It's shocking how many students put up with crappy, school-provided email and webmail clients. Break free of whichever software had the lowest campus-wide price and use whatever desktop or web-based client you'd like to check your .edu mail.
Image via Columbia University Information Technology.
Ah, school-provided .edu (or .edu.au) addresses. These are great for a lot of things, including invites to certain beta programs, but too often they are tied to aging, clunky web access clients. I’m lucky enough to be at an institution that uses Google Apps, and though I personally like to use a desktop app for my email, I have no qualms with Gmail’s web interface.
I wasn't so lucky during my freshman year though, as we were stuck on an aging Exchange server that liked to remind you on a daily basis that your mailbox was full. The technical limitations were bad enough, but I couldn’t believe how many of my friends used the horribly designed webmail client. It didn’t have an option for search. There was no way to skip ahead more than one page of messages at a time. If you spent too long typing your email, it would sign you out when you hit send, deleting all of your work. It was unbelievable how many of my classmates either didn't know or care that there were other infinitely better ways to access their .edu email.
Option 1: Use a Desktop Client
A lot of people are starting to move away from these clients, but I still swear by them. Thunderbird is always a safe bet on any platform, and Mac OS X's built in Mail.app is also a solid option. It would be impossible to do a comprehensive walkthrough, given that each institution has a different email system, but you can almost always configure your university IMAP or Exchange mailbox through either program's setup wizard, during which you will have to provide some information about your university's email system, as well as your username and password. If you're having any trouble, your campus IT site should have a page dedicated to doing exactly this — Google something like site:smartcollege.edu IMAP email setup, replacing smartcollege.edu for your own university's website, of course.
If they don't seem to have your IMAP or Exchange setup details publicly posted, email them asking A) for the information and B) why they don't have a step-by-step guide online. Seriously, it should be on your school's site.
Once you're set up, you'll immediately wonder how anybody could have ever put up with the school-provided email solution. Desktop clients offer fast searching, instant notification of new messages and tons of customisation options that many web-based systems can't hold a candle to.
I'm not trying to say that all universities' webmail solutions are bad. In fact, many of them are just as full-featured as their desktop brethren. Unfortunately, too many aren't quite on this train yet and continue to offer drastically inferior solutions.
Option 2: Gmail Importing
As great as a desktop client can be compared to your school's offering, setting up a multi-account Gmail inbox represents yet another step forward. You can access your email from pretty much anywhere, search it with advanced and persistent filters, and get a lot more functionality than your university likely provides.
Setting this up couldn't be easier. Just open up your Gmail account (you do have one, right?), go to your Settings, then click "Accounts and Import". Here you can add your .edu email account, enter in any particular IMAP settings your school provides, and Gmail will begin to import all of your messages directly into your inbox, automatically adding labels to indicate that it was sent to your school email address.
The coolest feature of the school-to-Gmail channel is that you can use the "Send Mail As" setting to enable sending messages from Gmail that appear to be coming from your .edu address, basically turning Gmail into a full-featured, multiple-account email client from within the browser. The only major downside is that you will only have access to your messages offline if you use Google Gears, but this capability should move over to HTML5 soon.
If you decide to go the Gmail route, take some time to browse through the Google Labs available to find some extensions that leave your default email client even further in the dust. Here are a few of HackCollege's favourites.
Even though lots of universities have crappy default email solutions, there is hope on the horizon. Some are doing away with hosting email entirely, and are instead asking students to provide a personal account to forward their messages to. Other universities are making the transition to Google Apps, replacing crappy email interfaces with the best-in-class Gmail.
No matter how your chosen uni handles its email though, just remember that you're not locked down. With a little effort, you can access all of your .edu email in the client of your choosing.