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.
101 thoughts on “#1058: It’s that time of year when we need to email professors!”
Great scripts! Only thing I would add as a prof is to attach your documentation to the email if at all possible. This is one less step for the professor to worry about and shows you’re taking initiative to get them what they need to grant the extension.
Yes, I agree. I’d also add to first check the syllabus/course website/other fundamental class info source to see if there are guidelines for extension requests (or make-up tests, or whatever) so you can make sure you are including the information your professor needs. For instance, my syllabus gives specific details about when I need to see documentation and what kind of documentation is needed in different circumstances.
+ 1 The professor may have significantly different discretion to act depending on the circumstances, so checking your university resources (student handbook, contract, syllabus, all the above) is useful. If e.g. it’s a formal assessment and the syllabus says you need a doctor’s note for an extension in that case, then putting it straight in your email “Page 67 of the handbook says I need a doctor’s note, I am in the process of obtaining this and will send it to you shortly” helps both you and them.
completely agree. I’m a phd and “teaching assistant” and occasional “instructor.” We need the note! It’s not just to keep us out of hot water or the symptoms of skepticism towards the student’s truth-telling. We are professional incapable of diagnosing – and we should not be diagnosing – anything at all. Universities have other staff for that stuff. Teachers on the ball with their responsibilities will know who they are and how to contact them. It doesn’t have to be a doctor’s note- a dean for ‘residential life’ or the equivalent should suffice. Bonus, this process should (hopefully) be helpful for students to get the help they need — which is the most important thing, at the end of the day.
Just as a really minor aside- in the UK Professor is a much more illustrious title (IE the ranking goes lecturer, senior lecturer, reader, professor), so Dr might be the safer address. Hope all goes well 🙂
Sorry- the above was meant to include a “depending on where you are”- I just noted you said not America!
Yup and almost all Profs are also Drs (but not vice versa) so Dr is usually correct. The institution’s website will usually tell you. Although having studied at two British unis and now working at a third, I don’t think I’ve ever met a lecturer who wasn’t perfectly fine about being addressed by their first name.
I wouldn’t assume that a professor is a Dr., depending on where they’re teaching, and what. Many of my friends have been instructors at colleges while getting their PhD’s, and many subjects in the arts have a Masters’s as a terminal degree. (Although I’ve never met someone who was offended by someone assuming they had a higher degree.)
I teach physics/astronomy, and technically I wasn’t a professor as my first job post-PhD (I was hired as a lecturer in the US). One of the things about addressing emails, I’ve found, is that we academics kind of get that our rankings are confusing. So, yeah, I never minded being Dr. LastName when I was a grad student or Professor LastName when I was a lecturer, because I realize that students are trying for some general rule of politeness.
It’s definitely not uncommon for my professors to be in the process of getting PhD’s (I’m studying math, undergrad, in Ontario,Canada). Sometimes it can help to check how they introduced themselves in the first lecture?
In many cases the correct title should be on their website. However, like Becca Stareyes said, it’s not going to be a huge issue if you use the wrong title. Most instructors understand that it can be complicated.
Oh cool. In the Universities I studied at, it was simply not possible to be a professor without a doctorate. You could be an instructor, a lecturer, you could do all the work of a professor, but if you do not have a doctorate, you can not be hired as a professor. However many many people have doctorates without being a professor.
That said, while it’s best to look up the person’s title, which is hopefully easy to find on the school website, few people are likely to be terribly offended by an accidental promotion in a polite letter.
Dr. may be correct, but I think Professor is more polite since it’s the higher title. Look them up and see what title they have. In my experience in the US (exclusively West coast), anyone with a doctorate who is lecturing a course can reasonably be called Professor Lastname. You don’t want to be pointing out someone’s level of tenure or not when you’re addressing them….
This is massively culture dependent, though. The LW isn’t in the USA so we don’t know what applies to her, but here in the UK “professor” would not be the polite default to a person who wasn’t a professor, it would be impolite because incorrect. In any case, it is easy enough these days to check on the university website.
Just Plain Neddy- My experience with British uni was the same, all lecturers went exclusively by their 1st name with no title. As the LW hasn’t met the lecturers in person and had them come into the lecture and introduce themselves with ‘Hi I’m Jim!’, I think formal is best at first. However (following advice could probably apply to any country) in follow up emails LW, if they sign off with just a first name then I should think it is fine to address further replies to ‘Dear [firstname]’. That’s how I manage things when I email GPs through my work, I start with ‘Dr [surname]’ and if they sign off with [first name] then I’ll address them by [first name] in any further emails. If they sign off with a nickname/shortened name I use that, too. Someone signing off an email is giving you a message that says either ‘I’m happy to be called [first name]’, or alternatively, ‘I would prefer you to continue to calll me Dr [surname]/ Professor [surname]’.
Prof/Dr are usually pretty safe. I would STRONGLY discourage Mr./Ms./Mrs. I am properly referred to as Dr. Socratic. However, Prof. Socratic (when I teach) is music to my ears. Mrs. Socratic makes me irritable.
Mrs. Southernbelle is my mother in law and she does not answer students’ questions after I have written on the board, the syllabus, the bottom of every email AND the course website that my name is Dr. Southernbelle. Professor Southernbelle is fine too! Women get this disproportionately and I also get very, very cranky.
Yes yes yes.
My students default to “Dr Whoever” for the male professors, and I get “hey firstname”. It’s unacceptable. Either both genders are Dr. or both are firstname, but I will not stand for this nonsense.
so true. and sadly, not just because of the “bitchy maneater – softy earthmother – flakey slut’ tripartite continuum that folks slot us into. It’s also because SO MUCH PSYCHOLOGICAL TRAUMA on campus is in fact caused by MEN.
