Hello everyone, this is a very long post but I hope you will find it helpful! It took me six years and two schools (community college and four-year college) to get my undergrad degree, so I had plenty of time to hone my email skills. I never had much trouble with it though, because I preferred email to phone calls and in-person meetings because of how shy I am. So I hope my experience will be beneficial!
Please don’t be intimidated by emails if you are having trouble writing them. These tips should help. Also try to remember that the recipient is a person just like you! Writing an email doesn’t have to be that much different than writing a real letter or making a phone call.
Professionalism is based on a hierarchy. If you are emailing someone above you in the hierarchy, ere on the conservative side in terms of how formal your email correspondence with them is. Use business block letter format. Some people suggest that once the higher-up person drops formalities with you, you may drop formalities with them.
I say this should be on a person-to-person basis. If it is your boss or academic advisor and you have been working with them long enough to know that they are very laid back in personality and you speak in more familiar tones when you are face-to-face, then yes, you should be okay to drop formalities in email.
However, if you are new to the job or your higher-up person is still very formal when interacting with you in person, then you probably shouldn’t drop formalities.
Even if they drop formalities, I think it is better for you to remain formal instead of risking offending them, especially if they have some power over your job, livelihood, or education.
Another thing to note is that they may drop formalities with you very quickly in email but may be very formal in person. This is typically because they don’t have the time to continue writing out business letter format in an extended email correspondence. They likely get tons of emails each day. You likely need to continue writing out business letter format for quite a while in the conversation before it would be acceptable for you to drop formalities. This is not to say that your time is less valuable than theirs or that you are any less busy than they are. It is just a tough fact of the professional hierarchy.
Professionalism is about showing respect in the hierarchy. You don’t usually get to decide if someone “above” you has earned your respect or not; you are just expected to give it if you want to keep your job, have a successful experience with school administration, etc. You have to keep displaying extremely high levels of respect long after the higher person has already shown you that they don’t have the time to put the same effort into the conversation.
Please don’t take this personally. Most administrators, especially professors (in my experience), do not mean it as an affront against you. They really just don’t have time.
You can also think of it this way if it reassures you: your higher-ups are often going to be at least one generation older than you. They are often not as fast with typing and technology as you. If they are a professor, they may get tons of emails each day and most of them will be from students who don’t try whatsoever to write a professional email, which will take time away from that professor for responding to you.
I know this is hard to accept. You are very busy too! Why should you have to spend your precious extra time creating well- written emails for everyone you need to communicate with, but you can’t expect anyone higher in the hierarchy to reciprocate that after an email or two? Again, it’s just a standard that has been long-standing in the world of professionalism. You have to let it go!
On to some more university-specific tips for communicating with professors:
If the professor has specific rules for email communication in their syllabus, follow them very carefully! If they felt the need to write it out (or to verbally explain it) something gave them a reason to specify rules.
For instance, one of my undergrad professors explicitly told us not to give him any business letter format. He did not want a single extra word in the email except for what we needed to ask him. This is because he checked his email on his phone while on the go and he didn’t have the time or the attention span to read a drawn-out email. He also wanted it this way because when he replied to our email with his phone, ninety percent of the time we were going to get a one word response: yes or no. He didn’t want us to be offended by this so he made his reasoning clear to us on day one. This was a third-year level English class so he expected us to be professional enough to stick with his request and mature enough not to be bothered by his hasty responses.
On the other hand, my brother took a first-year level English class in which the professor demanded spell-checked business letter format emails for every single email you sent her. If you didn’t follow her rules, she ignored your email! Her reasoning was that too may students were sending her text message abbreviations and horrible spelling. She was tired of it. Students who took her class were required to already have freshman composition, English 101, or whatever your school calls it, so they should be able to spell check and write complete sentences, which most of us learn very early. She must have felt very disrespected since her students didn’t even take the time to click the spell check button.
The point is that every professor may have their own approach. Both the aforementioned professors were very laid back in person, but had very strict and very different rules for email. You can’t guess what the person above you expects if they don’t mention it, so it’s better to use business letter block format unless they tell you otherwise!
Of course, if the professor is your academic advisor and you’ve known them for several years, you will know if you feel comfortable sending them a different level of formality than the professor or admin you’ve never met.
Keep in mind that when I say “drop the formality” I don’t mean that you should suddenly start emailing this person the same way you would text your best friend or the same way you would leave them a comment on social media. I mean you can use a little bit more relaxed language and less business letter format.
For instance, when I start emailing someone less formally, I use “hey” or “hi” instead of “hello” and my email may not be divided into block format paragraphs or it may not have a formal closing.
Some final tips, now that I have babbled on long enough:
Sample emails and advice regarding business letter format:
Here is OWL Purdue’s business letter instructions
These instructions show you how you would write an actual business letter, but it is still pertinent to email.
Of course, you skip the addresses and date in an email. Start with the salutation. I personally find “dear” (which is what OWLP suggests) to be weird when writing a professional email. I start with “hello” or skip it.
If you don’t know the person’s gender or professional title, look it up on the school or company’s website. If it is still unclear, go with “Professor ______” (if they are a professor at your school) or “Mr./Ms. _____” at your work.
Note that I used “Ms.” and not “Mrs.” For whatever (perhaps misogynistic) reason, in the past (and perhaps still today) married women in the workplace were considered less professional than their unmarried counterparts. Perhaps the male-dominated work force believed that women should be homemakers once they got married and that a married woman who didn’t stay home would be less focused on her work. Even though that’s totally false, it is still the norm to not refer to women in the professional world as “Mrs.” whether they are married or not.
There is also some debate about using commas versus colons in the salutation, but it doesn’t matter much in my experience! To me colons are *too* formal so I avoid them. OWLP used them, though.
Here’s an example of a more professional email I would send. Note that both still have all the parts of a proper/complete email/business letter (opening/greeting, body, and closing/salutation) and both use a clear/detailed subject line, and academic spelling and grammar.
Here’s an example of a more informal email I would send:
I'm just your average fictional creature, living in a swampland by the sea.