I’ve been enjoying your blog for a while and it’s really helped me with getting better at Using My Words. This is a pretty low-stakes question but I thought it was definitely one for a university professor. (Sorry if professor isn’t the right term, I’m not American.)
I’ve been doing fine at uni for several years but I’ve recently hit a mental health roadblock. The process of getting (free) therapy is painstaking but I’m finally on a waiting list, so yay! However, it’s greatly impacting my studies. For the first time, I am taking half my classes online, and so I’ve never met my professors and can’t geographically organise to do so.
So my question is, how do I complete procedures like requesting extra time on assignments, when it has to be done entirely via email? I feel so awkward having to explain the “reason for extension” and not sure where the line between TMI and not enough info is.
Some bonus! advice about how to generally communicate with professors via email would also be appreciated. Do I say “hi” or “dear”? Can I ACTUALLY email them if I don’t understand something? Sometimes I wish there was an ettiquete rule book I could follow because I’ve ended up avoiding any communication and struggling in class as a result.
Thanks so much, Captain! And a huge thank you for just running this blog, because I really do love reading it.
Hi, thanks for the kind words!
I am realizing that a lot of people are never really taught how to write emails (which have largely replaced the “business letter” I was so diligently instructed about writing as a kid in the 80s) so this is a timely request.
I’m an adjunct professor, official title is probably closer to Instructor, I have an MFA, and I work for a department and a very informal institution where folks mostly go by first names with their students. So someone emailing me to say “Hi Jennifer, I’ve got some health stuff going on and I need an extension on this assignment. I can have it completed by (date). Will that work?” would be a-ok. I certainly wouldn’t be offended by a more formal greeting, and since you don’t really know these professors in your shoes I’d err on the side of being formal. If you don’t know their titles, take a quick look at your syllabus and/or look up their profile on the school’s website. If the letters “PhD” or the words “doctor” or “doctorate” appear anywhere, use Dr. Lastname as a form of address. If not or you don’t know, go with Professor Lastname. Sample email:
Email Subject Line: “Extension Request for [Student Name]”
Dear Dr./Professor Lastname,
This is [name] from your [name of course & section or time of day, i.e. “Monday Intro to Awesomeness Course”
I’m having some health issues that are affecting my schoolwork and
I needI’d like to ask for an extension on [Assignment]. I can have it completed by [date]. I’m able to provide more details and/or documentation if you need it, please let me know and confirm that [date] will work for you.
[If you have a question about the subject matter of the assignment, something that cannot be answered by simply looking at the syllabus or course materials, ask it here].
You don’t have to use exactly that text – make it sound like you, make it specific to what you actually need – but here are the principles involved in trying to help a busy person process your request with as little work as possible.
- Use a descriptive subject line when you compose the email. “Question” or “No subject” are vague and lazy. Make it easy for the person to identify you and the request.
- Remind the person who you are and how you’re connected. I have fairly small classes that meet in person and by this point in the term I know people’s names, but this is not the case for everyone, especially in a larger lecture course or an online course where the person has never seen your face. Gently jog the person’s memory.
- Ask for the thing you need as clearly and directly as possible.
- Tell the person when you can get them the thing. Be realistic about what you can do & when so that you only have to ask once. As a human being with a lot of grading to do in these next few weeks, what I want from an extension request is not a negotiation, I want brief permission to stop worrying about your paper and focus on other stuff as well an indication on when I need to start thinking about it again.
- Tell them why you need the extension but don’t feel like you have to go into great detail or tell the entire story. I personally do not need the whole story of what’s going on. I assume students are doing their best and that if they aren’t keeping up with work there is probably a reason. I realize that this isn’t everyone’s way, but if you keep it brief and offer more information if they need it, they can tell you if they need it. In your case, if they needed further explanation or documentation I’d loop in the university office where you made the counseling appointment and ask them to send the professor a note on your behalf.
- Send it ASAP (the middle of the night before the thing is due has dramatic flair but little else to recommend it).
- Meet the deadline you proposed.
- If humanly possible and you are not suffering from something contagious, GO TO CLASS. (In your specific case, Letter Writer, participate in the week’s online class discussions to the extent that you can). Students tend to fall behind on work and then they shame-hide because they feel embarrassed and then they fall further behind and it drives me bonkers. COME TO CLASS. We can work out the details of assignments later. COME TO CLASS.
Subject: Recommendation Letter for Student Name
Dear Professor Lastname,
I am [Name] from your [Course] during the [semester & year]. My final project/paper/presentation was about [topic]. Would you be willing to write me a recommendation letter for [specific scholarship or program]?
The deadline is [date] and the letter must be submitted [online at this link/online through an auto-generated request/on letterhead in an envelope with your signature over the flap]. It should be addressed to… [Look up the exact mailing address & name of the program, for example, Scholarship Committee, Captain Awkward Awesomeness Scholarship Award, Street Address, City, State, Zip Code]
I think I am a good candidate for this scholarship/program because… [what are some of the things you’d put in your essay about why you deserve this?]. Since taking your class I have been… [what have you been studying/learning/working on/getting better at/working on outside of school][Especially if you didn’t receive an A in the course, this is where you make the case that what you learned is important to you in your ongoing studies or career].
Please let me know as soon as you can if you’d be willing to write a letter for me. Thank you so much for your time.
Breakdown as you adapt this into your own words for your own circumstances:
- Descriptive subject line that lets the reader easily classify what the email is about.
- Remind the person how you know them.
- Make your request as directly as possible.
- Give them information that will make the request as simple to fulfill as possible & also show that you’ve done your homework ahead of time.
- Give them some background information about you – a good recommender will work this stuff into the letter in a way that will make you both look good.
- Thank them and sign off.
- You can use a template like this for most professional emails you will ever send to people you don’t know very well and need to be a bit formal with.
Letter Writer, if you’re still nervous, know this: No matter how you phrase it, your request won’t be the worst or weirdest your professors will get this year, or even this month, or even this week. Health stuff happens and extension requests are common, routine things that students need. Be polite and clear and you’ll most likely be fine. Good luck sorting it all out and getting the work done.