People are not machines; there is no safe and accurate way to predict what someone will do or think when you say something to them. Sometimes, the message you send is not the same message that is received. Misunderstandings can happen, especially when you add culture to language and communication. If you have a loose script to help you structure an introduction for a conversation or an email, it might help you avoid uncomfortable or unpleasant communication. Please consider these academic situations below:
•Most professors and university staff members prefer that you use your official university email address when you email them. In fact, many universities require that all email communication must be through official school accounts. If you are not admitted to the school yet, then you will have to use your personal email account. However, after you are admitted, you should only use your official school account.
•If you don’t already have one, I recommend creating a simple email address to use for academic and professional communication. Consider making a new account with a user name that is similar to your own name and that is easy to read.
•Do not email universities or professors from “unprofessional” or “unintelligible” personal email addresses. Your email address can affect how people judge you. For example, if your email address has words in it that are associated with violence and hate or with “unprofessional” topics such as sex and drugs, people may judge you negatively. Also, if your email is just a list of letters and numbers that don’t mean anything, it will be hard for the recipient to remember your address.
•Write something meaningful in the “Subject” section of your email. Subject titles can be short and should not be complete sentences. Instead, include key words about the information contained in your email. Some professors or university staff members receive hundreds of emails every day. Therefore, a clear title will help them notice your email and help them respond appropriately. Good examples could include:
∘“Meeting Request for Tuesday”
∘“Question About Assignment #2”
∘“Sick, Will Miss Class Today”
∘“Check Out This YouTube Video!”
∘“EMERGENCY (PLEASE READ)”
•In the first three examples above, the subject title is short, easy to read, and contains hints about the information inside the email. Your professor can understand what you want and how important the email is just from the subject title. In the fourth example, the subject title says that you just want to share a resource and that it is probably not very important (or your professor can watch it after they respond to other emails). However, the last example stands out with capital letters and demands that your professor look at it immediately. Save subject titles like this for real emergencies.
•Always begin emails with “Dear.” Some people say this is outdated or not used often. However, it is safe and still considered proper for a formal email.
•After “Dear,” use that instructor or person’s preferred name and title. If you are not sure what they prefer or if you have not met them before, use their full public name (listed on a website, a business card, or on their office door label). Avoid gendered titles (“Dear Mr. X” or “Dear Ms. Y”) unless you know that instructor’s preference. Good examples could include:
∘“Dear Dr. X,”
∘“Dear Professor Y,”
∘“Dear Z,” (if that instructor or person has told you to use their first name or a preferred name)
∘“Dear First Last,” (where “First” is their given name and “Last” is their family name)
•After the body of your email, hit the enter key twice to create a blank line and then write a one-line “further action” sentence.
∘For example, if you are asking your professor a question in the body of the email, and if you need an answer to that question before the next class meeting, write a simple sentence such as: “Thank you, and I hope to hear from you before our next class meeting.” This will be easy to see since you separated it from the body of your email, and it makes it clear for your professor what further action you are requesting of them.
∘Another example would be if you are sending information. After the body of your email, a simple sentence such as: “Thank you, and please let me know if you need anything else.” This is inviting the receiver to contact you again. It is also a statement that you are not planning to send future information unless requested.
•At the end of your email, always sign off with a closing salutation. “Sincerely,” and “Best wishes,” are my favorites. Typically, I use “Best wishes,” when the content of my email is positive and if I’m asking for information or a favor. I use “Sincerely,” which really means “truthfully” or “honestly,” when the content of my email is more serious or if I’m explaining and possibly apologizing for something.
•Make your emails as clear and easy to read as possible. Take advantage of emphasis (bold, italics, underline), bullet points, numbered lists, and hyperlink functions when appropriate.
•Use bolded text when you want to make those words easy to see. For example: “Please come to Room 509 by 14:00 on Tuesday if you want to sign up for the party!”
•Use italicized text when you want to emphasize the tone or impact of a word or phrase in a sentence. For example: “I was shocked and even frightened by the comment my classmate made in our last class.”
•Avoid using underlined text in emails. It is easy to confuse this for a hyperlink. The only time you should underline text is if your email is an announcement with a formal title. That title should be centered in the email, should be a larger font size than the rest of your text, and then can also be underlined.
•In business, good emails are typically short because you just want to get information to someone quickly and clearly. Some business emails might leave salutations out and not even have full sentences written because the goal is to make the message short and less time-consuming. However, in academic emails, you should include salutations and write in complete sentences. Yes, it makes your emails longer, and it takes more time for you to write and more time for your reader to read. However, it shows more respect for the person you are sending the email to, and it gives you more of a chance to be clear with your statements/requests. Also, your professors are efficient readers. Therefore, as long as you format your email well, they should be able to skim through it quickly and get the information from it that they need.
