If you are considering going to an English speaking university, you’ve probably been practicing your academic writing. Academic writing, the kind of writing you need to do on the TOEFL and other entrance exams, is formal and complex. But for many university applicants, academic writing is not the only writing they need to do.
During the university application process, email writing skills can be as important as academic writing skills. Often, choosing the right university and getting accepted requires the student to email university administrators and teachers.
Emails are generally less formal than academic writing. Sometimes they can be much less formal, with sentence structure and vocabulary this is more like spoken English than written English. This can even be true when you are emailing university staff and professors.
Be careful though. If you are making the first contact, emailing the university before the email you, it’s best not to be too informal. You don’t want to seem disrespectful. It’s also important to seem serious about getting accepted.
If you are starting an email conversation with a university, use the formal features of letter writing, not academic writing. Have a formal greeting. Use complete sentences, but don’t make them as long and complex as academic sentences. Group your sentences into clearly organized paragraphs. At the end of the email, use a formal sign-off word or phrase such as “cordially” or “sincerely.”
To help you understand what to do and what not to do when you make email contact with a university, here are three different versions of the same email. The emails are written to a director of admissions for an American university.
EMAIL VERSION 1 (too informal):
Just writing to see what your TOEFL requirements are. Couldn’t find the info on your website.
- Comments: This email doesn’t even use the names of the recipient or the sender. In the context of an email to a university, this seems not only informal, but a little rude. Using the first names of the recipient and sender would be a little better. However, it’s best to use the title and last name of the recipient and the full name of the sender. The use of slang/conversational words “hey” and “thanx” is also far too informal. Finally, the sentences are fragments. They should be complete sentences with a subject and predicate.
EMAIL VERSION 2 (too formal)
Dear Ms. Johnson,
I hope this day finds you well.
I am writing because I have concerns about the acceptability of my TOEFL score. I have a 25 in Reading, a 24 in Writing, a 20 in Listening, and a 21 in Speaking. I am certainly cautiously optimistic that my scores will be acceptable to the admissions committee at the time that they are making their decisions. However, after navigating the admissions website extensively and carefully analyzing the available information, I feel there is still more I need to know.
While your departmental website offers copious amounts of helpful information, I was unable to locate TOEFL specifications that would indicate whether or not I should retake the exam. It seems possible that you may have no absolute score requirement, and that my TOEFL score will merely be part of holistic assessment of my eligibility. However, it also seems equally plausible that there is a TOEFL requirement, but that your office has not made the requirement available publicly. Conversely, perhaps you have published the scores, but I was simply unable to successfully locate them on your website.
Regardless, it is very important to me to know your exact policy regarding TOEFL and TOEFL scores. Any information you could give me that sheds light on this important issue would be greatly appreciated.
Seung Oh Choi
- Comments: If you didn’t read all the way through this email, don’t feel bad. A university administrator probably wouldn’t have the time or patience to read through the whole email either! University officials and teachers are busy people, so the flowery, wordy language of regular academic writing is not appropriate when emailing them.
EMAIL VERSION 3 (just right)
Dear Ms. Johnson,
I am writing to ask about the admissions office’s TOEFL score requirements. I looked on the admissions website and couldn’t find them. Could you please let me know what the score requirements are? If the requirements are somewhere on your website, a link would be much appreciated too. Thanks in advance for any help you can give.
Seung Oh Choi
- Comments: This email is perfect. It uses the last name of the recipient with a formal title (Ms.). It also uses the full name of the sender of the email. That way, Ms. Johnson can know exactly which applicant she is speaking to. The body of the email itself gives Ms. Johnson the information she needs help the applicant. It also contains some polite and thankful language, without becoming too wordy or running too long.
In the second email above, the tone of the email would be acceptable in academic writing. But the third email, with its less formal tone, demonstrates a better writing style for university contact. As you practice your academic writing for the TOEFL, be ready to switch styles if you need to email any of the universities you’re applying to.