Last Updated: Apr 9, 2020
Writing professional emails is a fate you can’t escape in life, and with the coronavirus pandemic keeping us all at home, e-communication is more important than ever to keep in contact with coworkers, admission counselors, future employers, and more.
Writing emails may seem like an easy task, but there’s definitely a right and a wrong way to do it. You want to sound professional but still sound like yourself, and you don’t want to catch a typo or a stray comma after you’ve hit send. So here’s a list of all the things you should double-check to present your best self before sending an email off to someone’s inbox.
Contractions are okay
Let’s clear one thing up here: using contractions (like you’re, don’t, it’s, etc.) does not make you sound less professional. You likely learned in school that contractions shouldn’t be used in professional and academic settings, and while that one teacher may have docked points on your papers for using “haven’t” instead of “have not,” the real world is actually contraction friendly. We use them in everyday life for a reason: they make our speech flow better in order for our communication to sound more natural.
So the next time you’re writing a professional email, don’t worry about trying to sound more serious by avoiding contractions. You’ll actually end up making your email a slower and more robotic read by avoiding them entirely. You can still convey yourself in a professional and intelligent way while using contractions, and when you do choose to not use one, it’ll be more effective in emphasizing your point.
Texting slang is not okay
While using contractions in a professional email is fine, texting slang isn’t—ever. Texting slang was developed because of the rapid-fire nature of text messaging in today’s day and age. Talking to your friends is supposed to be quick, easy, and casual, but conversing with a professor or potential employer is not. An email is the place to really slow down and have a conversation with someone when you can’t or don’t need to be having it in person.
When writing an email, your virtual persona is being conveyed to the receiver’s overall understanding of who you are as a person, so make sure you’re leaving a good impression by keeping the “lols” and “tbhs” where they belong—in your text messages.
Use (but don’t overuse) exclamations
To go along with the overall diction of your emails, allow yourself to use exclamation points, but don’t overuse them. Showing excitement over something is never a bad thing because it expresses investment in the conversation to whoever you’re corresponding with. A “Thank you!” is going to look much more appreciative than a “Thank you.” if the person receiving your email has just done something helpful. And much like the contractions, exclamation points can emphasize what you have to say if used correctly.
That being said, overuse will make your email appear disingenuous and like you’re trying too hard to please and impress someone. One or two exclamations points sprinkled in an email will benefit you, but ending every sentence with them won’t make you sound professional.
Write succinctly but intentionally
What’s worse than opening an email to find that it’s paragraphs and paragraphs long? Probably nothing. Again, an email is a place to have a conversation that doesn’t need to be had in person, so respect your receiver’s time by making your communication succinct.
After a short “How are you?” or “It’s good to hear from you!”, get to the point quickly. Unless your correspondent has already been in touch with you and knows what the email is about, they may shift your email to the bottom of their inbox if it’s too long to immediately gauge whether it’s worth their time. Keep things short and to the point so your correspondent is more likely to read your email in full and respond appropriately with what you’re seeking.
Split it up for readability
If you do have to write a longer, more detailed email, make sure it’s split up for readability. One big block of text is not going to make anyone want to read your email, and they may miss pertinent information if they decide to skim.
For instance, let’s say you’re asking a professor about a class assignment as well as a day you have to miss class next week, both of which require explanations: what you’re confused about on the assignment and why you have to miss class. Split it up like this:
- Introduction and pleasantries: Say hello, ask them how they’re doing, and give a brief summary of what you’re emailing about.
- The assignment: Explain in detail the confusion you’re having and perhaps suggest setting up a meeting if your professor thinks it’ll be too hard to explain over email. They’ll appreciate your respect of their time.
- Missing class: While you don’t have to go into detail if it’s personal, make it clear that you’re missing class for a valid reason and wanted to let the professor know ahead of time.
- Conclusion and pleasantries: If you’re requesting information or help from someone, thanking them in advance of their response is always a good way to close out an email.
Use appropriate openers and closers
Knowing how to address a person can be hard, especially if you’ve never met them and you may not even know what their preferred pronouns are (so Mr. and Mrs./Ms. are off the table). This is unfortunately a case-by-case situation you have to gauge by the context of your email.
While first and last names might seem a little formal, it’s certainly better than being offensive or misrepresenting a person, so default to that if you’re unsure. If you’ve already been corresponding with the person and they’ve signed off their emails with just their first names, then you can address them by their first name in further emails. Using first names isn’t unprofessional if you’ve built a rapport with someone. But if this is your first time emailing and you don’t know their name at all, a simple “Good morning” or “Good afternoon” is a perfectly acceptable greeting until you figure it out.
As for closers, don’t get too fancy. Just stick to the basics: “Best,” “Thank you,” or “Have a great day” are always acceptable and appreciated. If “Kind regards” doesn’t feel authentic to you, then it’s not worth using just to sound more mature or serious. An email should always feel like a reflection of yourself, tone-wise.
Have an email signature
If you’re still in college or high school, it may seem like you don’t have a title worthy enough to have an email signature for—but having one is important, and you’ve got options.
If you’re in college, an email signature with your name, major or program of study, email address, and phone number works fine. It covers all the pertinent information your contact could need without outright having to explain any of it in the body of your email.
If you’re not in college with a potential major, still having a signature with your name, email address, phone number, and even the name of your school will look better than nothing at all. (And if you’re concerned about someone having your phone number, simply delete it on a case-by-case basis for those you don’t wish to have it.)
Always proofread before hitting send
Proofreading is important in all forms of writing, not just academic papers. Even if you’re writing the shortest email to a teacher or an admission counselor, misspelled words and improper grammar will stand out. Always read back what you wrote before hitting send, and if you’re not sure about the way you said something or if a comma belongs in a certain place, don’t be afraid to have someone look at it. There’s no shame in having someone else proofread your emails so you can learn more writing rules and present your best self.
These may seem like a lot of “rules,” but with email communication being so prevalent whether you’re a student or out in the working world, it’s important to be on your game even when sending a quick response. Use these tips to guide you and get ready to impress correspondents with your communication skills.
For more advice on developing your professionalism, check out our Internships and Careers section.