At some point, every student will have to write an email before they graduate. However, in an age of instant messaging, emails are the worst. They are awkward and formal, and how do you even format them anyway? Since most students will never take a class that teaches them how to write an email, their confusion persists through to graduation.
However, emails are not going away, and many students will be expected to send them in the workplace. The only solution to email anxiety is to buckle down and learn how to write emails. Some UMass Lowell professors sat down with the Connector to give some tips to students.
A big point for Dr. Haim Levkowitz, the chair of the Computer Science Department, is that it is important that students use the email provided to them by UMass Lowell and use their full name in the email. Dr. Levkowitz blames this rule on “Polar Bear,” referring to a few years back when, presumably, a student sent him an email asking him a question and did not sign it with a name or a course number. The only source of identification was the email address ‘Polarbear@email.com.’
Similarly, Dr. Jenna Vinson, an English professor at UMass Lowell who teaches professional writing courses, stresses the importance of using the subject line. The subject line tells professors what the email is about, and why they should read it.
Additionally, if there is no subject line, they might not want to open it. Dr. Vinson explains that emails without a subject line can be a sign of viruses or spam.
Both professors stressed the importance of using formal greetings with professors. Start all initial emails with “Dear Professor/Dr. Last name,” and sign off with your full name.
Dr. Levkowitz compares the introduction to an email to overdressing or underdressing for a meeting. If someone shows up overdressed, they can always take their tie off and roll up their sleeves, but if someone shows up in a t-shirt and jeans, there is not much that can be done.
“I don’t know of anyone who got too offended by getting a communication that was a little more polite,” said Dr. Levkowitz, “but in the opposite direction it may rub in the wrong direction.”
If a professor is comfortable with students calling them by their first name, it will be apparent in their response. If in their response at the end of the email they sign their first name, then you can take that as an invitation to use first names. However, that is not an invasion to drop all formality.
Dr. Vinson encourages students to maintain the conventions of emailing even when a professor responds with short one sentence emails, such as “Ok. Talk about it in class- Professor” or “ok – sent from my iPhone.”
When writing an email, write in short paragraphs, use bullet points to highlight essential subjects that need addressing, and write as succinctly as possible. A professor should be able to read and find what is being asked quickly.
“Every time you send an email you have to assume you are interrupting someone’s work time with a question,” said Dr. Vinson, explaining why it is so important to say what you need to in as few words as possible.
Dr. Vinson emphasized the difference between brief and concise. Some subjects are more complicated and dynamic, and a longer email is necessary for those topics. Dr. Vinson explained that it would be more inconvenient for the professor if a student was brief and then the professor had to email for clarification.
When a student is angry or upset about something, they should take a moment to cool down before writing the email to a professor. If a subject is too emotional or too complicated to properly communicate through email, Dr. Vinson recommends that students instead email to set up an appointment with the professor.
Another big part of emailing is gratitude. This is part where the sender thanks the receiver for reading the email, for their advice, or a multitude of other things. Gratitudes should never be used to sign off an email but instead should have their own line above the sign-off.
This is a strategy that Dr. Vinson uses in her emails to colleges and believes students should try to use in all emails to professors. These expressions build goodwill and setting apart the gratitude makes it seem genuine.
Dr. Levkowitz suggests that students read emails aloud. This will help them to find errors they otherwise would not have. Errors in important emails are not just embarrassing, but they might communicate that you do not care.
On a similar note, Dr. Levkowitz has noticed people have a habit only responding to one part of an email that had multiple questions or questions to be addressed. He encourages students to reread the email they are responding to and ensure they understand it completely.
“It is an academic space. You are allowed to make mistakes. Your emails don’t have to be perfect. You should email your professors. That is okay. We expect that,” said Dr. Vinson. “I don’t want any of this to discourage from reaching out to professors.”