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How to Write a Cold Email That Doesn’t Suck

Trust me, I’ve read thousands

03.06.17
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Cold emailing. If that phrase makes you break out in metaphorical chills, you are not alone. I worked freelance for a year after graduating from college, and during that period I sent out dozens and dozens of cold emails in an attempt to find a full-time position somewhere (anywhere!) I could picture myself long-term. Do you know how many responses I received? Zero. That’s zero as in: zero. I’m a little embarrassed to be sharing that, especially because I worked so hard on all those cover letters.

Ironically, I’ve spent the past three months fielding hundreds of cold emails for a role we’re trying to fill on the Man Repeller social team. Reading and evaluating cold emails is significantly less chilly than sending cold emails — except now that I’m on the other side of the equation, it is painfully clear to me why my own cold emails were unsuccessful.

I wish I could go back in time and tell my former self exactly what I was doing wrong (and also forbid myself from eating so many cookie dough Quest bars in 2015). But time travel is only for Hermione Granger, and those Quest bars ultimately taught me an important life lesson about the perils of artificial ingredients vis-a-vis terrible stomachaches, so instead I will impart my newly learned cold-emailing wisdom to you, right here, in the present day:

Don’t just send the cold email to a generic “Careers” or “Info” account. It’s much, much, much better to reach out to a specific person. Due to the sheer volume of emails that accumulate in a company’s generic, catch-all accounts, there is a very high chance that your precious(!) missive will get lost in the chaos. Treat your cold email like an important package and make sure it ends up in the inbox of someone who will unwrap it with tender love and care.

Don’t waste the subject line. A subject line is the first thing anyone reading your email will see, which means you should regard it as valuable advertising space — “clickbait,” essentially. There’s no single formula for crafting the perfect cold-email subject line, because the correct approach will vary by industry, and you may need to make it pretty straightforward. If you can though, be creative. Based on my own experience reading (or, frankly, disregarding) a cold email because of its subject line, a good one captures attention without being hokey. Or cocky.

Don’t give a summary of your resume. zzzzZZZZZZZ ← That was me falling asleep after reading another resume summary in cold-email form. There are two reasons why this strategy is bad news bears. First of all, it’s redundant. If you attached your resume to the email, then you already provided the necessary information about your work history. Second of all, it’s boring. Use the body of your cold email to *briefly* touch upon a) Why this company? And b) Why this role, and why you? A few sentences in answer to each of these questions is plenty. If you want to devote one of them to explaining how your particular skills/work experience would lend itself to the role, that’s fine, but there’s no need to go into tons of detail.

Don’t apply without checking what jobs are open. Some companies (especially smaller ones) don’t list their job openings online, but most do. All it takes is a quick Google — “[company name] job openings” — and you will have your answer. This simple search query takes two seconds, and it is really, really important. It doesn’t look good if you send a vague cold email inquiring about “any available positions” when they are clearly listed. It looks like you have no clue why you want to work for that particular company or where you will fit in. It also raises a red flag that you might be sending a blanket cold email to multiple companies out of cold-emailing fatigue (and believe me, I’ve been there).

Don’t ask about salary…yet. A cold email is not the right place for salary negotiations!!!!!!! That’s all!

Don’t give up after one try. If you don’t hear back after a few weeks, send a follow-up email. If that doesn’t work, find a different avenue. Send an email to a different person or account. Change your subject line. Print out your email and send it to the hiring manager in a shoe box. Just like the squeaky wheel gets the grease, the most persistent cold emailer gets a warm desk chair.

Collage by Maria Jia Ling Pitt; photos by Alfred Gescheidt and Swim Ink 2, LLC/Corbis via Getty Images. 

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  • Amber MB

    THANK YOU for this, it’s much appreciated. Just figuring out a subject line for my email to you

  • Great advice (and great collage) and this is especially useful because this past weekend I started making a list of people I want to send cold emails to. I’m always afraid of sounding too generic but also worried about coming off as try-hard-y desperate if I try to inject personality into it. Fingers crossed that I get some responses!!

    • Harling Ross

      ah in know–such a hard balance! but i do think injecting some personality can make all the difference, as long as it’s still professional-sounding

      • You’re right, I’m definitely gonna try!

        Oh, and good luck with filling the position. Srsly looking forward to reading more of your writing 🙂

  • Brianna Lyle

    Hey hey! My subject line isn’t fascinating but my cover letter is a bit fun and funky. Hoping to hear back from you!

  • But!!!! Subject lines are hard. Can you give an example of a really bad vs really good sub line?

    • Harling Ross

      I know they’re such tricky gremlins!!! I think it really depends on what kind of company you’re applying to (and if a sense of humor is appreciated/encouraged). Here are two winning formulas, one more standard and the other a little more fun:

      1. [Job title you’re applying for] Applicant via [Current company where you work]

      Example: Visual Assistant Applicant via Gather Journal

      2. [Compelling personal attribute], [Compelling personal attribute], [Jokey personal attribute]

      Example: Hard-Working, Creative, Hates Salad

  • Janelle Domek

    Ah, a wonderful time to ruminate on the embarrassing cold emails I’ve sent to MR haha

  • tmm16

    I think adding a personal touch is so important when cold emailing. If I’m trying to establish a connection with the person, I like to do a quick 5 min- search and just add something they did, wrote, or find some common interest between us. Personalization is key to getting a response, IMO!