I lectured a course while I was a grad student, and had the time didn’t have a PhD. I asked the students to call me by my first name because Professor would have been inappropriate. Luckily I didn’t get any “Mrs.” emails -_- but even the “Prof.” emails made me a little uncomfortable. Especially with no last name like “Hi Professor, bla bla bla”
When I was a TA sometimes people went a stop too far on the titles train and called me Professor Nor even though I introduced myself as Stella, Your TA at the beginning of class and I did not have a PhD and was not their professor. My response to that was always “tee hee they gave me a promotion”. Mrs. Nor would have annoyed me.
I had a mix of professorial title preferences in graduate school — some of them loved being called Dr. Whatever and some of them were not really fans of it. I found that Professor Whatever was always a safe bet when addressing someone with a PhD who was my instructor. Mr/Ms/Mrs is just… Not Even Once.
Also, undergrad protip: If you see your TAs calling your professor by their first name, that does not mean you can do it too. When I was in grad school I worked with a few different profs who were cool with their grad students first-naming them but NOT DOWN with any of their many, many intro course students doing it.
As someone who’s taken a few online classes, instructors expect students to email questions etc. I agree these should be questions you can’t answer reading the syllabus or materials. You can always ask them to clarify something that’s ambiguous, of course.
Regarding extensions for health reasons, when it’s this late in the term, I hope they will treat this like “I have the flu” rather than expecting you to be registered with the student disability services office for an official accommodation. In future, it might be good to sign up if you may need adjustment to due dates next semester too.
Seconding the disability services suggestion if the LW has several semesters to go and foresees needing extensions in the future. The only hiccup is that documentation is usually (always…?) required, and if the LW is on a waiting list for mental health services they might not yet have access to official letters.
In the UK, whenever I have been on a waiting list for mental health reasons, I have always been able to get a letter or a sick note from my GP even before I had seen a counsellor/psych nurse/psychiatrist. I have also contacted the MH services to ask them to send me a letter saying I’m on their waiting list. Disability servioces and profs at my uni would accept those in themselves.
When one service needed more paperwork, they accepted what I had on a provisional basis. Eg, “We will start making arrangements right now, but please get us XYZ letter/sick note/assessment as soon as you can.”
tl;dr: LW, If your family doctor/local GP can say you need to be on a waiting list for MH treatment, that’s enough medical evidence for most uni situations.
Oh, and if you can, try skipping profs and lecturers and going straight to your dept admins for “how-do-I?” advice. The profs often don’t know what they’re talking about! It’s the admins who deal with a lot of this stuff every day; they know the procedures and what paperwork you need.
If it’s just for an essay with a small amount of credit attached they likely won’t mind or need documentation. Where shit gets real is with exams. If you have health issues affecting an exam, bring every last doctor’s letter and therapist’s letter and timeline and be prepared to have to fight to get your health taken into consideration.
If your school has a disability affairs office, and you know you have issues with things, get with them the first moment you know you have an onoing health issue that might mess up your schooling, whether that’s excess absences for treatment, needs more time for tests, may need to make up tests, etc. Get with them before it happens if you can. They can organise across the board documentation and stand up for you with professors who are nasty about accommodations (at least in the US disability law requires them to work with you up to a point and some professors have to be whomped on the head with the regulations to get fair treatment.)
In a lot of schools there are people who literally get paid to jump these hoops with you. If you go to them and you nevver need to use their help, great, but you’re already documented if you ever do. And it’s easier to get documentation and line up your ducks if you’re not under deadline pressure.
This is true. It’s also the case that you have a MUCH better chance of getting consideration for your health issues if you disclose them before, rather than after an assessment. Trying to explain or change bad marks after they happen is almost impossible, even if you do have good documentation. Whereas if you speak up ahead of time there’s a very good chance the response will be “Can you think of anything we could do to help and support you?”
Hi LW, I’d add in be prepared for the professor to give you some pushback, and be prepared to go to the dean (or whomever it is that’s above the professors in your country) if they don’t want to work with you. If that doesn’t work, there ought to be student disability officers or other bodies within the university you can go to for help.
Professors are unfortunately human and they have their own biases and shortcomings. Having been raised by two college-level instructors, asking for extra time seemed to be a relatively common pet peeve– a lot of them think that the students are trying to shirk out of the work, and don’t take into account the other things going on in their life.
Remember that this is not primary school where you HAVE TO be there, you are PAYING these guys lots of money to instruct you. The ball is in your court. You don’t have to sit and take it as you did when you were a child. You have recourse if they do not treat you appropriately.
In the US at least, they are REQUIRED to accommodate students who have mental or physical disabilities, which sometimes does include asking for extra time on the assignment. You may be in a grey area if you seeking treatment but aren’t already diagnosed, but I think this would be one where it would work to your advantage to document every communication and make it very clear that the extension is related to a medical/mental issue. The point of this is to let them know that you KNOW what your rights are, you KNOW what they are required to give you, and you are keeping a record if they don’t deliver.
Also, remember that there’s no hard rule that you absolutely HAVE to finish the course, or college itself, if it gets to be too much. You can ask for an incomplete, withdraw, or even quite college for a time entirely if that’s what you need to do for your own mental help.
The LW may not have the rights you think they have, since they are not in the US. If there is a rights issue, the LW would be best to consult someone in his or her jurisdiction.
The ADA is a magnificent piece of legislation but in many countries disability law is a mishmash of statute and precedent and there may be no right to accommodation whatsoever, especially for mental illness. That is the sad reality.
