College students are often required to use e-mail to communicate with instructors, staff, advisors, and peers. As their studies advance, students may also use e-mail to contact professionals in their field for service-learning or job opportunities. College is the beginning of students’ professional lives, and e-mail messages can reflect positively or negatively on their professional image.
Most colleges provide students with a college e-mail account—use it! Here’s why:
- Using a college-provided e-mail address identifies you to the sender so that your e-mail is less likely to be deleted out of hand or quarantined by a spam filter.
- You can keep college and personal e-mail separate, which will help you stay organized.
If your college does not provide students with an e-mail account, set up an account yourself for use only for coursework and professional contacts. Use your real name rather than a pseudonym so that recipients can readily identify you.
The Subject Line
Think of a subject line as the title for the e-mail; it lets the reader know what to expect from the message. The subject line is crucial, yet many students skip it. Invest an extra minute in a specific subject line, and it may make the difference between being ignored and answered quickly.
Most professionals receive numerous e-mail messages each day, yet they may have little time to respond. Many people prioritize answering e-mails on the basis of the subject line. A blank subject line is not useful to the reader; furthermore, if the e-mail address is unfamiliar, the message may get mistaken for a virus or SPAM message and deleted.
Make subject lines as specific as possible. General subject lines such as “Question” or “Hello” aren’t helpful in conveying the content of your message to the reader. Here are a few examples of ineffective and effective subject lines:
Ineffective Subject Lines
Effective Subject Lines
Question About POL 120 Research Paper
Recommendation Letter Request
BIO 275 Group Project Submission
Study Group Meeting Times
Assistant Network Administrator Inquiry
Marketing Plan Recommendations
Notice that the effective subject lines above use title case, in which the principal words are capitalized. However, sentence case can be effective for subject lines expressed as complete sentences. Examples: “Are you available Wednesday?” or “Thank you for your time.”
The salutation is the greeting, such as “Dear Dr. Marks” or “Good afternoon, Ms. Cho.” Salutations can range from informal (Hi, Dr. Stein!) to formal (Dear Professor Williams:); when choosing a salutation, students should consider their audience, how well they know their readers, and the writing situation.
- Double-check the spelling of the recipient’s name and his or her honorific (Dr., Mr., Ms., etc.). If the marital status or preference of a female recipient is not known, use “Ms.” rather than “Miss” or “Mrs.”
- Do not guess if you are uncertain of a person’s honorific or gender; incorrect assumptions of gender or educational level can be awkward for (or even offensive to) the recipient. Using a position title is an excellent solution. Examples:
- Dear Director Kelly:
- Dear Professor Glover:
- Do not use first name only with an individual in a position of authority unless invited to do so or if the recipient has signed a previous email to you with only his or her first name.
- It’s OK to omit a salutation in some cases:
- When there’s a good chance of getting the honorific incorrect, such as in the case of a recipient whom you’ve never met with a gender-neutral name.
- When you aren’t sure who will read the email; sometimes e-mail addresses are set up for an entire department or for general information requests.
- When the e-mail is sent to a group. (However, it’s also fine to add an inclusive salutation, such as, “Dear colleagues” or “Hello, all.”)
- When the e-mail is very brief and straightforward, such as in the case of a reply to a previous message.
All but the briefest and most straightforward of messages should use the three-part structure of introduction, body, and conclusion. E-mails are usually short, so keep each of these three parts brief; it is common, for example, to have one-sentence introductions and conclusions.
- Introduction: State the purpose of the message.
- Body: Supply the necessary details.
- Conclusion: Close with a courteous statement or action information, such as deadlines and contact information.
Replying to Messages
When replying to an e-mail message, you have a few options:
- Replying to all recipients or just to the sender
- Replying with or without the original message
“Reply to all” should only be used when everyone who received the message needs to see your reply; this feature will send your response to everyone listed in the “TO” and “CC” lines. Carefully consider whether the entire group needs your response before using “reply to all”; unnecessary use of this feature is annoying to your readers.
The “reply with message” feature is useful for supplying automatic context for a response. One caution, however: make certain that you type the response at the top of the message, not at the end, where your reader must scroll down to locate it.
Do not use the reply feature to start a new conversation on a different topic; create a new e-mail message with a fresh subject line.
E-mail Content, Organization, and Formatting Tips
- Provide all details the reader may need.
- Supply proper identification if the recipient does not know you or may not remember you. For example, list your course and section when corresponding with a professor. Unless an instructor has an unusually small number of students or an exceptionally good memory, he or she is not likely to remember which class you’re in, especially early in the semester. If inquiring about a service-learning opportunity, mention your college and how you learned of the position.
- Avoid stream-of-consciousness messages. In other words, don’t just write words as they come to you; read it from the recipient’s perspective and edit accordingly before you click “send.”
- Watch your tone and be respectful, especially if you’re frustrated when you send the e-mail.
- Poor Tone: “I tried to access the link to the Opposing Viewpoints database you recommended, but it won’t go through! How am I supposed to complete this assignment?!”
- Diplomatic Tone: “I tried to access the link to the Opposing Viewpoints database, but I got a message that the server was unavailable. Is there a different database with similar information that I could use?”
- Unprofessional Tone: “Sorry for submitting the components of internship application separately. The requirements were really hard to find on your website, and I just now realized that I hadn’t submitted one of them.”
- Professional Tone: “Attached is the personal statement required for the internship application. I sent the personal information form and recommendations on May 4, so this submission should complete my file.”
- Use proper paragraphing. Many writers make the mistake of lumping all the content of an e-mail message into one long paragraph. Short paragraphs lend themselves well to skimming, a practice that most e-mail readers use.
- Add a space between paragraphs to provide a visual clue as to where a new paragraph starts.
- Use standard English. Text language is unacceptable.
- Run a spell-check. In fact, consider writing important or lengthy messages in a word processing program, which generally has better spelling and grammar checkers than e-mail programs. When you’re satisfied with the draft, you can copy and paste it to the e-mail program.
- Make sure that any attachments you intend to send are truly attached. Also, refer to the attachment in the message itself to alert the reader to its presence.
E-mail is an excellent academic and professional tool that students can use to their benefit. Extra time spent crafting effective e-mail messages is an investment in a practical and valuable communication skill.