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The ultimate guide to applying to a graduate program: Part 5. Communicating with school officials

American email etiquette 101


A big part of the application process is communication with school officials. You will have questions - about transcripts, test scores, translations, funding - anything you can think of. If you aren’t used to email communication in English, writing emails may be a challenging task. What is appropriate in one culture may be considered rude in another. Moreover, your choice of words and knowledge of the email etiquette are the only things others have to form a judgment of you as a person in online communication. School officials are busy people who deal with lots of questions daily. The chance of getting a response from them is way higher when you are perceived as polite, friendly, and attuned to the cultural nuances of communication.

My fellow international students, let’s look into the basics of email etiquette in American English so that the next time you write that email, you feel confident!

Mistakes in email etiquette 

You will see a few emails on the same topic below. As you are reading them, think about how they make you feel about the sender. Would you want to reply to them? If not, why? Does your perception correspond to my evaluation? Let me know in the comments!

Example #1 

From: John Doe 
Subject: (None) 

I can’t find the info about funding on your website. Do you give funding to international students?

While the grammar and vocab in this email are okay, the style is completely off, and here’s why. 

  • No subject line.  Messages without a subject line tend to look suspicious or imply the sender don’t care. A good subject line sets the tone of the message and gives a clear overview of the email topic. 
  • No greeting. This is similar to greeting people in everyday life. Unless you keep emailing back and forth on the same day and it’s not your first email to them, always include a greeting.
  • No introduction. Who are you? Why are you messaging them? It’s a good idea to explain that very briefly. Remember: these people process tons of messages daily. They are not psychics and can’t magically know the program you’re applying to and other details essential to the question.
  • No sign-off. A sign-off is a closing statement that comes after the main part of your message. It’s somewhat similar to saying things like “Take care, bye!” in a spoken dialogue. You wouldn’t walk away without saying goodbye to someone you had a conversation with, would you?
  • No signature. This is usually your first and last name and, if you choose, your degree, company name, and contact information (such as a phone number). A signature gives a sense of closure and clearly identifies who sent the message.
  • The tone of the message. Even with all the elements mentioned above in place, the message would sound rude. The sender basically says:
    • “Your website is sh*tty because it doesn’t have the info I need”
    • “Answer me!”
    • They also don’t indicate that they have done any research on the topic.

 Example #2

From: John Doe 
Subject: Question


I would like to know more about the funding available for graduate students in your program. Would you mind providing more information?

John Doe

Here, we get four improvements: a subject line, a greeting, a signature, and a more polite tone. Personally, I would be more likely to respond to it than the previous message. That said, it is still far from a good email:

  • The subject line is very vague. Your addressee deals with hundreds of questions every day, and this subject line tells them nothing about what’s inside your message.
  • The greeting doesn’t include the addressee’s name. Considering it’s somewhat of a formal environment, you want to address them by their name. If the name is not available, you can say “Hello” followed by a comma, skip a line and start your message in a new paragraph.
  • A sign-off line is still not there.
  • There is still no introduction in the email. Who are you, again?.. Have you even read their website?..
  • The message is vague. What information do you want to know in particular?

Example #3

From: John Doe
Subject: Applying for doctorate funding the program of Educational Psychology

Dear Mr. Smith,

I am a prospective doctoral student in the program of Educational Psychology (Department of Educational Studies). I have carefully read the information available on the program/department website about the sources of funding but the website did not mention anything about how to apply for it. Would you mind giving me a bit more details on that? If this question is to be addressed elsewhere, could you connect me with someone who can help or point me to relevant resources?

Thank you,
John Doe

This is the strongest example so far. We have all of the standard (and expected) email elements here. The subject line could probably be elaborated more but it works. The greeting is a perfect balance between formal and informal style. It sounds personal because the sender uses the addressee’s name. There is a brief introduction - we know that the sender is looking to apply to a graduate program, and we know the name of the program. The sender also mentions that they have done the research. The tone is polite and the sender gives the addressee an opportunity to redirect the message elsewhere if they can’t answer it. Finally, the sign-off is simple but polite, and there is a signature in the end. Overall, the email is short, informative, and likely to get a response.

