Email 201(a): Writing Done Right

In my twenty-plus years as an educator, I have worked with countless students who felt they had acquired ample knowledge about a particular topic, yet were still unsure how to apply that knowledge in a meaningful and relevant way. As their instructor, it was my responsibility to support them in bridging the gap between knowing and doing. In my experiences, three strategies have proved most effective in achieving this aim: offering concrete examples, modeling specific skills, and providing tools for self-assessment (e.g. rubrics, checklists).

Like many of the students I have worked with in the past, you may feel that you have acquired ample knowledge about the dos and don’ts of email communication, but are still unsure how to use that knowledge to craft an effective and professional email. In this post, I aim to help you bridge that gap by providing you with two relevant examples. Each example is situated within the context of a common scenario and accompanied by a brief analysis of its strengths (+) and weaknesses (Δ).

Major Confusion


In this scenario, Sheila* has decided to change her major from Elementary Education to Secondary English Education. Sheila has already downloaded the course of study, and found directions for changing her major in the system. However, she is unsure how many semesters this change of major will set her back. She contacts her advisor, Ms. McCann, a former secondary English teacher with a Bachelor’s Degree in Secondary English Education and a Master’s Degree in Administration. Since Ms. McCann is a stickler for good grammar and spelling, and a gifted writer in her own right, Sheila knows that what she puts in an email will matter a great deal to Ms. McCann.


Subject–Change of Major: Advising Requested

Dear Ms. McCann,

My name is Sheila Gaston and I am one of your advisees in the College of Education. After a great deal of reflection, I have decided to change my major from Elementary Education to Secondary English Education.

I have already downloaded the course of study for Secondary English Education, and located the instructions for changing my major in People Soft. However, what I have been unable to figure out is the number of semesters it will take me to complete my degree in Secondary English Education.

Given your work experience and academic credentials, I was hoping to schedule a meeting with you for next week to seek your input on this matter. I am available from 1:00 to 4:00 on Monday and Wednesday, and from 9:30 to 11:45 on Tuesday and Thursday.

Thanks so much for your consideration,

Sheila Gaston


+ By finding out Ms. McCann’s level of education, Sheila is able to use the correct title to address her. She understands that addressing someone with a Master’s Degree as Dr.–and vice versa–could be taken as careless or even offensive.

+ To ensure that Ms. McCann knows who she is, Sheila begins with a brief self-introduction including her name and her relationship to Ms. McCann (i.e. advisee).

+ Sheila states the problem and identifies the steps she has already taken to address it on her own, which demonstrates a sense of responsibility. Like it or not, faculty and staff often seem much more eager to help students who have already made the effort to help themselves.

+ When requesting a meeting with Ms. McCann, Sheila provides ample availability. Given Ms. McCann’s busy schedule, this will make it much easier for Ms. McCann to accommodate Sheila’s meeting request.

+ Sheila closes the email with an expression of gratitude, which seems mannerly. Good manners are always appreciated by everyone!

Δ  Once Sheila officially changes her major, she should consider adding an email signature. Appropriate content could include her name, her major, the name of the university, and the best phone number to reach her.

Multiple Setbacks


In this scenario, Bill has fallen behind in HIST 202 due to personal difficulties, including a death in the family and a recent bout with the flu. Bill has always performed well in school and desperately wants to catch up so he can finish the semester with a strong GPA. He read the syllabus and it clearly states that 10 points will be deducted for each day a major assignment or project is submitted late. But he’s not sure whether the deduction can be waived with appropriate documentation, such as an obituary or doctor’s note. In an effort to get clarification from his professor, Dr. Marshall, Bill writes the following email. 


Subject–Clarification on Late Work Policy

Dear Dr. Marshall,

My name is Bill Jackson and I am in your HIST 202 class on Tu/Th at 12:30. In the last two weeks, I have had some personal setbacks including the flu and the death of my grandfather. Because of these setbacks, it may be very difficult for me to complete the research paper on time.

I am hoping you can give me some clarification regarding the late work policy. I have read the syllabus, which clearly states that 10 points will be deducted for each day an assignment is late. But what I’m not sure about is whether exceptions can be made for situations like illnesses or a death in the family (with documentation of course).

I am making a plan to get caught up in all my classes, and some clarification on your late work policy would be very helpful.

Thanks in advance for your assistance,

Bill Jackson, History Major

Bluebell University

Cell: (555) 123-4567


+ Bill introduces himself and identifies the section of the course he is currently taking with Dr. Marshall. Given that large survey courses often have multiple sections, this information will help Dr. Marshall locate Bill on his roster.

+ Bill states the purpose of his email and shares an action he has already taken to address his concern. When emailing faculty and staff with concerns, it’s always a good idea to show that you have made an effort to resolve the concern on your own.

+ Bill communicates his gratitude in two ways: (1) by stating that clarification will be helpful, and (2) by using a closing that expresses thanks.

+ Bill’s signature includes his phone number, thus giving Dr. Marshall two ways to reach him–phone and email.

Δ  Bill would be wise to verify Dr. Marshall’s education credentials if he has not  already done so. Nobody likes being addressed with the wrong title, but most are just too polite to correct you.

Δ Though Bill is still within reasonable limits, he should be careful not to veer off into “woe-is-me” territory. The last thing Bill would want to do is make Dr. Marshall think he is just trying to make excuses or obtain special privileges.

In this post, I have shared sample emails pertaining to two different, yet very common,  scenarios. I hope that these examples and the subsequent analysis will help you to better apply the dos and don’ts of email communication. In the next post, I’ll provide some tools you can use to help you assess your emails before clicking the send button.

*None of the individuals in these scenarios represent actual people with whom I have worked. The scenarios and the individuals described therein are creations intended for the purpose of educating others on writing effective and professional emails.


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