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Lorain Ambrocio, Columbia College Chicago

Lorain Ambrocio.jpgWith the Spring 2021 semester in full swing, and some institutions nearing the half-way point for their classes, academic advisors may be balancing new demands from students. Between assisting students with technical issues in Canvas or Zoom, navigating major-change requests, and guiding the go-getter students who are already planning for summer registration, email communication has steadily increased between students and academic advisors. And while email communication may be the best way to reach students during the times of a pandemic, effective outreach strategies and inbox management are just as important to consider.

Email strategies and establishing a steady inbox workflow can allow academic advisors to serve students effectively while also evading the feelings of email fatigue. Academic advisors can consider themselves as digital marketers in a sense—where they use a communication tool (email) to convey a message to their target population (their student caseload) and prompt them to act on a message—not just to open the email, but to act on the message the advisor is delivering.

In 2016, a web and mobile analytics company called Mixpanel analyzed the performance of almost 86,000 subject lines across 1.7 billion emails. The average open rate was 13.5%, and shorter subject lines (typically 30 characters or fewer) performed better overall (Miars, 2017). Mixpanel also found subject lines that posed a question also performed better, along with emails that began with "how-to," which increased the open rate by 7.5 percentage points (Miars, 2017). While these statistics are impressive, there is still a disconnect between the target not seeing the value in the email and choosing not to open it.

Re-Thinking How Emails Are Crafted

How can Mixpanel's data be used as an example to engage students to want to open emails? This is where a call to action can be used and begins with the subject line. Communicating effectively with students begins with strong and consistent subject lines. Advisors can keep their subject lines short and include "from your academic advisor" at the end of the subject header. This technique can allow for students to quickly associate the message with their advisor—the message is something separate from the institution and is important to their academic success. Then the call to action in the message of the email is where the advisor will tell students what needs to be done. This message could be registering for a class, making an appointment with the tutoring center, or following up on a missing document, for example.

A few other points that can build on the call to action (CTA) within an email are the following:

  • Optimize emails for mobile viewing—are students receiving a block of text of information, or is the message short and clear with a discernible CTA?
  • Utilize bullets or numbered lists to format the essential information in the email, drawing the student's eye to the CTA.
  • Highlight or use a bold-faced text to emphasize important dates or notes. The student’s eye will be drawn to read through the email or find the information at a quick glance if revisiting the email again.
  • Communicate with the student, not at them. Revise emails and eliminate any jargon or acronyms that a student may not understand.

Adjusting Email Workflow and Management

Once emails are re-evaluated and academic advisors implement their own outreach strategies over time, a concurrent step to consider is to utilize the triage method for inbox management. Triaging emails is a practice that Ohrablo (2018) spoke about in her work, High-Impact Advising: A Guide for Academic Advisors, which allows the email inbox to work for the user and not the other way around.

In using the triage method, an advisor may start by looking for communication threads or messages from co-workers or the institution and reply to these first if needed. Any “reply-all” emails or subscription newsletters can quickly fill up an inbox and give the impression that there may be more messages to read through. Advisors can quickly delete these messages once they have been able to go through each message and alleviate any feelings of fatigue or being overwhelmed first thing in the morning.

After this the advisor can then begin to mark emails from students and quickly skim through each one. If there is an email from a student that has 10 questions listed or is a big block of text, the advisor may consider sending a quick response back to the student recommending them to make an appointment instead. If there are emails that include questions on financial aid or housing, for example, then the advisor can quickly send off a template reply or standard policy message that has already been created.

By doing this initial scan, advisors can have more time for emails or questions that may need a thorough look at the student's record before a response can be sent. The triage method allows every email to be responded to in an ideal amount of time, while optimizing the advisor’s time for an 8-hour day (Ohrablo, 2018). The advisor is able to listen effectively to what the student is asking for and respond holistically. Utilizing this method may not necessarily mean that all emails are answered in the order they were received, but rather providing timely responses to all students that include personalized messaging and detailed information that may go beyond what the student initially asked for. In other words, providing proactive responses rather than reactive advising.

Email strategies and outreach will look different for every advisor and so will inbox management. Utilizing effective email strategies and inbox management can assist academic advisors in improving their communication techniques with students and easing overall personal workflow management. As academic advisors formulate their own strategies for outreach, it is helpful to keep in mind what their students need to understand, how the student is expected to reach out, and the expectations for advising appointments. While the future of higher education may still feel uncertain for students, advisors can control the messaging and communication they are sending to students to help lift their morale and continue to be a pillar of support.

Lorain Ambrocio
Academic Advisor
Columbia College Chicago


Miars, L. (2017, February 14). How one advising leader saw a 600% increase in student responses. EAB. https://eab.com/insights/blogs/student-success/how-one-advising-leader-saw-a-600-increase-in-student-responses/

Ohrablo, S. (2018). High-impact advising: A guide for academic advisors. Academic Impressions.

Cite this article using APA style as: Ambrocio, L. (2021, March). Optimizing emails and workflow for remote advising. Academic Advising Today, 44(1). [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2021 March 44:1


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