Example #4

From: John Doe
Subject: A question regarding applying for doctorate funding the program of Educational Psychology

Dear Sir/Madam,

My name is John Doe, and I am a prospective doctoral student in the program of Educational Psychology (Department of Educational Studies). I am writing to you in order to find out details about financial aid for international students. Having perused the program website, I got very knowledgeable about certain aspects related to funding. Unfortunately, I was unable to identify any information concerning the aspect of obtaining graduate funding, especially as an international student. It is my belief that the website mentions some sort of application to be completed along with the general application form in the student portal, but I could not find any confirmation of that in the materials on the website. Would you be so kind as to give me more details about the application process related to obtaining graduate funding specifically for international students? Another question I have is about the funding amount. How much money will be paid monthly as a stipend?

Thank you so much for your time and attention to the matter,

Yours sincerely,
John Doe

At first glance, this email checks all the boxes: the structure is there, and you can understand what the sender is asking. What makes it less preferable than the previous one is three things: (1) excessive, unnatural politeness; (2) wordiness, and (3) including an unexpected additional question in the end.

The subject line is very long, and the first 3 words could be removed without losing any meaning. There is a lot of repetition in the email body, and lots of words and constructions that sound unnatural. Why use “peruse” when you can say “read”? Why say “I am writing to you in order to…” when you can say “I’d like to…” instead? Using simple words and structures would make an email shorter and more natural. It would also mitigate the overly polite tone. Finally, the senders asks a second question about the amount of funding as a stipend without (a) indicating that it would be part of their question based on the subject line, and (b) visually separating the two questions.

In my experience, international students tend to err on the side of excessive politeness and wordiness. While many factors contribute to that, the major ones are (a) cultural expectations; (b) the fear of sounding impolite to someone who can impact your future; (c) fear of not being understood - hence, using more words than needed.

Even if your grammar and vocab are not top-notch, adhering to the expected email structure and level of politeness will make you sound more like a native and increase your chances of getting a response.

Your mini-guide to email etiquette in the US

Based on the analysis of the emails above, let’s make a list of the most important considerations in email etiquette in the US culture. 

1. Stick to a standard email structure (see the next section for examples):

  • Clear subject line that reflects the content of your message.
  • Natural greeting, ideally with the name of your addressee, followed by a comma.
  • In a new paragraph, briefly introduce yourself or give some kind of indication of who you are. State your question clearly and briefly. If there are several questions, separate them by bullet points or space.
  • Sign-off line: pick something simple (the best option is “thank you” followed by a comma).
  • Signature: your first + last name
  • Optional: additional information about you (such as your degree, company name, and contact info).
email structure
2. Get to the point!!! This is really important. When you deal with hundreds of emails a day, there’s no time to read anyone’s life story or walls of text about anything else. If you have a question, just cut to the chase.

3. Be polite and friendly but not super formal. Stick to simple and effective phrases (more on them in the next section). I found that Americans don’t like being overly formal in emails.

4. Spellcheck is your friend. Occasional typos are okay but if your email is full of them, it portrays you in a bad light.

On greetings, sign-offs and polite requests

Greetings, signs-offs and polite requests are probably the hardest email elements to pin down until you get plenty of practice with them in an English-speaking environment. Part of it can be attributed to differences in social exchanges in every given culture. Many examples you will find online sound unnatural and are not used in real email communication. I’ll give you a brief overview of these email elements that I’ve seen in the past 5 years in my graduate program.


People tend to stick to these types of greetings:

Dear + first name
Dear + Title (Mr./Ms./Professor/Doctor) + Last name

Dear all (when there are multiple recipients of the message)
Hi everyone

Hi + first name
Hi + Title (Mr./Ms./Professor/Doctor) + Last name

Hello (when the name is unknown)

First name - only in subsequence messages (after you got the reply to your first message and you are replying on the same day)

Greetings with “Hi” are a bit more informal but are used widely. Ditch phrases like “To whom it may concern” and “Dear Sir/Madam”. They are used only in formal documentation and on rare occasions. 