As a former adjunct instructor, I agree. Also, if it helps, LW, we much prefer you ask for help, clarification, etc. then not. It helps us become better at what we do (especially when a question is about content or clarification about how to complete an assignment) and assess whether what we’re doing is working for the class.
Also, extensions, when used judiciously, generally don’t bother us too much as long as we can get our work done when we need to (we also have deadlines, such as for putting in grades). Sometimes it is even a welcome thing, as it gives you one less paper (or assignment) to grade, even though we know we’ll have to do it later – or you might still get it in while we’re grading so we’ll just mentally put yours in the bottom of the stack.
All in all, if you’re a student, please engage with your instructors. Believe it or not, but that’s actually what we want (and sometimes what we complain about students not doing!)
My (U.S.) college *prohibits* faculty from giving accommodations unless the student has official accommodations through the appropriate college office. So, for me it is actually a big deal if a student asks for an extension without having done the paperwork first.
That is fair, for accommodations sometimes the college/University has specific policies, but I’m also guessing an instructor there would then inform the student of the requirements thus helping the student receive necessary accommodations.
I TAed a class with a similar policy — it was a 400-student intro class that fulfilled a gen-ed requirement (and a completely undeserved reputation as an easy A), so if we dealt with accommodations on an individual basis without any paperwork we inevitably ended up completely snowed under with requests. All the grading was based on quizzes and two big exams, and the professor dropped the lowest quiz grade, so you got one unexpected emergency for free. After that, though, you needed paperwork.
It was kind of brutal but people pretty much worked it out. It was also a course where cheating and other shenanigans were RAMPANT because it was about 60% people who didn’t actually want to be there, they just needed to check a general education box and heard the incorrect rumor that it was an easy class.
I dunno who spread that rumor but they were evil.
Another suggestion for subject lines–I always include the topic I have a question about, and then the catalog number/section for the class I’m in so that they know which class the question comes from even before the email (e.g. “Final Exam HIS 111-17”). Especially when it’s about an online class or online grade book, I try to match the information that the web portal uses to organize the class so it’s as easy as possible for the teacher to match me to the right class (especially when the question is one that could apply to pretty much any class, like “When’s the final?” or “can I have an extension on the midterm?”).
I was going to say the same thing. Every class I’ve taken recently, the instructor has asked that we put the class number (and sometimes the section) in the subject. So mine would say Extension Request for Violet EMT – EMS101 M/W
That’s just about exactly why I started doing it. I’ve only had a couple of teachers in my long, meandering route through higher education who have specifically mentioned it, but it’s like 10 extra keystrokes, so why not do it for all the teachers (at least, once it was brought to my attention, I’m not perfect)?
This is very good advice. I have known professors who set up rules to manage their emails boxes so that if you include the course code “ENGL 100” (or whatever the specific course code is) in the subject line, it gets sorted into a specific folder that they check much quicker than their general inbox. Even if they don’t do that, it is an easy thing to search or skim for. So I just make all subect lines “[course code]: [descriptive subject line]” where the subect line could be “alternative office hours” or “assignment 3 submission” etc.
agreed with this, to make the subject line as reasonably replete as you can. Between two online classes in pre-final week, two brickspace classes in final week, and an online org I volunteer for that can generate 100 emails a day without trying, I have officially entered what I refer to as ‘Silly Season’. I sometimes have to triage off subject line alone. I like the good Captain’s suggestion, but I can get your information off the sender info*; I prefer something like “$project_name Extension Request, ENG 1101 007”. That lets me know instantly where I know you from and what sort of timers are ticking.
* and for the love of apples, if you can, use your school account, to help verify who you say you are. If the instructor is being paranoid/temperamental, they can cite FERPA and refuse to respond to non-school emails in any useful way in “an effort to not disclose non-directory information”. (Yes, I’ve had an instructor be that much of a jerk. No, I don’t do it to my students.)
At my school, I’ve had teachers say, from the start of the semester, that the filters they’re forced to use by the school’s email system are massive jerks, and that they may never even receive emails sent from a non-school account. So always, always, use the school account if at all possible.
+1 to using your school email, but for practical reasons such as “my institutional email occasionally gets aggressive with the filtering and puts your email from hotmail or, ESPECIALLY, qq mail, in the spam folder” and “I don’t want to get work-related correspondence from email@example.com” and also half the people who emailed me from their personal accounts DID NOT SIGN THEIR NAMES and I had to email them back like, I’m sorry but who are you?
And I should have refreshed the page before adding my comment. This!
Ha, I was going to post this! I made that a requirement for contacting me on the syllabus.
As faculty, we get roughly a grillion point two e-mails a day, anything that helps me know instantly what class and assignment you’re asking about helps me help you (and I really DO want to help you! Promise!)
is there a disability resources office or other office on campus that LW could utilize? as a teaching assistant, i was unable to provide accommodations without documentation from the disability office. at my current institution, it was rather simple to go into the disability office, and during our training, it was made clear that disabilities came in all types, and the most common one that students utilized was test anxiety, often allowing them to take time and a half on exams, etc.
“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.”
Oh, man you just described the entirety of my first two years at [highly ranked national college], after which they gently asked me to go do something else for a while. I did eventually go back and finish, and they were nice about it, but I was several years older, married, and had some military experience. So I ended up doing a *lot* better.
Oh man, I really could have used these scripts when I was in college.
Good stuff. It doesn’t hurt to be way more polite and formal in address than one normally would. I would also suggest bullet points–most faculty these days are overworked, and have hundreds of emails to wade through daily. It might also not be the only place your prof teaches, so if there’s an official policy on extensions and the like, it can help to have everything needed, along with a link to said policy. (I know I’d appreciate such things..)
