Ah, emails. They are very useful and almost ubiquitous in our society, and in college, you’re likely to write a lot more of them than before. For example, I write emails to ask questions to professors, collaborate with other students on group projects, and communicate with recruiters for internships and full-time jobs.
Having said all this, I thought I’d provide some advice on how to write good emails. These are some tips and tricks I’ve learned over the last couple years as I navigated the email jungle.
#1 Address them properly. (Professor? Dr.? Ms.? Your Excellency?)
This is one of the trickiest parts, especially if you’ve never met the person you are emailing. Here is a general rule of thumb I use: unless you are familiar with the person you are speaking with, use last names with the highest appropriate titles. If you are emailing a John Adams that you’ve never met, then you would write, “Hi Mr. Adams.”
If you are emailing someone in the same age group, it might be a better idea to address them by first name (i.e. “Hi John”). Often times, this allows you to establish a friendly connection and bring a more personal touch to the email.
But, as with all things, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Use your best judgment to address them properly!
#2 Hi, nice to meet you!
An email is not a text message or a casual greeting in a hallway. Etiquette should be observed. Start the email with a short greeting like “I hope you are enjoying the warm weather!” or “Hope you had a great weekend.” This will make your emails more personable, which is important especially if you are asking for a favor.
Also, don’t forget to briefly introduce yourself. I often say: “I am a third-year student at the University of Chicago studying Economics and Philosophy.” This provides a succinct overview of who I am. However, remember that context is important! I wouldn’t introduce myself like that if I’m emailing a colleague at an internship.
#3 Short and to the point.
People receive lots of emails. It’s not too difficult to see inboxes that have 20 or even 50+ unread emails daily. It helps the recipient if you keep the email short and to the point. After a brief greeting and introduction, get right to the point. If you have a longer message that goes on for paragraphs, maybe suggest that you call or talk in person.
#4 Bullet points are often effective.
A good way of making sure that your message is short and to the point is to write with bullet points. Why?
- Bullet points allow you to condense your message into short snippets.
- Messages written in bullet points are often more readable and easily understandable.
- Writing in bullet points requires you to really understand what you’re trying to say, making the email more effective and efficient.
#5 You’re having a conversation, not reciting a Shakespeare play.
Especially if you are emailing someone important, it is tempting to write in more formal, rigid prose. Say you are writing to a famous professor about a project you want to do in her department. You might be tempted to say: “This project, I sincerely believe, will augment the performance of the rather miniscule laser equipment that have been plaguing the productivity of the department.” This is unnecessarily… um… hoity-toity. What you can instead say is: “I think this project will help improve the performance of laser equipment we’ve been using in the department.” Simple, straight, and gets the same point across. When writing emails, try to remind yourself than an email is a written form of communication with another person and not an opportunity to take out that thesaurus.
#6 The Signature Block trick.
This is an easy way to spice up your emails so that they befit your newly gained email guru status. After you write your message, you will typically end the email with “sincerely,” “best regards,” or some form of closing. In addition to this, I suggest that you add a signature block that adds more information about you. For example, all my emails end in this format:
The University of Chicago ‘21
B.A. Economics and Philosophy
Including a brief summary of who you are in the signature block can help stylize your emails in a professional manner. I suggest you do a quick Google search to learn more about how to create a signature block for the e-mail platform you use, or check out a quick tutorial to get started.
#7 Pay attention to CC’s (and BCC’s).
Sometimes, you might be required to send an email with a more complex recipient structure. For example, suppose you are writing an email to one of your group project members about a task that is specifically related to her. You might think it would be a good idea to send the email to your whole group as well to keep them in the loop. In this case, you would enter the group project member’s name in the TO field and enter the rest of the group in the CC field. Recipients in the CC, or carbon copy, field will receive the email just like they would if they were in the TO field. However, putting certain recipients in the CC field indicates that the email is only tangentially relevant to them, and that they are not required to take any action in response to the email.
You can also use BCC’s or blind carbon copies. BCC’s are typically used when you want to send the email to multiple people without each being aware of the other. BCC recipients are not able to see the other BCC recipients. This feature is especially useful when sending emails to a long list of recipients who do not necessarily need to know each other.
#8 Computer for the Win!
Lastly, always try to use a computer when writing emails. Unless you are writing to a friend or a family member, it is a good idea to use a computer so that you can avoid spelling mistakes, type more quickly, and make the email look more professional. You might have already seen emails that end with the phrase “Sent from my iPhone.” This is often added to an email if the sender used their phone (probably an iPhone in this case) to write the email, which could come off as unprofessional. Using a computer instead will help ensure your emails look more professional.
These are some of the tips that I have learned over the last two years of college. Writing emails can be difficult. However, it doesn’t need to be impossible. Hopefully, this guide will help you navigate the email jungle with more ease – a jungle that isn’t likely to go away anytime soon.