Apr 4, 2023

Expressing gratitude with a thank you note

Contributors: Marian Kennedy, Tonyia Stewart, and Maria Torres


In higher education, many people go out of their way to help students as you push past barriers, obtain new skills, and strive towards your goals. After graduation, we hope that you will find this mentoring replicated by more senior colleagues who help you progress at your new institution.  While those providing the help do not expect a ‘thank you’, a gesture of thanks for the person’s time, insight or expertise can help you solidify a relationship.  One of the best ways to show gratitude is by writ­ing them a thank you note. These notes can be relatively short (4-5 sentences) and therefore relatively quick to write if you have the tools on hand.


If you have not expressed gratitude by writing a note previously, here are some quick steps:

  • Begin the note by addressing the person you are thanking. If you are on a first name basis, go ahead and address them by their first name. However, if you do not know them well, it might be better to use a professional salutation like “Dr.” or “Prof.”
  • Next, remind that person of how you met and who you are if you are not well acquainted. For example, if you had a guest lecturer come to your class and you walked away with new insight for your research or career path, you would start the note by letting the person know what university you are from and jog their memory by mentioning the guest lecture for a given course.  Guest lecturers are typically not paid for their time and are instead motivated to to help give current college students a better view of the field.  They are giving up time that could be allocated to the pressing items on their to do list to drive to the college campus and give a talk. 
  • Follow that sentence with an expression of your gratitude and appreciation for the person's actions or gift. Be specific about what you are thanking them for and how it has made a positive impact on your life.
  • Then share a personal detail or anecdote that demonstrates the impact the person's actions or gift have had on you. This helps to personalize the note and shows that you are truly grateful.
  • Finally, close with a final thank you sentence and closing such as "Sincerely,".  The closing you select will depend on the situation.  I have used a range of these from ‘Thank you again’, ‘Best wishes’ and “Respectfully”.   Sometimes I forgo the closing altogether and just use my first name alone. 
  • Always close with your first name and below that include your full name and a contact method (such as your university email address).

One of the questions that we get asked a lot is who to write a thank you note to.  This should be anyone who has provided you their time, expertise or guidance.  Here are some examples:

  • The student service coordinator who was helping you track down items for your graduate school application.
  • A faculty member who reviews your resume before a career fair. 
  • The HR recruiter who talked with you at a career fair and helped you understand the varieties of positions they had and how to navigate a corporate application site. 
  • A peer who listened to your practice talk and gave you helpful feedback. 

In your professional career, I am going to suggest that you use handwritten thank you notes rather than email when possible. Since most people use email, this will be a way to have your note stand out to the recipient. Reflecting on her own experience, Tonya noted that When someone takes the time to handwrite a message to me, I see the writer walked away () with a nugget of inspiration that positively impacted their life. When I receive these handwritten notes, it encourages and helps me to feel that what I do is vital to others.


Once done writing the note, you have a few options for delivery.  You can either mail the note or, if you are in the same geographic area, drop it by their office.  If you do not know the person’s address, it can often be found in their email signature line or on the institutional website.  If the address was not found in either of those locations, go ahead and just ask your recipient for their physical address through email.   You can simply mention that you wanted to mail a short note. 


Prof. Randy Pausch highlighted the “magic” of physical notes in his book The Last Lecture (Chapter 41). During his time as a professor of computer science, he noted that the rarity of handwritten thank you notes makes them more valuable to the recipient. I (Dr., Kennedy) read this book as I entered my first faculty position and 15 years later, his words ring truer than ever. I rarely see a handwritten note and because they are so rare, I remember them much longer. In a blog post by Samantha Kollasch, she noted that people tend to also save those notes by tucking them in desk drawer or posting them on an office wall. I have mine safely stored in a file drawer that I revisit when confronted with professional disappointment (such as less than stellar article reviews).


To decrease the barrier to writing thank you notes, it is best to just keep a package of notes on hand that work for a variety of occasions. I keep a set in my work desk drawer so that I can write one quickly. I must admit that I do not write them as often as I should. However, when I make time for this practice, I notice that I feel more grateful for my academic colleagues and less focused on the smaller barrier that pop up daily.



About the co-contributor(s): Tonyia Stewart is the director of both “Graduate Recruitment & Inclusion” and “Postdoctoral Affairs” within the Clemson University College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Science. Maria Torres is the Assistant Director for Cooperative Education at Clemson University. Both have extensive experience guiding students into successful graduate programs and making meaningful connections.


Acknowledgements: This blog post was edited by Kate Epstein of EpsteinWords. She specializes in editing and coaching for academics, and she can be reached at kate@epsteinwords.com.