It took me way too long into my uni career to realise that yes, you really CAN email the prof. And go to office hours (or online equivalent – live chat?). You are not a bother, it is literally part of their job to answer your questions.
Also, unlike high school and lower, uni is less about rule-following more about actually learning. It’s not (supposed to be) about whether everybody has the same deadlines, it’s about making sure every student learns what they are here to learn.
Proactively asking for what you need is well regarded all around.
Maybe I’m being exceptionally picky with wording but I am a professor and “I need an extension” rubs me the wrong way because it feels like I’m being told instead of asked. My suggested alternative is, “I’m writing to request an extension…” That said, I’m Canadian so this could be cultural differences… it also chafes my ears when I hear people in restaurants, more often American ones, start an order with “I need…” instead of “May I have…”
I am British and we normally phrase things in a ‘if you don’t mind awfully’ sort of way. But the LW ‘needs’ an extension in a way that people don’t ‘need’ a cheeseburger. If you can’t go into work you call up and say ‘I need to have a day of sick leave’ you don’t say ‘I request not to have to come into work while I am vomiting my guts up’.
“If you can’t go into work you call up and say ‘I need to have a day of sick leave’ you don’t say ‘I request not to have to come into work while I am vomiting my guts up’.”
If a certain number of sick days are in your contract or your local laws, then you might just say ‘I’ll have to take a sick day today’ or ‘I’ll be taking a sick day’.
But I could also see wording it as a request. Even if you both know it’s a pseudo request for politeness sake, there’s nothing really wrong with it.
American professor here, and I totally agree that I would prefer “I’m writing to request…” or “I am hoping it would be possible to request an extension…”
I also second the suggestion to read over the syllabus and student handbook very closely before making this kind of request. I have spent time already explaining how to ask for an extension in my classes, and it will be a much smoother interaction if it’s clear that you’re activating that process vs. asking me to copy and paste the relevant sections of the syllabus into an email.
Also– I ask for documentation for EVERYTHING, from EVERYONE, in order to protect them from possible bias/favoritism. It doesn’t matter if I dislike you, you struggled in the class, you remind me of someone who was mean to me in middle school– you’ll get the exact same treatment as anyone else with the same documentation. (And if you were one of my favorites who made teaching a pleasure, then we have a paper trail to protect both of us from accusations of favoritism.)
it rubs me the wrong way too. it sounds demanding and rude. Southerner here, btw, so I may also be used to a higher standard of formality than some.
These scripts are amazingly comprehensive! Honestly, a good professor is always open to accept reasonable requests and helping their students out – my mom used to be a Lit professor and she always used to tell me that she values students who are respectful and who show interested.
Nothing wrong is going to happen LW, I promise!
I completely agree with asking for extensions early! If it’s for the term paper or something of that sort, I expect students to start working on the assignment more than a few days before the deadline. So I don’t react very well to a request one day in advance (or even after the deadline has passed), and with the student having done no work yet. In contrast, I would absolutely grant an extension if asked two weeks before the deadline.
As for explanations for an extension, “health reasons” is totally fine by me. I don’t need students to share any details with me (I’ve gotten my share of x-rays and copies of diagnoses which felt like I was intruding into students’ private sphere).
Basically, I expect students to manage their workload, which in some instances can include admitting that they’re overwhelmed and requesting some readjustments. What’s really important to me is that students take responsibility rather than being evasive, pretending they misread the instructions, faking technology failures or simply handing in the assignment too late, hoping that I will then be forced into accepting it. It makes a huge difference when a student is upfront and direct.
Shorter is better. I think most professors are pretty nice about this; I always was when I was teaching college.
I would add that if you have a syllabus, you might take a few minutes to read that first. Usually, policies governing late submissions, health accommodation, participation, etc. as well as how best to reach your professors are covered in there. I will tell you that a lot of folks, myself included, appreciate it if you demonstrate some familiarity with that document before you contact us, even if you’re asking for something the syllabus doesn’t expressly permit. 99% of the frustration I encountered in my cohort had to do with students not reading the information provided, even though I’m sure some time has passed since you first received that document and forgetting to consult it is a very human thing to do.
“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.”
Thisssssss! As a student I thought it was important to ask for as little as possible to ~prove myself,~ but then as an instructor it turned out I didn’t care about the difference between ‘I need an extra day’ and ‘I need an extra weekend’ unless grades were due. If you had a good reason to request an extension, I’d much rather you ask for all the time you need up front.
This is double-triple-quadruple true for anything that requires scheduling a make-up I had to supervise (like a lab experiment or a test); try not to agree to do it on the way home from the airport; pick a time you’re fairly certain you can make it.
I’d tweak the wording here from ” I need an extension on [Assignment]” to “May I please have an extension on [Assignment]?” People often come across as more brusque in email than they would in person. Just to be on the safe side, rephrasing the request as a question rather than a statement makes sure you that you telegraph respectfulness rather than entitlement.
