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Students need to know how to write a professional email (and here's why & how)

You may be surprised to learn many university students think "Hey, prof" is an acceptable salutation for an email to his or her professor.

How do I know?

Because a professor I know well told me she was so sick of receiving unprofessional emails that she gave her students a class to teach them how to properly correspond with a professor, or anyone else they may need to communicate with on a professional level, for example employers, referees for scholarships, and so on.

The art of the professional email is one your student can and should master.

It may seem like your student should know how to properly communicate by email, but they may not. Many students don't have much practice writing formal messages. They may have learned it at some point, but perhaps they've forgotten. Or perhaps they don't know quite how to apply it in the real world. And it may be difficult for your teen to switch gears from texting with friends to writing a 'formal' communique to someone in an authority role. It's also tricky to gauge the level of formality in an email because it's not quite a letter, but it's definitely not a text.

There are two good reasons why students need to know how to write a formal email:

#1. Positive Impressions

I know that parents will sometimes write emails for their child (this happens at the university level more than I care to think about). I'm asking you to resist the urge to do this because it's a skill your child needs to learn how to do on their own, especially once they are in university.

I have heard professors say it can reflect negatively on the student if they cannot or will not email the professor themselves. On the other hand, it could make a significant positive impression and impact if the student writes to them in a professional manner.

Of course, it's OK to help them write the email (see my tips below), as long as you stand back and let them actually write it and press 'send'.

#2. Getting Needed Support

Another good reason for your student to have this skill is because it's possible that, if the student is not sure how to communicate with the professor (or other person), they may not do so at all, and it could prevent them from asking the professor for things they need, such as an appointment for advising or extra help, or for a reference, or to inquire about possible scholarship and research opportunities.

I'd hate to think a student was prevented from getting help or missed a good opportunity simply because they weren't sure how to approach someone. That's why I'm writing this blog.


Here are some tips for students to write a professional email:

  • Generally speaking, your email should be brief and semi-formal. If you're not sure how formal, go with more rather than less. You are not likely to go wrong by being too formal, but you could go wrong by not being formal enough. And, for the love of all that is holy - no slang, cute abbreviations or emoticons... and no use of exclamation marks!!!

  • Your email should have a brief but informative subject line, for example, 'setting up an advising appointment'.

  • Your email should have a salutation using the person's title, such as Professor Crosby. Or, if you're writing to someone who is not a professor, use Mr. or Ms., such as Mr. Whitman and Ms. Brown. (Ms. is safer to use than Mrs. for females because it doesn't identify a woman by her marital status. Ms. can be used whether the woman is married or unmarried.)

  • Briefly state the reason for your email, including all pertinent information so the person understands exactly what it is that you're asking, for example, 'I am writing to you to set up a time for advising to choose my second year Biology courses. I can come to your office during office hours on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons from 1–3 pm. If you are not available at those times, please suggest another time.'

  • The ending should include a brief statement, such as 'Thank you' or 'Sincerely', plus your full name, your student number, and your degree program and year. You can also include a phone number if you wish.

Here is an example:

Thank you, Janet MacDonald B99008732 1st year Science 902-222-0995

PRO TIP: To be super-duper professional looking, set up your signature file on your email so this last part is always included at the end of your email messages, and it saves you from typing it over and over again. To find out how to add a signature to your email, Google "how to set up signature on Gmail", or whatever email provider you use.

Once you send the email, don't expect an immediate response. Remember, this is not a text to your friend. Give the person a few days to respond. If you haven't heard back in 3 full days, send a polite follow up email.


If your student masters the art of the professional email, he or she will be well on their way to impressing professors, referees for scholarships, potential employers and more!

I hope you find this information useful!

I help high school students and parents prepare for university. Please check out my services.

About the author

Janet MacDonald is a Scholarship Coach with mycampusGPS Education Consulting. She is a former Canadian university admissions officer. For seven years, she was the coordinator of a scholarship program at a major Canadian university. Janet has helped her student clients win hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships.

You can find her online at, and on LinkedIn.

Learn more about Janet MacDonald by visiting the About Page.

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