Email is one of the most frequent means of communication for anyone online. In fact, an estimated 281.1 billion emails are sent and received daily. That number is expected to grow to 333.2 billion per day by 2022. That’s a lot of typing!
It’s an especially important method of connecting as an online student, as you’re likely to only correspond with your instructors and fellow students electronically. And, as you begin your job search, you’ll likely be emailing resumes and cover letters, and fielding requests for interviews through your inbox.
But before you send off that first email to your instructor or potential boss, there are some things you need to know about writing a great email for a given situation.
Emailing Friends and Family
When you’re sending a message to someone you’re close with and you’ve known for years, there are very few etiquette rules. Informal greetings, slang, and emojis are all OK here, and they’re often expected. Depending on how well you know the person, you may not even need a greeting or a signature – They do know the email is coming from you, after all!
If you’re going to be discussing a difficult or emotionally charged topic, though, it may be best to leave that to in-person conversation or, if that’s not possible, talking on the phone.
Email communication leaves a lot to be desired in knowing a person’s tone and intent for words, so emailing about sensitive subjects can be risky. If you must email about something important, write your first draft and let it sit for an hour or two, then come back to it. Don’t send an email when you’re mad or upset, as you’re more likely to say something that could be misinterpreted.
Here’s an example of an email you’d likely send to a friend:
Just making sure we’re still meeting Friday. Didn’t want to miss you again!
Remember that time we met up at the beach? That was fun.
Emailing Fellow Classmates
Though your classmates are still your peers and things like informal greetings and slang are fine in an email, you want to be sure to make your first email to a peer a little more formal. This is just a courtesy as you’re introducing yourself to someone new. As you correspond more, your relationship and email will likely become more informal.
When sending your first email to a peer, make sure to include a greeting and a signature. This just shows that you really did mean to email that person (Mistakes happen!) and lets them get to know how you like to be addressed.
Also be sure to let the person know how you’re connected to them, giving the name of the class and even the instructor’s name. People get a lot of emails, so putting your email into context for this person makes it more likely to get a response.
Using a more casual tone is fine in this initial email, it may be best to leave the slang or emojis until future emails. The person you’re emailing could one day become a colleague or even professional reference, and you want to make sure you’re getting your relationship started on the right foot.
Here’s what a good first email to a peer could look like:
Thanks for your feedback on my post in Prof. Jones’s English 210 class. I really liked your point about the second paragraph of my answer, and I thought a little more about it. Would you mind taking a look at my second draft?
Here’s where you really need to start putting your formal email hat on, at least initially.
If you’re emailing your instructor about a question on an assignment, be sure to check the syllabus and assignment instructions thoroughly before hitting Send. Often, your question can be answered by just reading the information a little more thoroughly, and you won’t annoy your instructor with a needless email.
Also, avoid emailing instructors about assignments shortly before they’re due. Not everyone checks their email frequently, and your question might not get answered until after the deadline if you email the instructor without leaving enough time for an answer. Best practice is to email at least three days before an assignment is due to give your instructor enough time to answer and for you to incorporate their response in your final assignment.
When first emailing an instructor, be sure to greet her by a combination of her professional title and last name. “Prof. Jones” or “Dr. Smith,” for example. Your instructor is likely to let you know if he prefers to be called by his middle name, but don’t email with a first-name greeting right out of the gate.
Also include information about which class you’re referring to and, if emailing about a specific assignment, what assignment and the due date. Sign your email with your first and last name, as well. Many instructors teach multiple courses in a semester, and keeping all the students straight isn’t easy. Be as detailed as possible in your questions to avoid the need for multiple follow-up emails.
Your email needs to be composed of full, grammatically correct sentences. Instructors want to see that you’re a thoughtful, intelligent student, and incorrect grammar or blatant misspellings don’t show that.
Avoid slang or emojis in emails to your instructors. Always include a full subject line to avoid your email seeming like spam. Emailing instructors is on the same level as sending a professional email as part of your job, so you should follow the same etiquette rules as you would sending an email to a boss.
Put some consideration into the email address you’re sending from, as well. It’s always best practice to email instructors from an official campus email address, but if that’s not possible make sure your email address is as professional as possible. It’s probably not a good idea to email an instructor from “firstname.lastname@example.org,” and if you have an email such as this, consider opening an email address with some combination of your first and last names to provide a more professional appearance. This will be a valuable email address to have as you progress toward your career, too, and begin seeking internships and jobs.
Though your relationship with some instructors may become more informal as you progress through your studies, you need to treat your first emails to each instructor as professionally as possible to make a good impression. Instructors have lots of professional connections and could make or break your chances of getting that dream job once you’re finished with school!
Here’s an example of an email to an instructor:
Dear Prof. Smith,
I am working on the Response Essay assignment for your English 210 course, which is due September 12. I had a question about the format: You said you wanted full paragraphs, but one of my points is best described with bullet points.
How would you suggest I format this section of my essay to comply with the requirements of the assignment but also get the information across in the best manner?
Emailing a Professional Contact
Sending emails to professional contacts, whether it be to apply for an internship or a full-time job, requires the most formal tone. You want to come across as professional and capable, giving your contact confidence that you’re the perfect person for their open position. That confidence starts with the greeting.
Make sure you do some research on the person you’re emailing, and address your email to his or her formal title (Mr./Miss/Ms./Mrs.) and last name. For some gender-neutral names, it can be difficult to determine whether you’re emailing to a man or woman, so check the company’s website to see if that person is listed anywhere.
It is best practice to always address a woman as “Ms.” unless she tells you to address her otherwise. Some married women don’t use the “Mrs.” title, and “Miss” is often reserved for more informal situations.
As with emails to your instructors, make sure everything is grammatically correct and written in full sentences. If need be, read through your email a couple of times to make sure everything is in order, or have a trusted friend or family member check it over for you before sending. Avoid slang and emojis, as they’re never considered acceptable in professional email.
Include in your email how you got the person’s contact information. If you were given a name and email address from an instructor, friend, or family member, mention that person by name. If you’re responding to a job posting, include the title of the job you’re responding to and where you saw the listing. Also include some of this information in the subject line, and never send a professional email without a subject line!
With sending professional emails, you’re also going to want to be sure you’re sending from a more professional-looking email address. Using your campus email is usually fine, but if you’re getting closer to graduation, consider creating a professional email on a public email client, such as Gmail.
If you get the job or internship, your relationship with your business contact may become more informal and you can include first names in greetings or a more informal tone. But for the first few emails, it’s always best to err on the side of too formal.
Here’s an email you might send to a professional contact:
Dear Mr. Clark:
I am writing in response to your advertisement for a Junior Claims Representative on Monster.com. I have attached my resume and cover letter for your review.
I look forward to hearing from you regarding the next steps in the application process.
Email is an essential part of daily communication, especially as an online student. Following a few simple rules of email etiquette for each of your audiences will go a long way toward making good impressions on the people who will and do matter most in your life. Write your emails carefully, take some time to look them over before sending, and setting up a professional email address will help you go far!
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