Email Etiquette: What Students Need to Know in College—And Beyond

“Email is just too slow, and they [students] seldom if ever use snail mail.”
– from the Beloit College Mindset List for the Class of 2014

High school students rarely use email unless they have to, namely, when they are communicating with adults. They are more likely to text or use Facebook, and are increasingly tweeting. Most high school students today never had a lesson in school on how to write and layout a business letter. As a result, students are crafting emails that are not just unprofessional but are also hurting them in the eyes of the recipient—whether it’s an inquiry to a college admissions counselor, a message for a professor, or a query to a potential employer. Here are five factors that every student should know about writing an email:

1. Use the Subject Line to Convey Your Point
Our experience is that most teenagers who email us do not fill in the subject line at all. Most busy people, such as college admissions counselors or professors, can get upwards of 100 emails or more per day. If the subject line briefly conveys the purpose of the email and any necessary action, it makes it a lot simpler for the recipient to respond appropriately. If students cannot upload their papers, which are due at 5:00 pm sharp to a course web site (yes—most professors have a portal to the college site for their courses), due to technical difficulties, the professor will still expect them to meet the deadline. Therefore, it would be important for the student to send an email explaining the situation well before the deadline with a prominent explanation in the subject line:

Subject: Assignment drop-box on course site not functioning—paper is attached

Likewise, rather than composing a new message, some students simply find the last email from the recipient and hit the “Reply” button. As a result, this message appears to be a reply to a much older email—often an issue that has long since been addressed. This too can be confusing for the recipient—they may even delete it thinking they previously responded.

2. Address the Recipient Formally with a Salutation and Title
While the most common greeting for today’s teenagers is “Hey!” unless the student is writing to a family member or friend, virtually everyone else should be addressed with a title or honorific such as Mr., Ms., Chairman or Professor. The salutation is typically the word, “Dear” as in:

Dear Professor Kelleher,

The real Professor Kelleher reports that, much to his surprise, he received a message from a student with the salutation, “Hey K.” He does sign notes to his students using “Professor K” and would be fine with their addressing him that way in an email. But dropping the title “Professor” is a little too casual.

This raises the issue of how you handle a greeting when someone has given you permission to greet him more casually. If the person has asked that you use his or her first name, then it is fine to do so, although it is always best to address teachers and professors by their formal name in written correspondence. When you are not sure who the recipient should be or if you are not sure of the gender, then address the message: To Whom It May Concern.

3. Use Proper Grammar and Spelling
In this era of texting and Facebook abbreviations, it is easy to forget that an email to a person of influence or stature should be treated as serious correspondence. However, it must be written with as much care as your final paper for history. This means using complete sentences, correct spelling, and clear, organized structure.

4. Provide Context, a Clear Purpose and Action Step
An admissions counselor from a liberal arts college described how common it is for him to receive an email that looks like this:

To: Sam.Coleman@yourfavoritecollege.com
From: Jack Taylor
Subject: Re
Date: October 5, 2009

hey! do you have frat houses? can you live in them or r they just soshal or in the dorms Jack

Let’s analyze this email. Beyond the obvious issues with the salutation, the line spacing and the spelling and grammar, there are several problems with the message itself. First, there is no context for how Jack might know Sam or why he is writing to him. A better introduction might be:

Dear Mr. Coleman,

I met you at the college fair at Barnstable High School last Thursday evening, and I am very interested in your college after learning about the undergraduate research opportunities for students interested in the sciences.

And a better way to make known the main reason for the email:

One topic we didn’t have a chance to discuss is the Greek System at your campus. I like the idea of living in a fraternity house, and I know that some colleges with fraternities don’t offer houses except for social purposes. What is the policy for fraternity housing at your campus?

What is Sam Coleman supposed to do with this message since Jack didn’t really ask him to reply? Jack might think it is obvious that he wants an answer, but it is always better to be clear about the desired action you want the recipient to take. An action might be written this way:

I tried to find information about Greek housing on your website without any luck. When you have a chance, please send me the information or a link to a web page that might answer my questions. Thank you for your assistance, and for spending so much time talking with me at the fair last week.

A final comment on Jack’s email message: The “From” field (jockmeister@gmail.com) may not be sending the best message about who Jack Taylor is. We recommend Jack secure an email address that is a variation on his name that he uses for college purposes.

5. Close with contact information and a full name
A proper closing would be:

Sincerely,

Jack Taylor
Barnstable High School (MA), Class of 2011
Home Phone: 508-333-0101

There are times when the formalities of greetings and closings can be dropped, such as when you initially sent a formal message and the recipient replies quickly and you begin a quick back and forth correspondence that simulates instant messaging. However, most email messages should follow the conventions outlined above.

Apply these lessons this fall and your teachers and professors will be impressed—or, at least they are more likely to reply!

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