Academics
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Professor Gil Eyal teaching his course, The Social World

Although approaching a professor can be intimidating at first, knowing the right thing to say can often help you get what you are looking for. There are many unwritten rules to writing an email, but maintaining a professional tone is one of the most essential. To get you started, Spectrum has outlined a few ways to approach your professors via email below.

For an extension

If you’re asking for an extension, a general rule of thumb is to do it as early as possible and at least a few days in advance,  barring any extenuating circumstances (at which point, shoot for at least 24 hours). Waiting until the deadline has passed can make it seem like you’re not concerned about the class requirements. If you anticipate not finishing the homework, definitely reach out with an abundance of caution.

In your email, make sure to highlight why you aren’t able to finish the homework in the allotted time. Divide your email into three sections: Request your extension, provide a reason, and conclude by thanking them for their time.

A rough template is provided below:

Dear Professor [Name],

I am in your class [Course]. Would it be possible to request an extension for [Assignment Name], due at [time]?

I wasn’t able to finish the assignment because [reason]. This impaired my ability to finish the homework because [reason].

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Best,

[Name]

Keep it short and sweet. Don’t specify how long you want the extension to be, unless you know for sure when you can complete the assignment; it’s likely your professor will provide you with an adjusted timeline. Remember that we’re human, that we slip up, and that it’s OK. If you’re worried about looking bad in front of your professor, email your teaching assistant instead. Just make sure that someone’s in the loop about your late homework, and keep a positive mindset. You’ve got this!

To get involved in research

Columbia has many exciting opportunities to conduct undergraduate research. Knowing how to apply to be a research assistant can help you land the right position.

In reaching out for RA positions, talk about your skills and experience. Professors get a lot of emails about research in their lab or for independent projects, so make sure to be specific in your approach in order to stand out. For instance, you might want to read research papers by that professor, watch a video they made, or talk to a graduate student in that lab. Going the extra mile will not only show that you are interested, but help you decide whether you actually like the research material and the professor.

A rough template is outlined below:

Dear Professor [Name],

I am a [college] student majoring in [subject]. I found out about your lab through [research fair/another student/online]. I read your research paper on [topic] and found it interesting because [reason]. I am interested in joining your lab as an undergraduate.

I have research experience from [experience] and [provide at least three relevant skills]. Is there a research assistant opening? I am available on the following days and at the following times: [Provide at least three].

Please find attached my résumé and transcript. Please let me know if there is any other information I can provide. I look forward to talking with you soon!

Best,

[Name]

A few research opportunities can be found here. Additional tips are available on the CCE website.

For an appointment

If you have any questions about the course, talking to the professor or TAs one-on-one is a great way to clear them up. If you are unable to attend office hours, however, don’t be afraid to set up an appointment. Reaching out shows that you care, which can only positively affect their perception of you and your performance in the course.

A rough template is outlined below:

Dear Professor [Name],

My name is [Name], and I am in your class [Course]. I am unable to attend your office hours, as I have a conflicting commitment at that time. Are you available for an appointment this week? I am available on the following days and at the following times: [Provide at least three].

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Best,

[Name]

For guidance

Professors are masters of their fields, so, if you’re considering a career in academia, they can provide additional perspectives. If you’re looking for any kind of academic advice—ranging from what class to take next, whether to major in a subject, or what internships to apply for—reach out to your professor. Remember: At one point they were a student too, so they know what it’s like to be in your shoes. Attending office hours would be the best way to receive guidance, but if you can’t make it, send them an email with your questions.

A rough template is outlined below:

Dear Professor [Name],

My name is [Name] and I am in your class [Course]. I was wondering if you had advice on [topic]? I value your perspective because [reason]. If you would prefer to talk about this at office hours, I can attend them on [day and time].

Thank you for your time and help. I look forward to hearing from you.

Best,

[Name]

While these are just a few specific circumstances, remember that you can always reach out to your professor to explain anything that might affect your performance in the class. If you are struggling with the course material, it never hurts to ask for help.

The last thing to keep in mind is that professors are humans too. If you make a grammatical error here or there, don’t beat yourself up over it. If you’re finding the course material difficult, be proactive and don’t be scared to seek answers to the questions that are troubling you.

Staff writer Nandini Talwar can be contacted at nandini.talwar@columbiaspectator.com with thoughts about this article or book recommendations. As a TA for two courses this semester, she encourages you to over-communicate. Follow Spectator on Twitter @ColumbiaSpec.

Professor Email Circumstances Student Extension Research Request Columbia Barnard TA Undergraduate Undergrad
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