I’ve experimented with these for years. The most common ones I’ve seen are “Best Regards”, “Best”, “Thanks”, “Thanks in advance”, and “Thank you”. I’ve used “Sincerely” a lot but gradually came to dislike it because it sounds way too formal. My advice would be to stick to “Thank you”. It’s very versatile, friendly and polite.

Polite requests

This is where international students tend to go overboard and sound unnatural (been there, done that!). You will get a better feel for how to handle them as you practice, but here are some patterns you can start using right now.

Could you [please] (do something)?

  • Could you [please] check if my GRE scores have been received?
  • Could you provide more information about the availability of graduate funding in the program?

Would you mind (doing something)?

  • Would you mind connecting me with someone who can address that question
  • Would you mind checking if my GRe scores have been received? 

Have you had a chance to (do something)?

  • Have you had a chance to review my application?
  • Have you had a chance to check if my GRE scores have been received?

I was wondering if you could (do something).

  • I was wondering if you could connect me with someone who can address that question.
  • I was wondering if the program accepts applicants without a Master’s degree.

It looks like/It seems like...

  • I’ve checked the website, and it seems like it doesn’t have the information about the types of graduate funding.
  • It looks like my application has not been received yet.

I might/might not be able to (do something)... // I may/may not be able to (do something)

  • I’m afraid I might not be able to get the official transcripts from my school in time.
  • I might be able to resend the TOEFL scores to your department.
  • I may be able to translate the transcript by the end of the month.

Use this template to write any email

Instead of stressing over the email structure every time you need to write one, save this template and use it in every email.

Subject: (Brief topic of the email)

Dear + First Name,

I am a prospective doctoral student in the program of ______ (Department of _____). [Describe your question briefly]. [Ask for more information if needed].

Thank you,
Your first name + last name

Pay attention to the language other people use in their emails and learn from them. Eventually writing emails will be as automatic as breathing.

To demonstrate the usage of this template, I’m going to show you the messages I sent back in the day when I was applying to programs and how I would revise these messages today.  

Example #1

Original message (not good)

Subject: Financial aid for international students

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am writing to you in order to find out details about financial aid for international students. I am a prospective student from Russia. I am going to apply for the Five Year PhD Program with specialization in psycholinguistics (Department of Linguistics & Philosophy). I could not find any information concerning the question on the official site of the depatment nor did I recieve the answer after having emailed to the department itself. I would be very greatful if you could answer my questions which are as follows:

1) Am I eligible to get internal financial aid (from the university) as an international student?

2) If I am eligible, what kinds of financial aid can I get and what are they based on?

3) To what extent can available forms of financial aid cover tuition fee?

I hope you will be able to provide the information.

Yours faithfully,
Irina Kuznetsova

Revised message (good)

Subject: Financial aid for international students


I am a prospective graduate student looking to apply to the PhD program in Psycholinguistics (Department of Linguistics & Philosophy). Despite my search on the department website and personal communication with the department, a few of my questions have been left unaddressed. Would you mind providing more information about them?

Question 1: Are international graduate students eligible for financial aid, and, if so, what types of financial aid are available?

Question 2: Does financial aid cover tuition in full?

Thank you,
Irina Kuznetcova

The name of the recipient was unknown (I had a general office email), so I changed my greeting to a neutral “Hello”. I shortened my message by reducing excessive polite phrases and better phrasing. Note how much better the closing reads in the new version. Also, how many typos can you find in the original message?

Example #2

Original message (not good)

Subject: PhD in Education

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am writing to you in order to find out some information about the admission to the PhD programms in Educational Psychology (specialization in Educational Studies) and Foreign, Second and Multilingual Language Education (specialization in Teaching and Learning). I read all information I could find on your web-site, but I still have several questions, so I would be very grateful if you could help me to handle them.

1) As far as I understand, a writing sample is required for both programms. What should it look like? What is the required length and topic?
2) What are required TOEFL scores (I am an international student)?
3) I have to get 49% (verbal) and 41% quantitative GRE in order to be eligible for some kind of financial support. Are these scores required for admission as well or only for financial aid?