Hi LW! Emailing your professor in this sort of situation is TOTALLY FINE. I’m an admin for my university’s conduct officers and case manager, and we deal with this sort of thing ALL THE TIME. Does your university have a case manager? The Dean of Students (or whoever holds a similar office –
basically whatever office works with students that isn’t academics, housing, or athletics) might also fill that role. They usually exist to act as sort of a focal point for students to a) help get them in touch with on- and off-campus resources that they may not be aware of and to b) help act as a bit of a mediator for students and professors, helping students advocate for themselves in these sorts of situation. We always like the student to contact the professor first, so that they have that dialogue at least started. At our university, at least, if there’s no response from the professor or they’re still not willing to work with the student, we get whatever documentation from the student they are able to provide and we send out an email on their behalf saying something like “Letter Writer is a student in one of your courses and is experiencing some personal challenges/has been recently hospitalized/is currently hospitalized (etc. depending on the situation). Any leniency you can offer at this time would be greatly appreciated, please call our office with questions, etc. etc. etc.” Professors aren’t required to work with you for physical/mental illnesses (at least here in the States, anyway); it’s an unfortunate fact of life that sometimes people are just jerkfaces. But sometimes it helps to have that Official University Correspondence in the subject line to make it a bit more official.
The script that Jennifer provided is great (when is anything she provides NOT great, really?). With an online class, professors expect that any correspondence would very likely be via email, so don’t feel weird about emailing the professor about concerns. Every university is different, and I’m not sure what options your school has, but I know that at mine professors can choose to offer an “Incomplete” – the student basically has a month or so after the start of the subsequent semester to finish whatever work is needed in that class. Might be worth looking into.
Starting a dialogue can be hard to do if you’ve never been in that situation before, but as long as you’re polite and clear, you’ll be fine. Always only share what you’re comfortable sharing. Take care of yourself, and remember that you can only do what you can do at that moment.
I’m a college professor in the US, and I enthusiastically cosign the idea of talking to your Dean of Students or the equivalent office if your school has such a thing. At the schools where I’ve taught, they’re your best first resource for dealing with stuff affecting your academic life. (Especially short-term stuff and immediate crises; for long-term stuff they’re still a good place to start but may pass you along to other offices like disability services as well.) It’s super common for me to get emails from the dean’s office asking me to grant a student extensions or a incomplete for the semester, to notify me that they’ll be out of class for a week, etc. They’re usually pretty vague about why (“medical reasons”, “family emergency”), and I’m often copied on an email which is being sent to all of the student’s professors at once so they don’t have to have four or five separate conversations about what they need while also dealing with their original issue. And it’s gloriously official, which frees me up from having to judge whether someone’s excuse is true and good enough.
I absolutely promise you that if your school has such an office, they will have seen lots of students with the same problem as you and will have procedures in place for it.
On email: my students usually call me Dr. or Professor. I have colleagues who have taught at less formal places where first names are more common. I would start with the more formal options the Captain suggests and then mirror how your professor signs their name thereafter if it’s something you could address them by in person. (The caveat there is because some people will sign an email with their initials or something similar; don’t use how they sign themselves if it would feel odd to say it aloud.)
Oh yes! The Dean of Students was a huge help to me my senior year as an undergrad. My dad was diagnosed with cancer right after I got back from winter break, and my senior thesis was due in about 4 weeks and the Dean of Students helped me coordinate with my professors to ease the workload. Definitely worth trying
I would be super careful about this, LW. A lot of the commenters here are assuming that America Is The World and that you have certain rights under an equivalent to the ADA. You may not in fact have those rights or any disability rights at all, especially in the case of mental illness.
if you are in a country where “I have a mental illness” is considered to mean “I am weak and need toughening up; please mercilessly bully me and refuse all accommodations in order to force me to conform,” you will be served better by being vague as to the nature of your illness and by getting any and all documentation from your GP/family physician.
Commenters, please, please, please: it doesn’t help the LW one bit to go on and on about the ADA and how the LW has rights and she should be firm in those rights. American law stops at the US border; other countries and often do handle matters like disability law in completely different ways. There may not be even the vaguest similarity. Please, America is *not* the world. There are stark differences even between the US and Canada, let alone countries such as Australia or New Zealand. (There are even differences between England and Scotland within the UK!)
Charlene, I’m not sure if you’re referring to my comment or not. I never said anything about the ADA, or that the LW should definitely share documentation. I told them to 1) look into if their university had someone that advocated for students in these situations and to 2) only share what they feel comfortable sharing. I specifically didn’t mention anything about FERPA or Title IX or anything that was strictly related to the U.S. because it was completely irrelevant to LW’s situation. Some universities have programs in place to help students in this situation. Some don’t. It would be extremely beneficial to at least look, though.
LW never used she/her pronouns.
+ 1 There are a lot of assumptions that the LW is operating in a certain cultural environment with certain rights and expectations, whereas the actual situation may be very different. Now, given that the LW is planning to write requesting an extension it seems reasonable to assume that this is something that is theoretically possible, maybe even routine. But even so the LW needs to make sure that they work within local procedures, not muddle them with situations that may not apply. The Captain’s advice is excellent in that it doesn’t make those assumptions, but it needs to be tempered with the LW’s own specific cultural knowledge, not assumptions that because X would be the case in the US that is what LW should do. Not least because the one thing we know about the LW’s culture is that it isn’t the USA!
I do agree with Captain Awkward that starting with “Dear Professor Lastname” is perfectly appropriate.
I just wanted to add for those who, for whatever reason, aren’t comfortable with “Dear Professor Lastname”, that starting the email with “Good morning Professor Lastname” or “Good afternoon Professor Lastname” is also appropriate.
As a college TA and a student who emails professors an exhausting amount, I second everything the Captain says here!
I also think that emailing professors with questions early on in the semester can help with situations like this. If you show you’re engaged in the class and interested in the material, the professor will recognize your name later on and be even more likely to give you an extension.
Bonus advice: Never address a female instructor as “Miss” or “Mrs.” Always “Ms.” Unless she has a PhD. Then, always always always always “Dr.” or “Prof.”
