Encouraging Students to Apply Their Skills Now: Writing Professional-Grade Email

Even as the universe of digital possibilities continues to expand, email remains a primary communication tool for employees in most organizations. Chances are your students aren't accustomed to using email in a manner that meets the expecations of the workplace, but they have multiple opportunities right now to hone their email skills. 

Encourage them to consider these tips whenever they write email messages to any of their instructors:

  • Choosing when to use email. First, make sure email is the best channel for each message. In some situations, a phone call, an office visit, or a message sent through their course management systems could be a better choice. Second, consider the timing of their messages. Writing for help on an assignment at eleven o’clock the night before it is due is not optimal timing.
  • Writing clear and compelling subject lines. Emphasize that the subject line is a critical part of the message. In a world where people can receive dozens or hundreds of messages a day, the subject line often determines when the message will be opened—or even if it will be opened at all. Subject lines should work a little like headlines in an advertisement: capture the reader’s attention and start a conversation in an emotionally appealing way. Also, for people who don’t empty their email inbox but rather use it essentially as a filing cabinet, the subject line helps them find messages they have already read and need to find again. Accordingly, subject lines that are clear and specific show respect for the recipient’s time. “Help!!” doesn’t give readers much of a memory jog. In contrast, “A question on the service assignment for BCOM301” gives the reader a specific reminder of what the message is about.
  • Greeting the recipient appropriately. Students should address their instructors using the title and name format each has requested, starting with “Hi,” “Hello,” or “Dear.” If an instructor hasn’t given them guidance, remind them to use their best judgment. When in doubt, they should start out formally, with the appropriate title (Ms., Mr., Dr., or Professor) and his or her last name, and then let the instructor adjust the formality of the exchange in any future communication.
  • Creating the right tone. Students need to be mindful of the tone they create through their writing choices. Messages can come across as whiny or demanding even though the writer did not intend to strike that tone, so it’s important to review wording choices.
  • Ensuring an acceptable level of writing quality. Remind students to write in complete sentences, use standard capitalization, and follow the accepted rules of grammar. Depending on the relationship with each recipient, they should use texting acronyms, emojis, and exclamation points sparingly (if at all).

Students might feel self-conscious writing in this style at first, but remind them they are practicing a professional skill and showing respect for their instructors, so it’s a win-win.

Self-Coaching Ideas for Your Students

  1. Review several email or text messages you’ve sent recently (any type of messages on any system). How does their tone feel to you now? Would you change anything about the messages? Why or why not?
  2. If you believe you have received an unfair grade on an assignment or a test, what steps could you take in an email message to request an adjustment without sounding demanding or unpleasant?

Previous Posts in the Apply Your Skills Now Series

Encouraging Students to Apply Their Skills Now: Make QA a Routine Part of the Writing Process

Encouraging Students to Apply Their Skills Now: Think Now, Write Later

Encouraging Students to Apply Their Skills Now: Preparing for Difficult Conversations

Encourage Your Students to Put Their New Skills to Work Right Away


Photo credit: Javier Domínguez Ferreiro on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-SA