Updated: Nov 21
When you need to email your professor, what are some tips for helping reach the outcome you are looking for?
I’ve been an adjunct professor for decades – adjunct means that I teach part time, usually just one class a semester. I don’t have that many students, and I’ve been fortunate to get to know some of them over the years. I tell my students to keep my info for future internship or scholarship applications or for that first “real” job because even as an adjunct I still can use the college stationery and the title of Professor, which holds some weight when you are applying for things.
One of the things I’ve helped students with is writing emails to their professors when an assignment or a grade has gone awry. When you’ve messed up, it’s always worth a try to contact your professor and politely ask for help. The professor may say no, but since nothing ventured is nothing gained, I advise students to give it a go. Here are some tips and an example to guide you.
The Email Address
Your professor’s email address should be in the syllabus. If not, it may just pop up when you start typing in his or her name. Oddly, at one of the schools where I teach, professor email addresses have our first names in our email addresses, so my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Student email addresses at that college use last names; the use of the teacher’s first name has always seemed strange to me. If you can’t find the email address on the syllabus, you can go to the college’s directory, type in the professor’s name, and find the email there. If you don’t know the professor’s name (yes, some of my students have not been sure), you can go to the department website and see a list of professors with their pictures and figure out which one is yours. Sometimes adjunct professors like me aren’t listed in the directory, but usually you can find professors that way. You can also wait until the next class to ask a fellow student, although in these Covid-19 days, learning is remote so that can be difficult. In that case, if you can find your class schedule, the name will be listed there.
The Subject Line
Include text in the subject line, preferably text that reminds the busy, probably full-time professor who you are from which class. A sample could be
From Chris Co-ed. English 101, Section 123 – Question about Quiz 2
Salutation (or Greeting) and Closing
Not to go all Victorian England on you, but “Dear” and “Sincerely” are still in fashion as polite ways to address your “superior,” which in this case, your professor actually is. I’m not saying that any person is “better” than another, but in the case of the professor in a college class, he or she is the same as your boss in a job.
Use the correct title, which could be Dr., Professor, or Mr./Mrs./Ms. In my case, I don’t have a PhD, so I am not addressed as “Dr. Hauer” but as Professor Hauer or Mrs. Hauer. However, I never mind if I see “Dr. Hauer”! Some of my international students have also called me Professor Kathryn. If your professor IS a Dr., be sure to write Dr. Brown because academics can be sensitive about that title. Once my son was on a study abroad trip and at a casual dinner he mistakenly addressed his professor as Mr. Fry instead of Dr. Fry. The professor reminded him: “It’s Dr. Brown, not Professor Brown.” You can well imagine that quote has lived on in our family joke history for a solid decade.
So start your email with
Dear Dr. Brown: or Dear Dr. Brown,
Dear Professor Brown: or Dear Professor Brown,
You can use a colon (:) or a comma at the end of the line. Colons are more formal; commas more personal or informal. Either is ok in an email to your professor.
To close, write Sincerely, or Regards, or Best, or something like that and your name and phone number so the professor can call you, hopefully with an affirmative answer to your concern, like “I gave you those two extra points.” Also, say thank you in the body of the email at the end.
Body of the Email
The actual content of the email should be clear, concise, and extremely polite. In this case, the professor has the upper hand, so you need to be deferential without being creepily obsequious.
State the specific problem, acknowledge your fault in the matter, pose a solution if you have one or ask for the professor’s solution if you don’t, and above all, be polite and non-accusatory. You don’t want to say mean or derogatory things, and you don’t want to tell the professor how bad the class is.
If you missed a due date and lost points because of it, state the reason simply and honestly. If all your other work has been timely, the professor might cut you some slack and not reduce your grade. The professor certainly doesn’t have to do so – that syllabus with due dates is like a contact and you both have to follow it – but the professor may do so if you ask.