Bonus to the bonus: “The Professor Is In” has a great post on emailing professors in prospective PhD programs, here https://theprofessorisin.com/2011/07/25/how-to-write-an-email-to-a-potential-ph-d-advisor/. I have found this very useful throughout my application process, and I hope other Awkwardeers can benefit too!
For the subject, I recommend putting the class number/designation first, “MATH2001, Section A: Extension request for [StudentName]”
as professors may teach multiple classes/sections of a class and may not know which you are referring to immediately.
When I was in undergrad, my department (Theatre Arts, which usually involves a LOT of communication between students and faculty) held a seminar on how to communicate effectively and professionally. One of my professors gave a short talk about email, and her rule of thumb was to start out by erring on the side of formality, and then using the response to that email to gauge how your tone should be going forward. So your first email should be something like:
“Dear Professor Lastname,
[blah blah blah]
Then if your professor responds with something like:
[blah blah blah]
…you’ll know that you can be less formal going forward. The most important thing is that your emails should ALWAYS be polite and grammatically correct!
This is great advice.
Cap, you might consider including a note about WHEN to send that letter of rec email. That is, to say, several weeks in advance. And that it’s okay to send a reminder email a week or so before the letter is due, since it’s not unheard of for someone to forget!
Seconding all of this, but also check your syllabus to see whether your prof has included any guidelines for emailing them. If they get a high volume of email (and they almost certainly do), they may ask you to include the class and section number in the subject line, for example, to avoid it getting eaten by their spam filter.
I’m also studying online, and the instructors are always happy to field questions via email or the class online forum. Or even by phone, if it’s too complicated a question to easily answer by email.
I think the instructors in your course would probably much rather you reached out for help via email than worry and be confused. 🙂
Good luck LW, with study and with counselling!
I understand the hesitation about emailing questions LW. Somehow it just seems more casual to ask a question face to face, as opposed to emailing it (I think it’s because the anxiety of “what if this is a dumb question?” is more pronounced when you have to commit yourself to writing down said question and sending it off thus enshrining it in one’s permanent email history). However – as a university teacher and former subject co-ordinator – YES, you absolutely can and should email questions! Some uni professors/teachers even enjoy receiving thoughtful questions from students because it means they’re engaging. Sure, there are some students who ask a dozen questions in a row and that’s too much, but sending off a question or two per assignment is totally acceptable.
Where was this amazing advice when I needed it 10 years ago?! I eventually figured it out but not without a lot of anxious shame-hiding. LW, the Capitan’s advice works! It also helps to remember that profs aren’t some sort of Greek gods living in the clouds and casting judgement upon mortal students – they’re people too, and they’ve had hard times too, so they’re quite likely to be sympathetic as long as you give them a heads up.
Cosigning all of the above. I’ve told my students that not giving a shit and being in crisis look exactly the same if you don’t come talk to me. Instructors aren’t psychic, and many of us would be happy to help/accommodate you/grant extensions, but we need to know you need it.
THIS so so so much. One of the most frustrating things is finding out later about something and trying to help retroactively, but at that point there’s often not as much that I can do to help as there would have been if they had spoken to me earlier.
On the first letter example, I personally would tend to send separate emails for the extension request and for the question about the assignment. My track record is that people 90% will respond to only the first subject of any two-subject email, and also any long mail makes people procrastinate on responding at all. Maybe I’m just terrible at writing multi-subject mail!
(Mumble mumble kids these days and their top-quoting, back in my day we responded inline to each and every separate point, and after twenty replies our mail developed into a rich and ramified environment like a coral reef of unrelated matters and pedantic detail.)
Would you as recipient prefer that as a one mail or two? I’d like two so I have the option to handle one but leave the other to-do.
I completely agree about “one subject per email.” I had a terrible track record of students responding to multiple points on emails. Now I do one subject per message and it works better!
As someone who came here tonight while procrastinating on writing this exact type of letter to a professor, thank you. I’ve been feeling like major shit about it (thus the procrastination), because I’ve been scrambling for months to catch up from a really rough patch earlier this semester, but at least now I feel like having it spelled out for me can get me moving forward.
LW, may your extension be granted, and your wait list be short!
So do folks have any suggestions for when the prof doesn’t respond?? Urgh.
As a professor in the US, I second the notion of asking for an extension rather than saying “I need an extension.”
Because of academic freedom, I’m allowed to structure my syllabus and deadlines in any way I see fit. I usually have in my syllabus “No late assignments will be accepted for any reason.” In one of my classes, I do accept some late work for half credit.
The reason for this is not because I’m heartless (I don’t think!) but rather it is just unwieldy and incredibly time-consuming with upwards of 200 students to read, process, and manage excuses. When I’m fully loaded with students, if each one of them wrote me an email that took me one minute to read and one minute to respond to, it would take me over six hours each day simply managing emails.
That being said, I am receptive to polite requests well ahead of time, especially if they acknowledge that they know I don’t generally give extensions. Also especially if the student has registered (or is starting to register) with the Disability Resource Center (or Student Services, which helps students navigate and document and communicate with professors about chronic issues as well as acute stuff like a broken femur or death in the family).
I also respond well to “Dear Dr. Furo” or “Dear Professor Furo.” “Mrs. Furo” not so much.
“Dear Dr. Furo—
I’m a student in your SST 402 class, and I’m writing about xyz assignment, which is due Marchuary 13 [a few days from now].
I’m having some health problems that I anticipate will interfere with my submitting this assignment on time. I am in the process of communicating with Student Services and they should be contacting you soon. In the meantime, would it be possible to request a short extension on this deadline? I will be able to submit the assignment by 11:59 pm on Marchuary 18.