•Whenever possible, email people files that are open-source or non-proprietary. For example, most of the time PC users cannot open files from Apple products such as Pages or Keynote. Similarly, people who do not have the Microsoft Office suite might not be able to open files such as Word (.docx), Publisher, or Access files. PDF files are typically safe for all operating systems.
•If a website or if an assignment’s instructions clearly request a specific type of file, make sure you send that type.
•If you have enough time before that file is due to your receiver, you could send a simple email to ask: “Do you prefer any specific type of file?” or “Is it okay to send you a Keynote file?”
Some students find jumping into classroom conversations difficult and intimidating. There are a few simple moves to help make this easier:
•If you are intimidated once a classroom conversation really get started, then try to be the first person to speak. As soon as the instructor offers up an open-ended question to the class for discussion, jump in! This might also be intimidating, but it can be much easier to be the first than to join in when a few students start dominating the speaking time.
•Raise your hand. Some professors will tell you that they don’t want you to raise your hand or that they prefer if everyone just casually joins in a conversation. Even so, if you find it difficult or intimidating to speak while others are having a dialogue, raise your hand and keep it up until someone acknowledges you. Even if this is not your professor’s preference, participating is better than not participating at all.
•Try to make connections with what other students have already said. You can agree with them, add something to what they said, disagree with them, or ask them (or the whole class) a follow-up question. When you do this, try to use their name as well. This is a great way to make possible friends in the class, too. If you don’t know their name, try to make eye contact with that person and point to them as you start speaking, and simply ask them for their name. After someone says something, you can raise your hand (or just speak if the class is that style) and say:
∘“I agree with what Shannon said about…”
∘“(Pointing at the person who spoke) Sorry, what was your name? (Person gives you their name). I want to agree with Ken’s point about…”
∘“I like what Davina said about X, but I also think that…”
∘“I’m not sure about X, but I definitely think that Raul’s point about Y is important because…”
∘“I have to disagree with—sorry, (pointing at the person who spoke) what was your name? (Person gives you their name). Yeah, Tina, I have to disagree because…”
∘“Paul, you said that X is important, but what about Y?”
∘“Sorry, (pointing at the person who spoke) what was your name? (Person gives you their name). Suzy, do you think your idea about X works for all the video clips we watched?”
•Office hours are a great opportunity for you to speak with your instructor one-on-one. You can ask general questions about the course, you can clarify something the instructor said in class or wrote on their syllabus, you can go over an upcoming assignment’s requirements and grading expectations, and sometimes you can ask them more mentorship questions such as benefits of majoring in their field, graduating from the university, and job opportunities after graduation. However, some students find that proximity intimidating and are unsure of how to start the conversation.
•Not all office hours look alike because not all offices look alike. Some professors have very nice, very welcoming, private office spaces where you can meet one-on-one (I had a spacious corner office with two windows at New Mexico Tech). Other professors share offices with another faculty member (as I do at Temple University, Japan Campus). If your instructor is a graduate student who teaches courses, they might share an office with many other graduate instructors (my office at the University of Connecticut held up to 6 instructors at once!). If your instructor is an adjunct, they might not even have a dedicated office on campus. You might meet with these instructors in a writing and learning center, in the school dining facilities, or outside on a walkway bench. Therefore, you will have to see how comfortable the environment is upon your arrival for office hours.
•Assuming your professor has their own private space, when you arrive, stand at the doorway and ask for permission to enter. Even if their office door is open, they might be busy working on something, and they might need just a few seconds to stop that action before you come in. As an academic coordinator, I often have sensitive information open on my computer such as student grades, and if a student suddenly comes in without asking for permission, it can be startling. Therefore, stand at the door, greet them, and simply say:
∘“Hi, Dr. Higgins, can I speak with you?”
∘“Excuse me, Dr. Higgins, can I come in?”
∘“Dr. Higgins, are you available now?”
•The magic recipe for a good office hours meeting includes:
∘Come during the professor’s scheduled office hours or during the time you previously arranged. Don’t show up at their office at random times, and don’t be late for scheduled appointments.
∘Come with a specific goal in mind. Prepare your statement, prepare your question, and/or prepare a list of things you need from them.
∘Bring in any work you have done.
∘Come with a notebook or a device for taking notes. Take notes while they answer your questions. Show them that the office hour meeting was important and necessary.
∘After your needs have been met, say “thank you” and leave. A bit of small talk and casual conversation is nice. However, be considerate of your professor’s time and the time of your fellow students who might want to come to office hours after you. Don’t use office hours as a simple way to “hang out” with your professor.