5 Unforgivable Email Sins: Email Etiquette for Education

I enjoy the casual evolution of our society: business casual at the office, interview clothing appropriate for the job (no more skirts and suits for every interview), presidential candidates sporting denims for specific stump speeches. Hell, even I wear denims, print t-shirts, and Vans shoes in the classroom. Hell, even I just used “hell” (three times in the first paragraph); now that’s casual.

And though most recognize that maintaining formality continues being a requirement in certain business and professional settings, we seem to have become too lax when it comes to formal communication, specifically email.

© Ruslana Stovner | Dreamstime Stock Photos
© Ruslana Stovner | Dreamstime Stock Photos


As a college instructor, I see too much casual email from students, so much that some content eludes deciphering. Though I would never claim to have accepted a religious call to hike the educational Mt. Sinai for holy email commandments (way too much course grading to take time off for that excursion), I do have five suggestions to keep students from sending sinful emails.

Never Use an Unprofessional Email Username

Anything other than your name (including name embellishments) reeks unprofessional and should not be used for formal communication. You’ve graduated high school and it’s time to leave the childish things behind, including childish usernames. Imagine a scholarship committee reviewing applications and seeing the email username anarchistasshole. I’m guessing the committee quickly ushers the application through the paper shredder.

If you’ve been committing email blasphemy, there’s hope. Your college most likely offers you an email with your name as the username. And, you can probably have that email forwarded to your primary email account if you do not want to juggle multiple accounts. (Just remember not to reply from that other non-professional email you’ve been using since middle school.)

Even if you use the school’s email, that email probably won’t be available to you after you graduate or leave the school, so plan to start using an adult email username for post college communication. There are many email options and you will need a professional looking email username for job applications, bills, and adult communication. I have been using Gmail for a lot of years and though not an endorsement, I’ve had no problems; it’s very reliable.

Never Type in all Caps

It’s universally understood that typing in all caps is equivalent to shouting. I’m of the benefit-of-the-doubt personality when I see someone post in all caps on social media. Though forgiving, I don’t read it. It’s hard on the eyes and, well, it’s like having to stand next to a person WHO IS SHOUTING. So, do not ever, for any reason, type an email to a professor (or any person) in all caps.

Kathryn Vercillo’s article “What People Think When You Type in All Caps” mentions that email recipients might assume the all-caps-typer is an immature writer. Isn’t that what you want your writing professor to assume? Yeah, didn’t think so. If you want to avoid the academic confessional booth, be a mature writer and use capital letters only when required.

Never Submit a Rough Draft

Revise for Economy

Keep your email message short. If you assume instructors love reading, good assumption. But that would not include emails. Please do not miraculously become a long winded writer of emails, especially if you struggle meeting the minimum essay word/page requirements. Get to the point. Remember, your instructor might have hundreds of emails from other students as well as college-wide emails about committee meetings, department reminders, and new textbook editions in addition to those pesky (annoying) miscellaneous emails.

Think I’m exaggerating about hundreds of emails? Probably a little, but your instructors invest a lot of energy into categorizing, reading, and responding to emails, so please don’t add unnecessary time to your instructors’ busy schedules.

Revise for Clarity

No, your email is not an academic essay, but it’s also not a scratch pad of freewriting. There is way too much undecipherable content on social media (and, unfortunately, in college essays), and you are in college to rise above that mediocre, underachieving (possibly underprepared) writing.

© Scott Pehrson | Dreamstime Stock Photos
© Scott Pehrson | Dreamstime Stock Photos


I am not suggesting spending hours on a brief email. I am begging you to write like a college student so that your professor doesn’t exhaust any energy at the unintelligible email she just attempted to translate.

Revise for Stupid Questions

I am voicing on behalf of most instructors who constantly fight the myth that there are no stupid questions. Since education is about enlightening and expanding the mind, brace yourself for this important fact: There are stupid questions! If I have handed out a paper copy of an assignment including a class schedule and due dates, then sending me an email asking me when an essay is due is a very stupid question because you already have the answer. Wonder how much time is spent reading an email with a stupid question? Exactly the amount of time it takes to delete the stupid question email.

Never Leave the Subject Line Blank

There is a reason for that blank space. It’s so that you, the sender, will type relevant, important, and much needed info in the space provided. I mean, why do you think it is there? That question was rhetorical, but if you’re trying to answer, here’s the reason: The blank subject line is an opportunity for the sender to quickly communicate the subject of the email, hence “subject line.” Not using the subject line is one more opportunity for an email firewall to dump your important email into a spam folder, possibly to never be read or seen.

If sending an email to a professor, use the subject line to identify your class, day, and time, then add a word or phrase describing your email. For example, if you are in a comp II class at 10:30 on Tuesday and Thursday and you have a question about an essay assignment (not the due date; that’s a stupid question: refer to unforgivable email rough draft sin #3), your subject line might look like this: Comp II TR 10:30, Essay Question. If I receive this email with that informative and concise subject line, I’m giving it priority.

Never Assume a Prof Knows Your Expectations

In everyday life, most of us have expectations that are not communicated. Maybe you’ve done a nice gesture for someone and the person didn’t respond the way you had hoped. It’s not that person’s fault if you did not communicate your expectation. Unfortunately, those expectations carry into communication with professors.

Likewise, if you send an email offering information like, I’m not going to be in class today, but you don’t receive a response and expected one, it is not the professor’s fault. You had an expectation that was not communicated. When a student asks me why I didn’t respond to an email, I usually say, “Did your email ask a question?” The student usually follows my question with a blank stare: conversation over. If you expect an email response, you need to ask a question.

Another sinful expectation is the fantasy that your prof waits on student emails. Do you really expect professors to habitually check work email during the weekend or a semester break? If so, stop. I love teaching and it is definitely part of my quality of life. But I do have a life beyond school.

Don’t be the student who finally checks your fall semester grade Christmas Eve and is surprised your lack of attendance and assignment submissions earned you an F grade. In your (not really) surprised response meant to reveal your new educational priority (seen by your prof as wasted desperate energy), you hurriedly typed an unintelligible email (breaking email sin #3) at 7pm Christmas Eve.

Now you are (really) surprised that your prof (now on winter break) doesn’t cheat her family’s time during their holiday celebration by responding to your email. If this example is not you but you do wonder about a professor’s turn-around with emails, follow the 48 hour rule. If you have asked a question via email and have not received a response after 48 hours, send a follow-up email.

I have read that email has become archaic or that it will become less prominent as a communication tool, but in my experience, it has become the most prominent and formal communication tool, showing no slowdown in the immediate future. Therefore, using the above five suggestion will help students, or anyone, maintain much needed communication formality when using email in addition to much less time in educational penance due to blasphemous, sinful email mistakes.

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