I do realize you have a ‘no late assignments’ policy, so if it’s impossible for you to extend my deadline, I understand.
First name Lastname”
Regarding emailing with a question about class, many classes have an online platform such as Blackboard. I encourage students who have questions they can’t find the answer to in the syllabus to post in the “Class Questions” discussion board. Every student can see the questions and answers and everyone can jump in and answer. I have found this cuts down on email traffic and also encourages openness! LW, you might poke around in the online platform and see if there is such a discussion board in your class!
I’ll admit I’m glad to see this response. I have a lot of sympathy when students ask for extensions, but I also have a limited amount of time to deal with them. As a TA, I am pretty constrained to whatever policy the professor sets, but I’ll admit the overall tone of these comments–that reasonable instructors will grant extensions without fail–have made me wonder if I’m some sort of cranky monster for not feeling capable of granting every request (or for wanting them to be requests instead of orders).
I teach in-person, and we don’t have discussion boards–I’m more than happy to answer questions about the course or assignments, but I understand that clarification to be a part of my job, especially as an assistant.
Apologies if this is hijacking a thread that should be more centered on students, and feel free to delete/not let through the comment if I’m at all out of line.
I definitely think it’s good to mention that not all professors will grant extensions. I’m pretty strict with deadlines because otherwise I’d rarely get a paper submitted on time.
These templates are great, I just have one extra suggestion: Put the class number in the email subject line.
e.g. rather than Subject: “Extension Request for [Student Name]”, put Subject: “PHIL100 Extension Request for [Student Name]”.
Scrolling through my inbox, emails that have classes I’m marking for in the subject line just pop out to me as relevant and really easy to categorize. “Extension Request” alone could be about a student, or it could be related to something totally different that I’m taking part in.
Plus, don’t know how common this is, but I’ve worked with professors who had filters on their inboxes so that unknown senders who don’t have certain keywords in their subjects go to a low priority or junk file.
On the topic of asking questions about something covered in the course via email (as opposed to the extension request), my expectation was that students should post these questions online first where they were visible to the entire class. Even my classes that met in person had SOME communication system online, let alone a class that actually meets online.
I always told my students that if they posted questions in the appropriate course online forum, I’d check and answer more frequently than if they emailed.
When one student has a question they want to ask, there is a really good chance that others want to ask the same thing & may be too shy or embarrassed to. Other students may also jump in and answer the question, which is a good way to check their learning and understanding. It also let me reply with the same answer once to everyone or decide if I needed to incorporate a deeper explanation in my teaching.
A friend who is a professor keeps count of how many different incorrect ways his name is spelled. He gets the usual title variations, and that’s fine, but good gods spell their name correctly!!
I have one professor this semester whose last name is one flip flop away from a much more common word – think Coek vs Coke, though that’s not it. Every single class period just about, she had to remind us of her last name to be sure our emails actually made it to her, because not only might you misspell her name for her to see, but if you misspell it in the email address, it won’t even get to her.
My “One Weird Trick” for getting fast responses to questions via email (i.e. that I don’t have to schedule a meeting with the prof to get) is to basically turn my question into a yes/no answer. The broader the question, the more you’ll need that sit-down time with the prof (which is cool!) but if you’re, say, studying for an incipient final, sometimes you just want the answer.
In my field it would be something like “Can you explain dislocation climb?” (broad, needs a sit-down) vs. “In [situation] at [temperature] the structural strength of steel* will be greatly reduced due to dislocation climb which has [these effects]. Would I be correct in saying this?” to which the prof can reply “Yes” or “No, for these reasons”. It’s a great way to find out the answer to, say, old exam problems…
*This is why jet fuel melts steel beams for those wondering B), although I hope that my posting this doesn’t summon a bevy of weird trolls
Admittedly, it was a special case, but I asked for an extension on my final project in grad school . . . because my due date was the same week, and I was pretty sure I wasn’t actually going to make it to the last day of class. I asked about a month in advance and in person, and I didn’t really have to explain the health reasons, just sort of gestured downward! I ended up needing it, but since it had been talked about in advance, I knew what the new dates were, and everything was fine.
I really like the ‘asking for a recommendation letter’ script and am wondering if anyone has good templates for the dreaded reply, “Why don’t you just write me a draft?” This is such a cruel thing to do to a student with self esteem challenges – obviously the student is HOPING the professor will write that they are the most amazing genius student the professor has ever seen, but they can’t write that in their own letter! How can you possibly intuit the professor’s judgment of you without being either too presumptuous or too self-deprecating?
(I’m not in college anymore, but this caused me weeks of angst and tears back in the day.)
American professor here. Your school may have an Office of Disabilities, for example http://www.oxy.edu/disability-services If so, that office may be able to help you. Working with them, you will identify *only to them* the nature of your disability and develop an accomodation plan. When requesting an accomodation, you need only refer the faculty member to the disability office. Here’s how: when the class starts, send the professor an email noting that through the Disability Office you have determined your need for certain accomodations. List them. This will clarify any later request, ie, you won’t have to explain your disability, and you won’t be mistaken for a possible loafer. If you don’t have a disability office (boo!) still email your professor when the course starts, for the same reason. If you end up not needing the accomodation, no problem. Accomodations are not a use-it-or-lose-it thing.
