by Kathleen McKenna, ’17

In the modern digital world, emails are an essential form of communication for both professionals and students. When a person is professional in their communication it gives a good first impression, allows for easy comprehension, and shows respect to the recipient.

Then again, who hasn’t written an email only to backtrack and realize they spelled a word incorrectly, addressed it to the wrong person, or used too casual a tone?

19442873386_12f1ba0cdb_bThe advantage of Beloit College is that it serves as a petri dish for professional development, providing students with a space they can learn how to engage in a respectful, formal manner. Part of this process involves failing at professional communication. Below are some examples of email snafus that were sent to us by campus professionals, as well as the lessons they hope students learn before hitting send. 

  1. Check Twice, Send Once.

Hey – I couldn’t be at class tody. let me know if I missed anything iportant.

On a very basic level emails should contain a professional salutation address . . . something like “Dear Professor_____:” They should also be double checked for grammar and spelling issues. When asked for email horror-stories, several professors mentioned receiving emails similar to this one.  

One professor mentioned receiving such an email from a juvenile email address like!  With no signature and no identifying information, she was left not knowing how to respond.  “Dear Yoda likes it hard,” was out of the question.

Another professor submitted this example:

Yo’ Professor,

I went to the Packers game yesterday so I wasn’t in class today.  I hope I didn’t miss anything that is going to be on the test.

The professor who submitted this example added the commentary, “Of course he didn’t, I just cancelled class because it just isn’t worth teaching if he isn’t there.”

It is important to avoid imposition. Emails are generally directional communications asking for some form of action or response. As such, they should take on a tone appropriate for a person who is asking for a favor. The previous email doesn’t ask for information; instead it just rudely explains an absence.

2. Respect the Hierarchy . .  or at Least Recognize that One Exists

Hey, [First Name, Last Name],

It was good to meat (sic) you at the (networking event) last week.  I know you said you didn’t have any jobs at the moment, but I am attaching my resume any way.  I am pretty smart and good with people and could probably help your business.  I’ll call you tomorrow to follow up.

This email was forwarded back to a professor after a student sent it to a community member. The professor explained, “I was asked by the community member if we teach our students about professional etiquette and spelling.” An important aspect to keep in mind while emailing is the power dynamic at play. When emailing anyone there should be a level of respect, but especially so with a superior, whether it be a professor, employer, or adviser.

3. Too Much Information is . . . Well, Too Much

Dear Professor,

I apologize for missing class.  The reason was that my roommate drank too much last night and kept me up with being sick and then I over slept but since your class is  in the afternoon that is no excuse except then I got into a fight with her about being drunk and I was too upset and had to call my mom so I was on the phone during class.  Please don’t count it against my grade.

(crying smiley face),  Your student

p.s. I really like your class.

images-2Disclosing the appropriate amount of information is also essential for establishing a professional tone in emails. Emails should be concise and to the point. They should not cross the boundaries of professional conversation; this includes discussing anything about alcohol, sex, drugs, or anything traditionally associated with rock and roll. The example above demonstrates oversharing. If you are preparing to send an email that is a long stream of consciousness or several paragraphs long, consider setting up an in-person meeting.

4. Don’t Cross the Line . . . Especially if You Don’t Know Where it Is

A frequent pitfall in emailing professors at Beloit is navigating the line between casual and formal relationships. In an environment such as our campus, which encourages relaxed relationships and addressing professors by their first names, it can be hard to keep a formal mindset. It is always best to fault on the side of caution, however, and be more formal than necessary. The formalities involved in emailing show respect to the recipient but also demonstrate the expected boundaries of the relationship. By engaging in a formal manner, you alert the email recipient as to where the relationship stands.

5. Remember . . . Ephemera is Immortal

Another reason to take care when composing an email is the permanence of the communication. Emails can be looked up and revisited. If an email is rude, disrespectful, or imposing, it doesn’t just vanish at the end of the day.

6. Emails . . . a Final 4-1-1

Professors also mentioned some of their pet peeves with student emails:

  • When students don’t start an email with a salutation
  • When emails use casual greetings such as “Hey _______”
  • When the content of the email uses texting abbreviations such as “IDK”
  • When emails have unclear or non-existing subject lines
  • When emails are littered with poor spelling.

Pointers for writing a professional email

  • In all professional contacts use a professional email
  • Use a formal greeting such as Dear Professor ______: unless specifically told you may do otherwise
  • Be clear and succinct
  • Avoid unnecessary font colors and emojis
  • Use respectful and professional language
  • Use a professional and friendly closing
  • Avoid firing off emails in times of anger

The main take away is to assume utmost formality and respect in professional contacts and to adjust formality based on how the recipient responds. If a professor responds with a less formal “Hi _____,” then it would be okay to mimic that. Taking cues on tone and formatting can prevent any embarrassing impressions or communication mishaps.

Author’s note: Thank you to all the professors and staff who sent in email examples or sat down to talk with me.

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