Thank you for your attention to this matter,
Yours faithfully,
Kuznetsova Irina

Revised message (good)

Subject: Clarifying questions about admission requirements


I am interested in applying to the PhD programs in Educational Psychology and Foreign, Second and Multilingual Language Education (Department of Educational Studies). I have a few clarifying questions about some of the information stated on the respective websites:

- Are there any specific requirements for the writing sample?
- What is the required minimum TOEFL score?
- Are the minimum GRE scores required only to be eligible for financial aid or to be admitted to the program as well?

If these questions should be directed elsewhere, could you connect me with someone who can help?

Thank you,
Irina Kuznetcova

Ah, those typos *sigh*. Apart from that, the subject line should have been clearer, and I should have shortened my message. For example, specifying that I am an international student is unnecessary because US citizens won’t even have to ask that question.

Example #3

Original message (not good)

Subject: PhD in Linguistics: writing sample

Dear Professor X,

I am writing to you in order to find out some information about applying to PhD in Linguistics. I am required to submit a writing sample, but I could not find any information about it on your website. I would be very grateful if you could answer my questions concerning this topic.
- Should the topic be only about linguistics?
- How long should it be?
- Do I have to submit the original variant of the same paper in my native language (Russian) as well as in English?

Thank you for your kind atttention,

Yours Sincerely,
Irina Kuznetsova.

Revised message (good)

Subject: PhD in Linguistics: writing sample

Dear Professor X,

As a prospective student looking to apply to the PhD program in Linguistics, I will be submitting a writing sample as part of my application. The program website does not specify the requirements for its format and content. Are there any specific guidelines that I should follow?

Thank you,
Irina Kuznetcova

This email originally had too many unnecessary details. If there were any guidelines, they would mention it in the response, so shortening the email made it look a lot better.

Example #4

Original message (not good)

Subject: International transcripts

Dear Dr. X,

I have called you earlier, but, unfortunately, the connection was very bad. My name is Irina, I am applying for PhD in Educational Psychology as an international student. My question is about transcripts. I know that I should mail 2 of them, but the problem is that I could not find the address to which I should mail it. Could you please help me?
There is also another question concerning this topic. Can the transcripts (and their translations) be sent from me directly or there must be the university stamp on the envelope?

Thank you for your attention,
Yours Sincerely,
Irina Kuznetsova.

Revised message (good)

Subject: Two questions about international transcripts

Dear Dr. X,

As a prospective international student looking to apply to the PhD program in Educational Psychology, I will need to mail official transcripts to the university. I would like to clarify two things based on the program website information:

What address should the transcripts be mailed to?
Do the transcripts have to be sent in a sealed envelope from my current university or can I send them myself?

Thank you,
Irina Kuznetcova

Notice poor structure (no separation of questions) and a lot of unnecessary repetition in the original email. Specifying that there are 2 questions in the subject line and making the questions more visible makes the email a lot more readable and actionable.

Example #5

Original message (not good)

Subject: International transcripts

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am applying for PhD in Linguistics as an international students. According to the information on the university website, in international transcripts "courses must be described in detail. The general subject name (e.g., "mathematics") is not sufficient; the particular subject (e.g., "differential equations," "algebraic topology") must be identified". However, in my university transcripts include both detailed course names and not differentiated ones (for example, the course of English was divided into Phonetics, Grammar and Spoken English, but in the transcripts they are untied in one course named "English"). And my university does not provide any other, more detailed transcripts. What should I do in this case?

Thank you for your attention to this matter,
Yours Faithfully,
Irina Kuznetcova.

Revised message (good)

Subject: International transcripts


I am applying to a PhD program in Linguistics (Department of Linguistics) as an international student. The program website states international transcripts must have specific subjects identified as opposed to general subject names.

While my courses were differentiated in practice (e. g., English phonetics, English grammar, Spoken English), the transcript lists them under one name (English). What are some possible workarounds to handle this issue?

I am attaching an excerpt from my transcript to illustrate the problem.

Thank you,
Irina Kuznetcova

An attachment makes the issue easier to handle and less detail and better structure make the email more readable.

I hope this information can help you improve your communication with school officials and make it less stressful. If you have any questions, I’m happy to help! Just leave them in the comment section.

Other posts of the series: