Contacting Your Professor
Writing professional emails is an important skill in any workplace environment. Your role as a student may be your first entry into such a setting. As such, learning how to contact your professors is a useful skill to learn. While emailing your professors follows many of the conventions of a professional email, there are some specific – and often unspoken – “rules” that can be helpful to know.
Contacting your instructors can be nerve-wracking, especially if you are requesting something that may take them a lot of time, but it doesn’t have to be. This guide aims to make explicit some of those unspoken rules, provide a model of an email to an instructor, and offer some general tips and tricks.
Make sure that you are sending your email to the correct recipient. There are many ways that you can find this information:
Professors will often have their contact information available on their syllabus, and some may even have individualized information on how to contact them.
KU has an online directory for its faculty and staff: https://directory.ku.edu/.
Canvas also has an email messaging system that you can use to reach your instructors.
When you type in the sending address, make sure that the spelling is correct!
Note: it is best to send emails to professors from your KU email account, not a personal account like Gmail. Often emails from other accounts are sent to the junk folder, and your professor may not see it.
The subject line is where you briefly indicate the purpose of your email. You may find yourself contacting your instructor for a variety of reasons, so here are some examples of subject lines:
Letter of Recommendation Request
Meeting to Discuss [Thesis / Late Work / Assignment / Grades]
Regardless of your purpose for contacting your professor, keep the subject line as brief as possible. If you know that your instructor is teaching a lot of classes or that they have many students in their classes, it can also help to indicate the class name. For example: “PSYC 101 Homework Question.”
The first part of any email includes a salutation, where you greet the recipient by name. When you first reach out to your instructor, be sure you are using the appropriate form of address.
Dr. [Last Name]
Use this if your instructor has a doctorate degree. If you don’t know whether this applies to your instructor, check the KU website. Faculty often have biographies with this information available.
Professor [Last Name]
Use this if you cannot confirm that your instructor has a doctorate degree. This is generally a good address for instructors who are considered faculty.
Mr. [Last Name]
Ms. [Last Name]
Mx. [Last Name]
Sometimes, staff (and not faculty) will instruct a class. In that case, you may choose to use an address that doesn’t relate to their degree or position.
Mr. – Use if instructor identifies as a man.
Ms. – Use if instructor identifies as a woman.
Mx. – Use if instructor is agender, gender fluid, nonbinary, or gender nonconforming.
Note: You may occasionally see women also addressed as “Miss” or “Mrs.” Modern trends shift away from those titles because they prioritize marital status. However, women hold varied preferences for their titles. “Ms.” is a good, neutral default, and it is unlikely to offend. Defer to a woman’s chosen title if she has clarified her preference for you.
Often, instructors will encourage students to address them by their first name both in and outside of class. You can follow their lead on this. A good practice is to use one of the more formal options above, and then see how your instructor signs off their email. Usually, their signature will indicate how you can address them in future emails.
Your salutation will often begin with “Dear,” “Hi,” or “Hello.”
The purpose of the body paragraph is to go into detail about your purpose for writing. Here are some best practices for composing the body:
Provide context and detail
In this section, you should provide as much context as you think is necessary for your instructor to respond. For example, if you are writing to an instructor with a question about your homework, you might describe what you’ve already done to try solving it so that you can explain what is causing confusion. If you are requesting a letter of recommendation, it may be helpful to send your instructor a link to the application so that they are familiar with where you are applying.
Remember to make your specific request
Sometimes, students will do an excellent job of providing context, such as describing a problem that they are encountering, but they will forget to specify what they want the professor to do to help. After providing the context, be sure you indicate what you want your instructor to do. If you have a question, state the question. If you run into a roadblock for your research, specify to your professor how they can help overcome that roadblock or indicate that you’d like an extension while you work through it.
Be polite and respectful
Remember to be polite when making requests. This can often mean asking a question, rather than making a demand. “Can we meet sometime this week?” will come across more respectfully to instructors than “Meet with me sometime this week.”
Use conventional letter-writing formatting.
Even if you are writing to your instructor over Canvas or while using your phone, remember that this is an email. Avoid using abbreviations that you might typically use in text messages. Use the standard conventions that you would bring to a letter (complete sentences, capitalizing the beginning of sentences, using punctuation, etc.). This may even involve having separate paragraphs, depending on the length of your email.
Avoid sending short messages that require long responses.
Sometimes, even a question that is short to write would involve a lot of work for your instructor to respond to. For example, “What do I need to do for the final paper?” may seem like a clear question, but it doesn’t tell your professor what you need clarification on. Think about this from the perspective of the recipient: Should they direct you to the assignment sheet? Should they rephrase the assignment sheet in a new way? Should they provide a to-do checklist? All the above? Suddenly, a simple question on the sender’s side becomes a time-consuming task for the recipient.
Some of this can be avoided by providing context and making your request specific (see Tip 1 and Tip 2). However, it can also be important to ask yourself, “Is this a conversation that would be better had in person?” If so, it is still okay to reach out and describe your difficulties/questions. Just acknowledge that your request might have a complicated response and indicate that you’d be open to meeting in person if your instructor feels that it is appropriate.
Conclude with a statement of gratitude.
This is an optional way to conclude the body of your email, but it can help indicate that you have finished your email and that you appreciate the efforts of your instructor. This is especially useful if you are making a request from your instructor:
Thank you for your [time/help/consideration].
I look forward to hearing back from you.
The closing of the email includes a final goodbye and your name (the signature).
If you are not certain that your instructor knows what class you are from, you can also include the name of your class in the signature.
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Having trouble writing an email to your professor? Our writing consultants can assist you with this task! Click “Schedule an Appointment” on our website to talk to a consultant about your email.
Updated March 2023