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Matching the Tone of Your Email Partner

In my last post on emails, I showed you just how formal you should be when you email a university for the first time. As a general rule, you want to be more formal than you would be with a friend or classmate. But you also want to make your email writing less formal than regular academic writing.

Sometimes, though, you shouldn’t follow this general rule. If you are in a longer email conversation with a university administrator or professor, you want to write in the same tone that they do. You may wonder what this looks like in an actual email conversation. To get a better idea, let’s look at an email conversation between a professor and a student who is applying to a PhD program.

In this email conversation, I will pretend I am a student who is interested in getting into a PhD linguistics program. As part of the application process, I need to find a professor who has similar research interests to mine. This professor will supervise my research work if I am accepted into the program. (You Magooshers who are applying for doctoral and research programs may already know how this works.)

Professors of graduate programs usually write very formally, and read very formal books/reports. Knowing this, I will match what I think the professor’s tone is. So, in my first email where I make contact, my writing will be more formal than a normal email. Because of this, the first message below will be long and very wordy. Skim my first message so that you can clearly see its very academic tone. But don’t feel like you have to read the whole thing, or look up every unfamiliar word.


Dear Dr. Bernstein,

I am writing to you because I feel we have many common research interests, and I would very much like to work with you upon acceptance into your program.

I am already familiar with much of your work in the field of visual language and semiotics. I have particularly benefited from your research in the field of imagery and memory. Your findings in that area have really helped me and many other scholars understand the psychological impact of imagery on young learners as they retain and recall new knowledge after it is delivered to them.

In fact, your report entitled “Imagery for ESL Students: Making the Right Design Choices,” which I read in The Journal of Image Psychology and Language Education, has informed much of my work as a curriculum designer for Magoosh, my current employer. I’ve written a number of papers and made several academic conference presentations based on my practical use of your findings in my own fieldwork.

If you feel my research and fieldwork sensibilities make me a good addition to your scholarly team, I would be honored to hear from you.

David Recine
Test Prep Expert

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Hello David,

I have looked over your writings at Magoosh. Interesting work. I also see from your academic conference presentations that you use Dual Coding Theory in the comics and graphics you make for Magoosh. It’s good to hear from a fellow DCT researcher.

Unfortunately, my group of researchers is not really focusing on Dual Coding Theory at this time. What I am really looking for these days is another research assistant who is familiar with the theory of Constructivism. Do you think you would be comfortable researching in this area?

Let me know,

Roger Bernstein
Linguistics Department

        MY RESPONSE:

Hello again Dr. Bernstein,

Yes, I can definitely research in the field of Constructivism. In fact, an entire section of my master’s thesis focused on Constructivism and its effect on learning. I used your work in Constructivism as one of my primary sources, along with my own research.




It sounds like we may be able to work together. But I’d want to look at your thesis before I can make a decision. Can you send me a copy?



Hi Roger,

Thanks for being willing to review my thesis. It’s attached in PDF to this email. Most of my work with Constructivism is in Section 4.2. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

Have a good week,


Notice what I did in this (fictional) email exchange? I started out very formally, more formal than a standard email. Dr. Bernstein was a little less formal in his response, so I also became less formal when I replied. Then Dr. Bernstein got even less formal, and I adjusted again. By the end of the exchange, both of us had a tone that was less formal than a standard university email. We were even both calling each other by our first names.

Formal academic writing demonstrates high skill in vocabulary and grammar. But vocabulary and grammar are just two of many English skills. Another important English skill in the university application process is the art of conversation. This includes knowing when to use formal language, and when to be informal. It also includes adjusting your tone in response to the tone of the people you are communicating with. Responding appropriately and using the correct tone in email will reassure university officials that you have a good command of English and will be able to communicate with them easily if they accept you.

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