5 Quick Tips for Composing a Professional Email
Computer-mediated communication is vastly different from face-to-face communication; we all know this, and most of the time, it’s not really that much of a problem for us since our friends and family couldn’t care less about the way we come off in person versus online.
However, the distinction between the two starts becoming more important when it comes to professional communication online — it’s neither as immediate as a telephone call, or as formal as snail mail. And this gray area raises a lot of questions: Is it okay to call the recipient by first name? How should you sign off? How “casual” can you be?
We’ll answer those questions and a few more commonly-asked ones in this post, so that whether you’re emailing your teachers, counselors, a college’s advising dean, or a summer program coordinator, you can hit “send” feeling a little more confident about how you’re coming off.
What should I write for the subject line?
Yes, we know. This is the first part of your email that your recipient’s going to see — and it is important. But it’s also one of those things that you’ll definitely screw up if you overthink it.
In short, composing a subject line is pretty straightforward. Just write down the reason you wrote the email. In practice, this should be ten words or less; anything longer might annoy your recipient. Be laconic, and be precise. The recipient should know exactly what they’re getting into by the time they click on your email.
If you’re writing to correct a mistake on an application, the subject should read “Correction to Application.” If you’re writing to send in supplemental materials to an application, the subject should be “Supplementary Materials.” It’s really that simple!
However, one exception to this rule is if you’re only sending an email to ask a question. In that case, don’t include the question in your subject line; that defeats the purpose of having an email body and can make you appear redundant. The subject line can just read “Question about X,” while the body of the email contains the question.
How should I greet my recipient?
We’ve alway been taught to start letters with “dear,” and that is acceptable for an email. But it’s definitely on the formal end, and we suggest that you reserve that for when your emails are intended to be the equivalent of snail mail, but in electronic form (emailing senators and government officials, for instance). Use “dear” for important people with high-ranking positions — university presidents, PhDs, deans and provosts, and so on.
But if you’re emailing most people with a desk job, a simple “hi” is usually good enough. It’s casual and friendly enough to not be pretentious, but doesn’t assume that you know the other person all that well. Use this for anyone in the admissions office, or any person whose designated role is to field your questions, comments, and concerns. It’s also a good choice to use with your teachers and counselors.
“Hey” is also another popular alternative, and is the least formal of all three greetings. It’s usually safest to use this when there isn’t a significant age or seniority difference between you and your recipient (it’s a little weird to see a seventeen-year-old student tell a forty-two-year-old admissions officer “hey”, isn’t it?), and when you know your recipient reasonably well.
As a rule of thumb — if in-person, you’d greet this person with a handshake, use “hi.” If you’d feel comfortable giving this person a hug, use “hey.” This isn’t a hard and fast rule though, and you can definitely cross over without much thought.
And then there’s always the old “to whom it may concern” — which will work for 80% of all situations where you don’t know who your recipient is. However, if you personally feel like this would be too formal for the situation that you’re emailing for, a “good morning,” “good afternoon,” or “good evening” is a less-formal alternative.
What should I call the recipient?
This actually has an interesting correlation with the greetings in the sections above — usually, a “dear” greeting equates to last-name basis, while a “hey” greeting means that you’re on first-name basis. But let’s get into the specifics.
If your recipient has a special title, always use it in conjunction with the recipient’s last name. Stanford’s president should be President Hennessy. One of California’s senators should be Senator Feinstein. Cornell’s provost is Provost Kotlikoff. This also applies for any doctorates; always address these people as “Doctor” plus their last name. If you’re trying to contact a university faculty member but aren’t sure if they have their PhD yet (it happens), the title “Professor” plus their last name is the safest way to go.
Generally, you should use Mr. and Ms. plus the recipient’s last name for situations where you’re talking to a person for the first time over email, and you should also keep these honorifics up if they’re already what you use with the person when you’re vis a vis each other. If you’re unsure of whether or not a woman is married, use Ms. — there is also spelled-out Miss, but that’s typically reserved for older adults speaking to younger unmarried women. First-name basis should only be used if you and the recipient call each other by first name face-to-face.
If you’re responding to a person who has sent you an email though, always address the recipient by the same name that they signed off their email with, regardless of decorum — that is how they prefer to be called, and it would be disrespectful to keep calling them another name. The same goes for when you’re the one to initiate contact; if you sent an email away with “Ms. Brown” and the recipient’s reply signs off with “Linda,” address her as Linda from this point on.
What should I watch out for in the body of the email?
Nothing much — using your best judgment should get you through this. Don’t use text speak, don’t abbreviate when it’s not necessary, check for proper grammar and spelling, and be kind and courteous in your words. It also helps to avoid long paragraphs if possible; the more skimmable your email is, the better. Many of these recipients are busy people and they’d appreciate it if you could save them some time.
How should I sign off?
Just like greetings, there’s three levels to this too.
“Regards” and “sincerely” stand at the most formal end of email signatures. They’re usually paired off with a “dear” at the beginning, and usually signify a large amount of respect from the sender to the recipient. You can also use this when there’s a clear gap in seniority, age, or rank between you and your recipient.
The most common closer is “best” — shorthand for “all my best” or “best wishes.” This usually is a pair with “hi” as a greeting, and is a more laid-back signoff that shows that you’re keeping the recipient in your thoughts without the extreme deference of “regards” or “sincerely.” If you’re asking something of the recipient, however, this can also be replaced with “thank you,” as a more purpose-specific version of “best.”
The third level of closer is rare in professional emails, but signifies that you’re really familiar with your recipient — something like “yours” or “always.” We don’t recommend these for professional emails simply because they might be just a little too cheesy for the situation.