As a Northwestern student, you’re probably an email expert – or so you think.

As a communication method, email has an unenviable downside: There’s no immediate feedback. NU professors gave us their best tips and tricks for crafting the perfect message and shared insights into what professors and employers hate the most.

Subject: Give the doctor their due

“It bothers me when an [upperclassman] addresses me by my first name or calls me Mrs. Breen (rather than Prof. Breen or Dr. Breen). The first email in a chain should be pretty formal, with a proper salutation and complete sentences. Later emails in the same chain can definitely be more casual.”

Katharine Breen
Associate Professor and Associate Chair, English

Subject: Don’t be informal; it’s not a text to your BFF!

“It drives me crazy when students don’t have a greeting, but just sort of launch into it [and] when there is no capitalization or punctuation. It should look as though it was written with a little bit of thought. There’s always some students who email with no thought like they’re in a conversation with their friends.”

Claire Sufrin
Professor, Religious Studies

Subject: Respect your elders

“The thing that bothers me most is a sense of entitlement: anything that can be summarized [by the student] as ‘let me explain to you what I deserve.’ The perfect email includes brevity and a clear request or question, with as much deference as possible. I don’t think formality and excuses are important. Excuses just violate the brevity rule; for me, they just take up space.”

Scott Ogawa
Assistant Professor, Economics

Subject: Go in with a plan

“First and foremost, you want to think of your goal for the email. The second thing is to think about the overall life of the email. You want something that’s long enough so that you can talk about your goal and a little bit about your qualifications and experiences, but you don’t want something that’s as long as a cover letter.”

Mark Presnell
Executive Director, Northwestern Career Advancement

Subject: Don’t waste their time

“My biggest pet peeve is when a student asks you a question that was explicitly answered in the syllabus already. [An email] should have a relatively brief question or statement. It’s important to remember that professors get hundreds of emails every day so brevity is always appreciated.”

Daniel Krcmaric
Assistant Professor and College Fellow, Political Science

Editor’s note: Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.