    • Harling Ross

      great advice

  • Charlotte

    Couldn’t come at a better moment! I have been working on my resume all day. Struggling a bit. Email was the next thing on my list to tackle so I am very happy to read this! If they ask for a cover letter I assume you make it an attached file? If so, what do you write in the actual email?

    Thank you for always coming up with the best articles and tips – MR timing is the best!

    • Harling Ross

      I think a longer cover letter in an attached file is always a nice touch and shows you really went the extra mile/truly care about the company

      • Harling Ross

        The body of the email can be a super condensed version!!

        • Charlotte

          Thank you Harling! I hope we will still get to see you a lot on Instagram etc. but I am also looking forward to all the extra articles you will be writing!

          • Harling Ross

            day-maker

  • I’m cringing so hard because I’ve done some of these, but you have perfect timing!! I just completely updated my resume, and I’m ready for round two (or ten?)!

    • Charlotte

      Have been updating my resume too! Would love to know how others feel about this… adding a photo or not? I’ve googled it and opinions range from an absolute no to yes. Good luck during round 2 by the way! 🙂

      • Amelia Barnes

        No!
        Any business who wants to hire you for your ‘good’ appearance (or not hire you for your ‘bad’ appearance) is not worth working for.

        • Charlotte

          Right that’s what I thought too! But I asked around and people told me it was simply procedure and that I should just add one if I want to increase my chances. The exact point you are making made me still doubt whether to add one or not. But you’re completely right – I’ll use it as a filter system: companies you want to work for and not. Thank you Amelia.

      • I’m against it too. Our accomplishments and work ethic should be all that matters. And good luck to you too!

  • Ana P

    I LITERALLY JUST SENT A COLD EMAIL. I think I did ok? The subject line was “5 reasons you should allow me to work for you” Too clickbait-y? we’ll see.

    • Katrina Elizabeth

      I would sincerely like to know how this works out!

      • Ana P

        I’ll make sure to update! I sent it to the careers@… and austin@… (They’re based in ATX)

      • Ana P

        @katrina_lee 25 days later I’ve yet to get anything back… I’m considering that a bust.

  • Which reminds me – Leandra, have you had a chance to look at the email I Cc’d you on?! I KNOW UR IN PARIS BUT IF U CAN POST A PIC TO TELL YOUR MUM YOUVE LANDED, u can (pls) reply to me. Ps. Hi, Harling, I wanna be your successor!!

    • Haaaaa! I wrote an article about being ignored A LOT over email and checking people’s Instagram’s to see when they were last active. But the fact of the matter is emails are boring and Instagram is not.

      Socials win every time!

      • OH HEY GIRL!!!!! So nice to see you on here! Social really does win! Every. Time.

  • Great tips! I’m going to have to start sending cold emails and while I’ve done it before, it’s never great confidence boost when no one responds. Welp, here goes nothing…

    http://www.shessobright.com

  • Tess

    Currently in the thick of the internship pursuit, I came up with the brilliant (or so I thought at the time) idea of hand written notes with a calligraphied envelope (plus resume and cover letter), but alas, it seems all my work was in vain, as none of them seemed to make it to their destination or were ignored. Back to cold emailing. I’ve started adding a PS line requesting that if they’re not interested they please let me know too. I’m a persistent lil bugger, but I never want to pester.

    • Jasmin

      You should leave out the PS. There will be so many applicants that it’s just not possible for the company to reply to everyone that applies. They don’t have time! Including it probably won’t change anything, and it’ll seem like you’re asking for special treatment.

      Your persistence is great! Don’t give up!

      • Tess

        Thank you so much for this advice! I had no idea I was potentially coming off as asking for special treatment, definitely don’t wish to do that. I just didn’t want to be bothersome.

      • Ana P

        Great insight!!!! Thanks for this

  • Tess

    Dear adults and other professionals, I have a question: I have considered sending flowers with a note saying how much I admire the company and to look out for a resume in an inbox. But I’ve stopped myself because that seemed (a) desperate (b) unprofessional. Have I been making the right call?

    • Maxinne Mboweni

      yes

    • caroeliz

      Yep, you’ve been making the right call — don’t do it! Sending flowers, chocolates, etc. to a company will make people remember you for all the wrong reasons.

  • Amy L Campbell

    This tidy little piece couldn’t come at a better time, Harling! As always, thank you for your wise wisdom and wacky wittiness (alliteration, anyone?)

  • kristina

    Does it count as cold emailing if you’re being referred to someone by a professor? I sent one and got an automatic response saying that the person’s out of the office till Tuesday. When I got that automatic reply I realized I left the subject blank 🙁

  • There’s nothing like reading someone else’s cold email to realize that we’re all just cogs in the machine that think we’re the START button

  • Erin Khandjian

    Just sent another super chilly email MR’s way. I don’t even want to know how many I’ve sent in the past few years, but I’m determined to find ONE personal email!

    edit: harempants@manrepeller.com is definitely no longer valid LOL

    • Mariam Elle Zoghbi

      Pant hatred runs deep, even harem pants didn’t make the cut. Probably replaced by nopants@manrepeller.com

  • Néo Bourgeois — Montecito

    advice for
    the proletariat
    trying to survive

    pass

  • c spiers (Stylerevival)

    Or you could stalk any member of MR that venture, y’know, outside the office and bring them a decent coffee before you say ANYTHING ELSE! I did hire someone once after she gave me the coffee and I gave her 30 secs to pitch me.

  • Sarah

    Noted.

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