True, simple text like “I missed the due date on Assignment 10 because I ended up having to work late and then our daughter fell and split her lip on the coffee table. Would it be possible in this one instance for my grade not to be reduced because of lateness?” (many of my tech school students are older working adults) or “I realize, as you’ve said in class, that I should have started my paper earlier. However, I waited until the day before and then ended up with a surprise last-minute job interview with Boeing and spent my time preparing for and taking part in that. I feel like I did well in the interview for this dream job, but in doing so I missed a commitment to you. Would it be possible in this one instance for my grade not to be reduced because of lateness?”
Remote Issues, Partial Work, and Deadlines
A tip on submitting assignments on Blackboard, Canvas, or other learning systems that routinely crash: if you have a due date and have completed your assignment but the system is down, you can always email the professor your assignment. That shows that the assignment was completed on time – the time on the email you send will show that – but that technical glitches caused problems.
I’ve also had students who were slower, worried, more perfectionist types of writers who would miss a due date, but when I met with them later, I’d find that they had completed most or all of the paper but didn’t think it was good enough. So, they’d written 5 pages or 8 pages and were very close to done, maybe even at a B, but when they didn’t submit or submitted late, the grade dropped and dropped. In this case, if your professor lets you submit assignments more than once and will grade the latest assignment, then upload your partial work on time with a note saying you will resubmit soon. It might not work but is worth trying. Or if you’ve completed most of the assignment, it can help if you email it to your professor and say that you are close so that the professor knows you didn’t just blow off the whole thing.
An Example of How to Email Your Professor
A dear student recently asked me for help in trying to get some extra points on a quiz. It was early in the semester, and he was learning that the quizzes and tests in this class were not just looking for the bare answer but were also testing a student’s ability to read directions closely, which is an important skill in nursing that is worth testing. He got this concept and wanted to convey that understanding to the professor while asking for a few more points, but he didn’t know how to say what he meant. Here is the text I suggested he modify and use.
Dear Professor Brown,
My name is Chris Co-ed, and I am a student in your Biology 101 class, section 123. I am writing to let you know that I am working hard to learn the material in our class and to do well in the quizzes and tests. I am learning that it is not just the straight, factual answer that you are testing us on but also that you are checking our ability to read closely and to follow the instructions exactly as they are given. I understand the importance of this, especially for nursing, and am trying to learn that as well as the material. It is my goal and dream to become a nurse, and an excellent nurse as well.
In a recent quiz, I had two places where I technically got the answer right but where I missed the directions. In one, it clearly said in your test question to use abbreviated word, but I hurried and chose the full word, which was wrong. In another question, the word Celsius was there in the question, so I didn't need to have it in the answer I chose, but I missed that clue and incorrectly chose the answer with Celsius in it.
I am becoming a better test taker and a better learner with every class I study for and pass, but each class has new styles of testing that take me a while to get. Is there any way you might be able to change that quiz grade that I might have credit for those two answers?
I am going to work to be a better reader and be more careful in our future quizzes and tests. I appreciate all the help I can get and am committed to doing well in your class. Thank you very much.
Saying Thank You
After you write to your professor and he or she writes back, be sure to shoot back a thank you email, even if you don’t get what you asked for and especially if you do. In general, people like to help other people and do them favors, but everyone likes to be recognized for that effort. A big-deal, effusive, over-the-top thanks isn’t necessary – just a response that says “Thank you!” or “Thank you; I appreciate your help!” is fine. If a professor or school administrator or anyone helps you over the course of your college experience, remember to email or text a “Thank you.” It matters.
Best of luck to you, dear students. Making your way through two, four, or more years of college is challenging. Never feel shame in asking for help or to be cut (a little!) slack, especially if your normal student behavior is to study hard, prepare well, complete assignments on time and in full, and generally take part in the full college academic experience.
Kathryn Hauer, a Certified Financial Planner ™, adjunct professor, and financial literacy educator has written numerous articles and several books. She works to help clients and readers understand and act on complex financial information to keep them and their money safe. She functions as a strong advocate and guiding light for her clients as they move through murky and unfamiliar financial and career worlds.