This is a question I ask students at all levels; and often students in the highest level language courses offered on their campus do not know the basics of sending professional emails in their second languages. In my intermediate Spanish for the professions course, email is the practical skill that we cover during week 3, by which time there is usually a need for some email correspondence in the administration of the course.
First, students have to send an email that:
1- Uses the subject line well (so that the recipient will know what to expect in the body of the message). This should be something like “SPAN 2000 presentation date & topic”
2- Uses an appropriate professional greeting: “Estimado,” “Estimada,” “Estimados,” “Estimadas” in Spanish. Fully half of students usually use the wrong of those four choices on their first try.
3- Uses an appropriate sign-off: “Atentamente” in Spanish.
For my students, the content of that first email is simply the date of their first in-class presentation. This activity gives very basic practice in the most fundamental norms of professional email writing.
The upside for the instructor: when students want to know what date they signed up to present on, they can consult their own “sent” folder.
For the second email assignment, I add the 5 W’s of journalism: make sure you include all relevant content that answers the questions who? what? when? where? why? / how? The specific assignment is to send me an email to schedule a one-on-one appointment in my office to talk about their websites, their daily writing logs, or their course-long projects. Students have to be resourceful to find information such as the location of my office so that they can clearly assert where they will meet me. It’s not difficult to look on the syllabus or the department directory, but it’s also not something most students have explicitly thought about.
A third email would add more nuanced elements like “don’t bury the lead” and “don’t put your problems in someone else’s inbox.” These can be the most troublesome emails faculty receive, but the hardest to simulate as in the examples above.
“Don’t bury the lead” usually comes up with letter of recommendation requests; students feel the need to “catch up” via email and write far too much before coming out with the letter of recommendation request. I tell students to put “letter of recommendation request” in the subject line so that they don’t bury the lead no matter how much they write in the body of the message. The body of the message should include the following: first name, last name, title of course and semester you took it with me, a clear summary of the work you uniquely did in my course (not the assignments–I have the syllabus too and can look up what I assigned; I need to know what you did that nobody else did), and a description of the connections between what you did in my course and whatever it is you’re applying to. This is challenging. But if the student can’t do it, I won’t be able to do it either. And this is excellent practice for cover letter writing in which the whole goal is to convince the employer that you uniquely meet a need or solve a problem that they have.
“Don’t put your problems in someone else’s inbox” are the emails that include, “what should I do?” anywhere in the body. Instead, students should explain the who, what, when, where, why and include what they’ve done to resolve the problem (so that they’re just bringing you in the loop or letting you know they’ll stop by office hours) or propose a couple solutions for you to choose from. I assign this when students are scheduling out-of-class oral exams and need to make a change–or simulate making a change–so that they can run through the possibilities of solving the problem on their own by getting classmates to agree to switch with them, getting a partner to agree to switch times, etc.
As with all of these professional skills, pick and choose the examples that solve a problem you have; use these ideas to make the administration of your courses easier or more pleasant for you and your students.
Darcy Lear is a career coach specializing in academic writing, job search documents, professional school applications, and interview preparation. She is the author of the forthcoming volume from Georgetown University Press, “Integrating Career Preparation into Language Courses.” To schedule a campus workshop or for help navigating your career transition, contact Darcy: email@example.com