College Students and Email

A professor's perspective.

Posted Dec 26, 2019

I can tell a lot about my students by how they handle email. I’ve even found myself complimenting students who send highly professional emails: It’s rare, and it distinguishes them. 

If there’s one simple thing you can do to help your college kid succeed, it’s this: Help them understand the necessity of email for school and work and how to craft appropriate messages. Also, online learning systems have features through which professors post information about assignments and grades that generate emails to students. Students need to check their email to stay abreast of updates in their classes to enhance their chances for success. 

Here are some tips to help you help your kids manage emails successfully: 

1. Suggest that your student only use their school email for contacting personnel at school. It’s hard to take your children seriously when they have email addresses like chocolatebunny or hardasarock at gmail.com. 

2. Email can indeed feel overwhelming. We get messages about educational and career opportunities amidst party invitations and department store coupons. But life is a process of discerning what’s urgent, what’s important, and what can wait. Email is an opportunity to practice this life lesson. 

3. Recognize when to send an email and when not to. So many questions that students email professors about are already answered in the syllabus. I tell my students that email is to be used primarily to make appointments and for emergencies and not to email me about matters pertaining to grades or assignments.

With well over 100 students every semester, I cannot be a 24-hour email convenience store for all of them. And if everything moved to texting, there would be no way to be an effective teacher. All evidence points to the fact that face-to-face conversations remain the best way to mentor students. 

4. When students send emails to professors, it is best to remember that this is a short letter and not a text. They should think about subject headings, salutations (my name is neither “hey prof” nor “Mrs. Cohan”), grammar, spelling, signing off, etc. 

5. Many emails require actionable items. Students need to be coached on regularly going through their emails, responding to necessary ones in a timely fashion, filing them appropriately in ways they can track them with ease, and deleting others. When a student emails me asking questions, and I write back with a response of what they need to do, and ask a question of them, I expect a reply.

At the end of the semester, I asked a student why she chose to ignore my email response after getting her mother involved (to whom I cannot respond anyway due to FERPA regulations). She told me that she didn’t know she needed to! Another thing that often happens is a student will come up to me before class on a Wednesday, for example, and ask, “Did you get my email last week?” to which I reply, “Yes, I wrote you back immediately,” and then they reply, “Oh, OK. I haven’t checked it this week.”

6. A mature, respectful email from a student shows me that they learned good manners, that they have boundaries when the answer has to be no, and that they close the loop on any actionable item.