Professors are people too.
There are generally no magic words or special formulas for talking to professors. That said, it is understandable that people often feel very nervous in communicating with professors because how the professor responds can sometimes have a big impact on your future. Here are some ideas about what works well.
Make your communications polite, direct, and succinct.
You don't need to be fancy or tell your life story. Professors are busy people, and most will highly appreciate a simple, polite email telling them what you want and why you think it makes sense.
Here is a template for such an email to a professor:
- Put the topic in the subject
- In approximately one short sentence each:
- Tell them / remind them who you are (unless you interact frequently)
- Give the context for your request
- Ask what you need to ask or tell them what you need to tell them.
- Invite further communication or discussion if useful.
Subject: Request to ignore Programming 101 prerequisite for Algorithms
Dear Prof. Brown:
I am a freshman in the computer science department, wishing to take your Algorithms course. I believe that it is reasonable for me to do this even though I have not taken the Programming 101 prerequisite, because I have previously built and released two Android cell-phone apps, demonstrating that I know programming basics. Would you be willing to sign the department form so that I can take your class? If you'd like more information, I am happy to meet or to answer questions over email.
Subject: Letter of Recommendation
Dear Professor Patel:
Your may remember that last year I took your Advanced Topics in Advancement seminar, and did a project on pico-widgets that you liked very much. I am now planning to apply to Ph.D. programs. Would you be willing to write me a strong letter of recommendation? I am attaching an informal transcript. Please let me know if there is any additional information that you would need.
Subject: Out sick
Dear Professor Xu:
I am sick with the Martian Spotted Flu, and the doctor says I should stay in bed for a week. I'm sorry, but somebody else will need to take care of the mice while I am out. If they need information, they can call my phone and I'll answer when I can.