Professors get emails all the time. If you use proper grammar, make sense, and don’t write something that sounds like a ransom note, you are already ahead. As others have said, Professor is fine, unless the person is an MD or DO in which case go with Doctor. Write the email like a letter. “Dear Professor Pibble” or Professor Pibble” are good salutations. “Thank you” is a good complimentary close. Clear and short is the best body. Request a reply. If you are really worried keep the email as a draft for an hour and edit for clarity if you need to, but only once. Here is an example:
“Dear Professor Pibble,
I am a student in your online Awesomeness class, section 146. As I mentioned earlier, part of my disability accomodation plan includes extra time for assignments. I need extra time on assignment 24, Using Glitter. Consistent with my accomodation plan, I would like to turn this project in on the 24th with no penalty. Please let me know if this is acceptable to you.
@hummingbear – I hate that too. Write the draft as if you are writing an application essay, and do be insanely enthusiastic. Letters of recommendation have inflated that way. List out what skills you showed and developed in class. Pick a couple to highlight. Write like you are the Second Coming. If your faculty doesn’t like it, the lazy bugger, they can change it.
Before you ask a professor an academic question over email, consider how open-ended the question is and how long it would take for your prof to write you an answer. If you don’t think the professor could answer your question in 2 sentences or less, you should instead come to office hours and ask in person so Prof can have a dialogue with you. This is easier for them than having to compose a long essay answer to your question, and as a bonus, it helps them get to know you better in advance of future requests for extensions and rec letters! This could be trickier if you’re taking an online course, but if there’s a way to have a dialogue in a chat room or something, your communication will be more efficient cause you both get to ask clarifying questions and no one has to compose polished sentences.
We like questions.
Regarding the letter of rec, depending on the level of what you are applying for may want to attach your cv. Sometimes they may ask you to write the letter! Which feels super awkward! But that is a whole nother discussion
I am professor at a large university, and I would like to add that you may not need to email your professors at all. I get a lot of these emails and I don’t see them as a favor that needs to be asked for nicely. We have a duty to make these accommodations, and every university has a policy that outlines this. I always redirect students to the appropriate central office (besides providing the support that I can).
At every university that I have been at (4 in total, both in EU and US) there was some kind of office for students with disabilities, that also provide support for short-term disabilities, bereavement, etc. Students can go to this office, explain their situation, provide the evidence if necessary, and talk through their needs in one place. Then they can make a plan that includes all of their courses, and the office contacts the professors to organize the accommodations. This is then not a request. Professors have to comply. This avoids the student having to send uncomfortable emails with personal details to every one of their professors. Instead, they can talk to people who are professionally equipped both for talking about personal problems, and for communicating with professors about the procedures.
Personally, in most cases I would rather not know the details of my students physical and mental health, unless they feel completely comfortable telling me. It is much more comfortable for our relationship if the student says “I have health issues that require accommodations, and I’m already talking to the [appropriate central person].”
As a uni teacher (not in the US) I cannot sufficiently stress the wisdom of ‘I’m [name], taking [course title] from you.’ I get mails regularly which do not include this information, and having to respond with ‘I’m sorry; who are you and what assignment are we discussing?’ makes me cranky.
Hi! As an instructor in engineering, I definitely wish more students would write emails when they can’t do something in the given timeline or don’t understand something. I’ve had the conversation SO so SO many times this semester with people who bring back a mark they’re not happy with, usually with a “I didn’t understand what you wanted from this section of the rubric”. 1) I do usually explain what I’m asking for and how it could made more clear but also 2) I ask why they didn’t ask before submitting their assignments! So much easier! Please please PLEASE ask questions if something isn’t understood. Most profs will be happy that someone is interested and wanting to learn. Some won’t…but they’re not going to get mad at you asking (provided it’s not in the syllabus 🙂 )
oh GOD, the shame-hiding thing is my biggest issue. i feel like the professor is sitting there silently judging me for being bad at doing work and/or if we’re turning them in in person, i feel like everyone else is looking at me. i know this is not true and it’s the darn weasels talking but. aaaargh. i am going back to school soon and will be trying my hardest not to do it again.
on an actual related note, LW, yes, i’ve gotten all my extensions by emailing, and some of which i got without documentation of my disabilities — i think in general, most professors who are not super strict will be willing to cut you some slack on assignments every once in a while without any proof of something Big going on, but after a few of them or if you keep needing to extend your extension, they will want something to prove you’re not taking them for a ride and/or may suggest you withdraw if it’s early enough in the semester to come in behind the deadline. for all the US universities i have gone to, withdrawing gives you a W on your transcript but doesn’t have any actual GPA impact. they also usually have emergency withdrawal procedures if your health really takes a dive or various other emergency reasons, if you get documentation basically saying “it’s not their fault but they can’t continue the semester.” i’ve gotten it twice. that way, you don’t have a transcript chock full of Fs. my emails are usually about as casual as what i am writing here, with no caps because i’m very lazy, but i do make sure to list who is emailing and what class i am from, just in case, since they’ll need that info to know who to give an extension to. in a less formal email than cap’s example, and in a not-lazy fashion, i would write something like “Hi! This is Firstname Lastname, in your 8am Thursday AWK 2230 class. I’m having some health issues, etc.” i tend to end emails with “thanks” or “thanks in advance” or any variation on that, because a lot of the Formal Letter Writing i learned in elementary school does not apply. i have nightmares about writing an email to a professor and signing it “Love, Firstname” or whatever. also, if you can’t come up with a concrete date and are worried about having to correct yourself over and over if you’re wrong, i usually write “as soon as possible” and then do my best to make that true every time.
LW, i wish you luck in navigating mental health problems while trying to handle college as well. i wish i could give you more country-appropriate and less US-centric info, but i thought my experience might help a little.
There is an etiquette manual! It is ‘Say This, Not That (to your college professor)’.
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