Writing a professional email may not sound like a big deal, but it’s actually a skill in itself.
Sending any kind of message to a professor, hiring manager, a recruiter, or any type of professional contact for that matter is different than the messages you send to friends and family. There are a certain set of email etiquette practices you need to follow to:
Make a strong impression
Be taken seriously
Have a better chance of getting the type of response you want
Get a timely response
Emails are a communication skill that will benefit you while still in school and can make or break your professional career after graduation.
Here are essential tips to help you practice proper email etiquette.
1. Know when it’s appropriate to send an email in the first place.
The first question you should always ask yourself: does this message need to be communicated through an email?.
If you have a simple, quick question that you can ask in person, do that instead. Not only will you get an immediate response, but you’ll have a better chance of being remembered by the person you reached out to.
If you can’t reach out in person, but you have something that’s urgent, personal, or warrants a longer discussion, email is still not the best option. Instead, consider reaching out by phone. Alternatively, you can reach out by email to schedule a call for a longer conversation.
If you have a quick question or a message that can be briefly conveyed (we’re talking no more than a paragraph or two), email is the way to go.
2. Provide specific information in the subject line.
The person you’re reaching out to should look at the email subject line in their inbox and have a general idea of what the message is about. Always avoid vague subjects like "Hey You!" or "FYI". Instead, try for something more specific like "Following up on last Wednesday Afternoon’s Introduction Call".
Also, always avoid emojis and inappropriate terms.
If you’re reaching out to a contact who doesn’t know you very well or to a professor of a large class who isn’t likely to recognize your name right off the bat, you can also include information that introduces who you are.
Example: Ian Boyle-BIO 201 Tues. 8 AM—Frog Lab Question
Example: Mady Smith (James Ferris’s intern) Resume Inquiry
3. Use your school email account or make sure your personal account is professional sounding.
It’s difficult to make a great first impression if your email address reads email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Consider creating a free email account with a more professional name. (You’ll need this for your post-college days eventually anyway.) Alternatively, you can use the email address provided by your school.
4. Greet your contact properly.
You need to include a greeting. It can be as simple as “Dear Dr. Smith,” or “Hello Mrs. Carter.” Diving right in with their name can seem rude and informal.
And use your best judgment when it comes to calling them by their first name. Only use first names if the person introduced himself in such a manner. Otherwise, error on the side of caution and use a more formal title such as “Dr.” or “Mrs.”
5. Introduce yourself.
While it’s tempting to go directly to the question or concern on your mind, take a minute to briefly remind the person you’re writing to who you are and what your connection to him is.
Example: I’m a sophomore microbiology major in your Tuesday morning BIO 201 course, and I was also in your BIO 101 and 102 courses last year.
6. Be polite.
Always remember to say “please” and “thank you” as necessary throughout the email. Instead of saying, “Give me the questions from the frog lab,” try saying, “Whenever you have a chance, if you could please send me the link to the questions from the frog lab, I would greatly appreciate it. Thanks!”
7. Be brief.
Professors, hiring managers, and most likely anyone professional you’re emailing is busy. If your email is too long-winded, chances are it’ll get skipped right over. Aim for short and sweet.
Your basic email format should be:
Introduce yourself and the issue.
Tell them what attempts you’ve made to correct the issue.
Ask for the help you need.
You don’t need to add any extra unnecessary information outside of this.
8. Be positive and friendly.
Professional doesn’t mean robotic. You can portray a friendly tone by using contractions (I’m writing to...) You can also add a smiley face or wink if it fits the tone of the email and the respondent seems to be okay with this type of communication.
Always be aware of the context of the situation before adding these creative punctuations though.
9. Keep the appearance simple.
Make sure your font is basic and readable. Don’t add any images or fancy stationery options. This can slow down the transmission of your message and provide unnecessary distractions. The only exception could possibly be the addition of a signature that shows your full name, email, and phone number.
10. Don’t use acronyms.
R u serious? Yes. I am. Leave LOL, BRB, TTYL, and more for texting with your BFF.
Acronyms can be hard to understand and make you sound overly conversational. Always write out your message in proper English form, even if you know the professional contact you’re reaching out to.
11. Proofread your email before sending it.
Look over your message for any grammar or spelling issues that stick out. Run it through a grammar check program such as grammarly.com if you need to. You can also add Grammarly as an extension to help you automatically catch errors as you type.
Warning: Don’t rely fully on any spellcheck feature. While software may catch most of your mistakes, they aren’t perfect. Always read through your messages to look out for any unintentional errors.
12. Send attachments that are easy to access and easily recognizable.
When you attach a file, make sure it’s in a format that’s easy to open on all systems. Consider sending a .pdf or .rtf file to ensure readability. Also, rename the attachment so it makes sense to your professor. WxgNhk30285.pdf is easy to lose, but IanBoyleFrogLabQuestions.pdf is very clear.
13. Sign off politely.
Be sure to wrap up in a way that portrays kindness. Easy examples to use include:
I look forward to hearing from you,
Thank you for your time,
14. Use a professional signature (and quote) if applicable.
If you have an email signature, and possibly a quote, make sure it’s professional. A short, appropriate signature is fine.
Example: Ian Boyle, Microbiology Major, Ohio University
If you use a quote in your signature, make sure it’s appropriate and sends a positive message. Appropriate quotes are usually thoughts that will inspire others or make people feel better for having read them. Inappropriate quotes are anything that could be considered rude or distasteful.
If you have to stop for a second to wonder if your quote might offend someone, don’t use it.
15. Don’t include anything confidential or controversial.
Don’t put things in writing that you wouldn’t want to be repeated.
If the person you’re emailing sends your email to anyone else, the whole world will know your business. Keep things light and drama-free.
The ability to use proper email etiquette will help you connect with not only college professors, but also with many professionals throughout your lifetime. The skills you learn about email etiquette will help you portray an image that is polite, thoughtful, and professional. These skills will assist you in college, in your job search, and beyond.