How Do You Write an Email or Letter to a Professor?

One of the most common points of confusion among undergraduates and new graduate students is how to contact professors to serve as potential faculty advisors.  This can be a minefield.   I have been on the receiving end of many emails from hapless students who clearly had no guidance, and whose communication with me ended up appearing flippant and rude.

Here is that sort of email:

“Dear Professor Kelsky, I am a student at XXX College and I’m thinking about graduate school/doing research on xxx and I’m getting in touch to ask if you can give me any advice or direction about that. Sincerely, student X”

This is an instant-delete email.

Here is what an email to a professor should look like:

“Dear Professor XXX,

I am a student at XXX College with a major in xxx.  I am a junior and will be graduating next May.  I have a 4.0 GPA and experience in our college’s summer program in xxx.

I am planning to attend graduate school in xxx, with a focus on xxx.  In one of my classes, “xxx,” which was taught by Professor XXX, I had the chance to read your article, “xxxx.”  I really enjoyed it, and it gave me many ideas for my future research.  I have been exploring graduate programs where I can work on this topic.

I hope you don’t mind my getting in touch, but I’d like to inquire whether you are currently accepting graduate students.  And if you are, if you’d be willing to talk to me a bit more, by email or on the phone, or in person if I can arrange a campus visit, about my graduate school plans.  I have explored your department’s graduate school website in detail, and it seems like an excellent fit for me because of its emphasis on xx and xx,  but I still have a few specific questions about xx and xxx that I’d like to talk to you about.

I know you’re very busy so I appreciate any time you can give me.  Thanks very much,

Sincerely,

XX XXX

Why is this email good?  Because it shows that you are serious and well qualified.  It shows that you have done thorough research and utilized all the freely available information on the website.  It shows that you have specific plans which have yielded specific questions.  It shows that you are familiar with the professor’s work.  It shows that you respect the professor’s time.

All of these attributes will make your email and your name stand out, and exponentially increase your chances of getting a timely, thorough, and friendly response, and potentially building the kind of relationship that leads to a strong mentoring relationship.

If the professor doesn’t respond in a week or so, send a follow up email gently reminding them of your initial email, and asking again for their response.  If they ignore you again, best to probably give up.  But professors are busy and distracted, and it may take a little extra effort to get through.

Good luck!

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About karenkelsky

I am the McNair Advisor in the University of Oregon McNair Scholars Program. I have a Ph.D. in Anthropology and have had tenured positions in four departments. I have helped scores of students get into and succeed in graduate programs around the country. I'll be sharing 20 years of information and skills here. When I'm not doing this, I make and sell jewelry and explore Eugene with my partner and two kids. View all posts by karenkelsky

9 responses to “How Do You Write an Email or Letter to a Professor?

  • Naomi

    You are correct. I emailed a professor using the instant delete email and I never got a response. A week, after I resent another email with my background detail and what i like about their work, and received an instant response. Thank you for your advice.

  • Felicia DeLorme

    What an excellent article. I have recently transferred to UO from Lane Community College, and while looking through the McNair program brochure online, I found this blog. I will be returning here often, and am thankful for such a valuable resource.

  • محمد المجتبى

    hi,
    Thank for your fruitful advises .I sent an email to a professor showing my interest in joining his research group and showing my interest with brief of my background .he sent me after just hours asking for detailed c.v for evaluation.what I want to ask is how long this process usually take .I mean the evaluation and when should I contact him again or just I should wait for his response.Thanks

  • ehsan

    hi

    thank your for your advice. I sent an email to a professor one month ago (to ask him about phd position), but I have not receive any respond yet. Now I dont know how should I write a second email for that professor.!! could you please help me with it??
    could you give me a sample letter to remind the professor?

  • teguh

    hi,
    thank you so much for your advice, i should visit your blog a couple months ago :) awesome. really opened my mind about how to write email to the professor, now I’m so interested to find scholarship for master.

    Thanks

  • Hippolyte

    Academia isnt a lifestyle…and should never be. Academia isnt about what the professors should think you should do things like in such minutiae. It is about what you study, and what you study should be your paramount interest.

  • Michon

    Hello,

    I just wanted to come back to this page and thank you! I have been wondering what to do as a major, and I emailed the coordinator of a department I’m interested in (of a different university than I currently attend) asking about their program. I followed the structure of your example above and made sure to double-check my email before I sent it. I sent it at about 10:00 last night, and I received an email back from him at 9:00 this morning. First off he told me “that was some email” and he was really helpful. He suggested that if I find time to visit the campus, he would have a meeting with me, and he even gave me some specific dates that could work for him if they work for me.

    So thank you! :)

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