For one of my classes, some of my classmates said that the professor never responded to their emails. However, the professor said that the emails were never properly formatted. Turns out my professor had an announcement about how some of the emails, if they weren't properly written, would be thrown into the spam folder. Then again, my professor at that time was punctual with their emails whenever they replied.

It just got me thinking: how do professors actually like to receive emails from their students?

Perhaps it depends on the person, but are there any specific ground rules? Is it any different from regular email sending? Or maybe it depends on the topic?

And how important is it to list your student number/course and section?

  • 2
    I wonder if the announcement had something like "start the subject line with the course code" to help them sort their emails and time.
    – Chris H
    Commented Dec 11, 2023 at 10:52
  • With a lot of practice :-) Commented Dec 11, 2023 at 14:04

9 Answers 9


Of course it will vary, but one universal thing (in 'the West', at least), is that no academic teacher wants to do is read a long, waffling email that takes 3 sentences of apologies and introductions to arrive at the main point. You don’t need to be excessively polite in an email; get to the main point within one sentence and don’t write a wall of text which isn’t broken up by paragraphs.

Short and concise is always best.

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    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Dec 11, 2023 at 13:55

Since different professors are different people, there is no golden rule on when exactly professors reply to mails, but the following guiding principle may do:

E-Mail by students should always be written in a way that the workload to answer them is not unnecessarily high.

There are many ways in which this can happen for mails by students:

  1. No proper sender name indicating how to address the student, which makes it difficult to reply with the correct salutation.
  2. Asking for information that is clearly given in the syllabus, is written on a slide, or has been clearly stated in the lectures
  3. Not making a proper effort to describe the problem clearly and concisely. For instance, after advising a student on how to solve a specific problem with the thesis research, the e-mail response by the student should not be "I tried the approach you suggested but it does not work", because there are four problems with this answer:
    • It ignores that three approaches were suggested.
    • It does not state what the approach was that was tried out (a professor cannot always remember, especially if the e-mail comes after a week or more)
    • It does not state what the student expected to happen
    • It does not state why something did not work, what the observations are, etc. This means that the first thing that the professor will need to do is to ask for details, which is a waste of time.
  4. Asking for unreasonable accommodations. Examples are:
    • asking to take the final exam a few days later because the student is traveling on the exam day, and
    • asking for acceptance of a late homework submission after the solution has already been discussed in class.
  5. Having grammar that is ambiguous enough to require guessing what the student may mean. Bonus points if the e-mail is vague enough so that the student hopes that the professor will just write the solution even if the student cannot articulate the question.
  6. Not using the official university e-mail address, so that it is unclear if the e-mail really came from a genuine student.
  7. Not mentioning the slide number when asking a question about a specific point on a slide.
  8. Asking more information on a topic when there are already references and explanations given in the documents for the students, without mentioning why the information given already is insufficient.
  9. Including sentences that appear to constitute an emotional manipulation attempt by the student.
  10. Not naming the course in an e-mail regarding a course.

There are likely to be many more examples on how an e-mail can add unnecessarily to the workload of the professor. E-Mails adhering to the principle of not causing unnecessary work are typically also formatted correctly. At the same time requiring proper formatting also means that the student has to put thought into an e-mail, which incentivizes requiring students to format their e-mails.

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    As someone who teaches programming courses, my pet peeve is students posting a screenshot of their code, with little to no explanations on what doesn't work in it. Could you please spare me the trouble of retyping it all, thank you very much? Commented Dec 10, 2023 at 13:19
  • 6
    @FedericoPoloni Yes, that's a good one. Another one are e-mails basically stating "Oh, I want to write a MSc thesis with you, because your area of expertise is exactly what I am interested in" without any hint of what that may be, from students who didn't take a single course with me. Asking back what would be an example of an area or topic that they are interested in, so that we can discuss possible theses in this area is typically the end of the e-mail exchange.
    – DCTLib
    Commented Dec 10, 2023 at 15:08
  • 7
    Great list. I'd add "Can I ask you a question?"
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Dec 10, 2023 at 16:55
  • 4
    Point (6) is important. I basically never reply to email which purports to come from a student but which does not come from a college email address. There are potential FERPA issues which are above my pay-grade, and I don't want to deal with them. Commented Dec 10, 2023 at 17:17
  • 3
    A lot of these are not specific to student-professor emails; they apply to any professional setting. Commented Dec 11, 2023 at 2:51

When writing an email, keep in mind that we're wading through fifty such messages a day, or maybe even multiples of that. As we do this, we're sorting, prioritizing, changing our calendar entries, scanning files for personal info, .... Try to make it as easy to do as you can.

Any request by email should have all the information necessary to respond to it without needing more. "I'd like to schedule a meeting with you" emails that don't describe why you want to meet, for example, just result in at least two responses -- one to ask why you want to meet, and one to actually schedule the meeting, and maybe one more to solicit more info necessary to prepare. Just give all the info necessary in the first message.

Don't bury the lede. Start with your main point or request, and then provide details. Don't make someone wade through a long message to figure out what you need, which should be clear enough after two sentences.

If you're contacting about a course, put the course name or number in the subject line. It helps with sorting, or finding the message later.

Don't assume that the prof will remember any details about what you're telling them. If they need to know something to deal with your communication, it should be in the communication. If your message is part of a long ongoing thread, don't start a new thread. Leave the old messages in the new message if you can. Don't make the prof search through old emails to figure out what's going on.

Others may disagree with this one, but I don't care for trite niceties -- "I hope your day is going well" and stuff like that. I'm probably behind the times here.

