Email writing tips


We are all busy. As for me, I teach multiple classes, I do research, I take care of my family, and I would like to have some time for leisure such as playing tennis in addition to eating and sleeping. Let’s say I am teaching 200 students in a quarter (10 weeks) and each student asks me a question by email once per quarter. Then on average I would receive 20 emails per week. Because answering questions by email oftentimes requires multiple exchanges, the number of emails I would have to write (and the amount of time I would have to spend doing so) becomes substantial. Personally, I feel bad when I fail to answer a personal email, so even if I choose not to reply to some emails, I feel significant stress for dealing with them.

So please help make my life easier by following some simple tips.

  1. I would like to maintain a professional student-teacher relationship. Undergraduate students should address me “Prof. Toda”, not “Hey Prof.” or “Hi Alexis”, which are not very respectable. I will not answer to such emails. (On the other hand, “Hi Alexis” is acceptable and even encouraged for PhD students because I view PhD students as colleagues.)
  2. Please write a concise, imformative title.
  3. Please write the body concisely.
  4. If you have a question about a course, you should mention which course you are taking because I might be teaching multiple courses during a quarter.
  5. I cannot answer to questions about the grade until after the final exam because I do not know what your grade will be until after the final exam.
  6. Many questions can be resolved by simple Google searches. Think twice before asking a question.
  7. Important information is often included in the syllabus. Do not send me emails before thoroughly reading the syllabus.
  8. For questions related to course materials, please ask questions in person during classes or office hours.
  9. Please do not expect a response from me unless your inquiry is “appropriate” (see examples below).

According to my experience, the vast majority of emails sent from undergraduate students are inappropriate. Examples are

  • “When is the exam?” (Please read the syllabus.)
  • “Will the exam score be curved?” (Please read the syllabus.)
  • “What materials would be covered in the exam?” (Please pay attention to course announcements.)
  • “I don’t understand the derivation of such-and-such. Please explain.” (I am happy to explain in person during class or office hours.)
  • “Do you think such-and-such is a good investment?” (I have no idea and that’s not my problem.)
  • “I missed the class today. Could you let me know what you covered?” (I expect students to come to class. Maybe you can ask a classmate instead.)
  • “Why did I receive B, not A?” (I assign letter grades mechanically based on ranking within class, so it just means you didn’t do as well as A students.)
  • “Please extend the deadline of such-and-such.” (It’s your choice to take the class, and if you take it please follow the rules.)
  • “I have a schedule conflict with the exam, can I take a make-up?” (Please read the syllabus. There are no make-up exams. Exam exemptions are allowed only for university-approved reasons, which requires documentation.)
  • “I got kicked out from my apartment because I couldn’t afford the rent, I didn’t have time to study, and I did poorly in the exam. Can you change my grade from D to C?” (I feel sorry about your personal situation but that is not my problem. I assign grades mechanically and fairly and there is nothing I can do.)
  • “I want to graduate this quarter and I really need to pass this class. Can you change my grade from D to C?” (No. If you need to pass, please study hard enough to pass.)

Appropriate emails (which tend to be a small fraction) include, for example,

  • “I believe there is a typo/error/bug in the slide/lecture note/code.” (Thank you, let me take a look.)
  • “I would like to apply to a grad school. Can you write me a letter of recommendation?” (I am happy to discuss that, but please read my letter of recommendation policy first.)
  • “I missed (am going to miss) an exam for such-and-such (university-approved) reason. What should I do?” (Please submit evidence that supports your claim if you missed a midterm. If you miss a final, you fail automatically the course per university policy.)