, many of them will not. I personally consider it too casual for written communication. Close the email with “Best”, “Best regards” or the more formal “Sincerely”.
If you are sending an email from you cell phone, get rid of the advertisement at the end. No one wants to know whether you sent the email from an iPhone, Blackberry, or a Pixel. “Sent from my iPhone” just tells the recipient that you did not care enough to not spam them with this ad.
Make use of the Subject line!
Be specific in the subject line! “Help!” or “Question” is useless, but “Question about Yield to Maturity” or “Assignment 3 Solution is not posted” tells me right away what to do. I personally ask students to start the subject line with their course number in square brackets (a standard procedure in mailing lists organization, e.g. “[FINA2360] Help with Fisher Separation Theorem”. You will get an answer much quicker, because I can scan through my emails faster finding emails related to courses I teach.
Make sure your first and last name is entered into your email client. I sometimes receive email where the name field reads something like “~~~Smiles~–” or “P.T.” and the email adress does not contain an identifiable name either. I trained my Spam filter to delete these kind of emails automatically. If you sent an email with a header like that in a professional setting, you will never be taken seriously.
Alternatively, you may just start the email with a sentence like “I am Michael from your FINA 2360 class.”, but this is not necessary if I get your name from the header.
Clearly state what you want or what your question is. There is nothing more frustrating than having to guess what you meant or sending a reply describing what I don’t understand. If you are looking to schedule an appointment outside office hours, suggest some time slots that work for you.
Never write an angry email!
If you are angry, write the email and wait a while. Then come back and see if you want to change anything. Avoid sarcasm, as it is not easily identifiable in written text. Be kind.
Check your email for spelling mistakes
Spelling mistakes never make a good impression - they make you appear unprofessional and careless. Your professor will infer the value of their reply to you, based on this. In addition, it will take your professor a lot longer to figure out what you want.