  • 3
    "If you're contacting about a course, put the course name or number in the subject line." +10
    – Luca Citi
    Commented Dec 10, 2023 at 23:44
  • 1
    IMO, one sentence of niceties at the top is fine. I put that in emails I send to colleagues, and they to me. Commented Dec 11, 2023 at 2:48
  • @MatthewLeingang one short sentence (I reckon up to about half a line on desktop). A 3-line run-on waffle is unhelpful even if it's technically a single sentence. But I also prefer it if the greeting , while under a line, is a separate paragraph - it's easier to skim over to the one that gets to the point
    – Chris H
    Commented Dec 11, 2023 at 10:56

Everyone is different, but I think there are a few things you can do that will not offend anyone.

  1. Craft a good subject line: it should include if you have a question, a problem, need an appointment etc. the course/topic and any deadlines that are relevant.

  2. Address the professor correctly (don't write "Hi!" or something similar, ideally say dear Dr. or professor Last Name, or if you are on a first name basis say Dear FirstName.

  3. Don't bury the lede: Get straight to the point. If the rest of the e-mail is professional (this includes sending it from your university e-mail account) and concise, few people will be looking for nice remarks or apologies for writing etc. So get to the point.

  4. Include all relevant information further down and in attachments (especially when asking for letters of recommendation or internships etc. include your CV and grade list and a good motivation straight from the start).

  5. Ask a clear question/State what you need/want/require (do this nicely, e.g. would it be possible for you to do X?) and when (some time frame would be appreciated, even if it is "in the next week or so" - obviously you cannot demand that they jump up and serve you, professors are really busy, but especially when busy some sort of planning and urgency indicator is much appreciated).

  6. Sign off with your full name and other relevant info needed.

  7. Be patient but not afraid to send a reminder. I used to be on top of e-mail, now I will easily take >48 hrs simply because there are SO MANY. So don't expect an immediate reply but also don't be afraid to politely follow up with an "I know you are busy so I am just resending the e-mail below as I would very much appreciate..." after a week or so.


Among points made by others, I'd emphasize clearly identifying the student's person -- full name, course, and section in question. Another point in particular, which is certainly culturally dependent, is to open with a semi-religious salutation, along the lines of:

Hello! I hope this message finds you in good health and spirits, blessings be upon you.

In the west, this is weird and off-putting, and kind of sets my instincts in line with receiving a scam/spam email. I'd recommend avoiding that. (Example inspired by this question.)

  • 1
    As somebody living and working in the UK for the past 7 years, I don't find it unusual at all to see an e-mail start with "I hope this message finds you in good health". I probably wouldn't blink twice to adding "and spirits" to that (in the sense that "good spirit" means "good mood"). I would probably also be slightly put off by somebody dispensing unsolicited blessings.
    – penelope
    Commented Dec 11, 2023 at 14:01

There are good answers here, and I don't have a ton to add, but I thought that it might be worthwhile to share how I communicate this to students. In all of my syllabi, I include a page of instructions on email:

enter image description here

The subject line is the one place where I imagine there might be some pushback---I am not nearly as pedantic about subject lines as I portray myself in the syllabus, but I got tired of getting emails with blank subjects (in part because the institutional spam filters hold such emails in quarantine until I explicitly "release" them).

  • There's a minor a typo under [1]: "If you subject line".
    – Anyon
    Commented Dec 11, 2023 at 15:00
  • I really like folding the "free points for reading the syllabus" strategy into the email expectations, seems like a very natural place for it.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Dec 11, 2023 at 15:57
  • 1
    @Anyon Thanks. I'll fix my syllabi for next semester (though that does let me know how many students have actually read in detail over the last two years). :D Commented Dec 11, 2023 at 20:04
  • 1
    It is quite sad that those rules are not clear for every adult:(
    – user111388
    Commented Dec 11, 2023 at 20:19
  • 1
    (1) Sure, the legal definition of "adult" is 18, but people grow up a lot after that. (2) Nearly all of my high school students are under 18 (the usual expectation is that you graduate high school at 18). Commented Dec 11, 2023 at 20:24

In the subject line: write something that is concise, informative, and specific to the reciever. That is, the subject line should help the recipient easily identify who you are and what this email is about. (this is good practice for emailing in general, not just to professors)

For example:

  • "Question about problem set in [course X], from a student"
  • "Question about teaching [course Y], from a TA"
  • "Interest in joining your group, from a (under)graduate student"

In the third example, if you use the subject "Research", then it might be specific to you, but it would be totally meaningless to the professor (after all, research is their entire job!)

For the opening/closing: "Dear Prof. [prof's last name]", and "Sincerely, [your full name]" are most traditional probably the best bet. You can also safely substitute "Hello" instead of "Dear" or "Best regards" instead of "Sincerely".

For the body text: be concise, and polite, in that order. (i.e. be polite, but don't add extra words to sound nice. Conciseness is more important). Try to make the main point or main question clear, e.g. by saying in the first couple of lines, and don't bury it in other text.

  • Ooh I see, because having a generic subject line may be misleading or confusing in the professor's POV Commented Dec 11, 2023 at 2:14
  • 2
    Some students put "From (their name)" in the subject line. But there already is a field for that, and it's automatically filled in. Commented Dec 11, 2023 at 2:59

We like e-mails that are short and clear.


How do professors like to receive emails from students?

Not at all. Or as rare es possible.

I think many student don't understand how unimportant their questions are. They should try to get things clarified by reading the course's syllabus, asking the teaching assistants, reach out to the professor after the lecture, or visit their office hours.

A small number of students is writing an excessive amount of emails to faculty members, which is super annoying. Do not be one of them.

  • 4
    As an instructor, I strongly disagree with this message. Yes, students often ask questions which are answered in the syllabus, and it can be annoying, but it is the job of the instructor to interact with students. An instructor who does not want email from students is a bad instructor, and someone who advises students not to email an instructor when they have a question is doing a disservice to those students. -1 Commented Dec 11, 2023 at 14:18

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