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How to Write Emails to Employers and Alumni

One would think that writing an e-mail, among other prosaic pursuits (brushing one’s teeth, putting on socks), may not be worthy of a dedicated column, yet, in my experience, composing and sending a message to an MBA employer or to an MBA alumnus whom one has not met is among the leading causes of anxiety among MBA candidates. Here, then, is a recipe for how to keep a ‘cold e-mail’ simple and effective, without losing the personal touch.

Any e-mail that serves as a self-introduction and an initial point of outreach should do the following: it should describe who you are, it should say something about the person you’ve written to and why you’ve chosen to write him or her (as opposed to anyone else at the same company), and it should have a clear, specific request for follow-up. This may take you three paragraphs, or it may take five; the important thing is to keep the length as short as possible, without losing meaning.

In paragraph one, it makes sense to state that you are a first-year or a second-year MBA student at a particular business program, with a background in X, and/or an interest in Y, and that you are seeking the recipient’s expertise about his or her organization, industry, or career path. Mention whether there is a specific personal connection (for example, a mutual friend, classmate, professor, or colleague who suggested that you reach out to this person), or a shared background (such as undergraduate alma mater, similar work experience, or even country of origin).

In paragraph two, it’s tempting to launch into further detail about your own background or interest in working for the recipient’s organization (I’ve read e- long bullet lists of the MBA candidate’s own accomplishments and past responsibilities). Resist this urge, and use paragraph two, instead, to describe why you’ve chosen to write to this person in particular (and to no one else). … What is it about the person’s current work, professional and/or educational background, and ongoing responsibilities that would allow him or her to offer insights and perspectives that would be of unique value to you in your own due diligence process and understanding of that specific industry, function, or organization?

The reason for focusing on your recipient rather than on yourself is that the person you’re writing to is already an expert on everything that pertains to his or her own experience. It’s invariably easier and more pleasant to be asked to share one’s own story and experiences than it is to expend the mental energy required to understand another person’s skills, experiences, and qualifications, and to try to match those with opportunities at one’s organization on the spot. Rest assured that you will have a chance to share your qualifications in due course … the goal of your initial inquiry is to tee up direct contact and to make a good first impression; the opportunity to highlight your full credentials will come later.

In paragraph three, your task is to ask your recipient for an opportunity to schedule a brief (~30 minute) conversation via phone, Skype, etc., at his or her convenience, one that will allow you, foremost, to establish contact (after all, this person may become a long-term colleague, friend, peer, or mentor) and, more immediately, to gain further wisdom, perspective, and potentially guidance that will take you one step further in the process of exploring your next career step. It’s helpful to state what your availability is (times outside of classes), to frame a potential conversation in terms of your recipient’s time zone, to give a long, open-ended timeline to touch base (not “before next Monday’s internship application deadline”), and to thank your recipient in advance for his or her consideration. Make it as easy as possible for your recipient to say, “Yes, Wednesday at 3:00pm EST works well for me; here’ s a number you can reach me at … “

A note about efficiency: although it’s tempting to create an e-mail template in order to send dozens of versions of the same message out to a range of recipients at different employer organizations, doing so leaves you vulnerable to one of the immutable laws of MBA recruiting … which is that, at some point or another, you will almost certainly send an e-mail to someone at BCG  in which you state your undying love for Bain and Company. By all means, use some template language in your greeting and request for follow-up, but don’t use general, template language to describe why you are writing to the person. (“I’m an MBA at your alma mater, school X” is also true for a few hundred other eager e-mail-writers; you need reasons or points of commonality that are unique, or at least less universal, at a minimum.)

Personalizing your e-mails to avoid blunders is a fundamental best practice, but, more than that, if your e-mail has any chance of standing out from the stack, it must pass the following test: if you were to substitute another recipient’s name, another company name, another school name, another city/office name, or even another student’s name (rather than your own), would your message still make sense? If the answer is “yes”, then you’ve not done enough to create a sufficiently well-tailored message. You must find more specific reasons – anything from a current corporate initiative you’re curious about, to recent M&A activity or a deal that your recipient worked on, to the talent management strategy for a specific function (e.g., for a leadership development and/or management rotational program), to the company’s R&D pipeline, new product or service line, overseas market entry strategy, and so on.

This doesn’t mean that you should shy away from specifying the fact that you’re looking for a job in the industry or even at that organization (it’s o.k. to say so in your message; this is the context of your e-mail, after all), but it does give you something else to talk about rather than whether you’re a good candidate and likely to be hired or not. The insights and perspectives you gain, and the things you learn about the organization via the ensuing one-on-one conversations can be invaluable in helping you prepare for applications and interviews and, not least, in helping you decide whether to join an organization or not. The bullet list that highlights your achievements and abilities can then make its appearance in your cover letter and official job application.

More on communication and professional networking etiquette in the coming week!

Ivan Kerbel  – bio:

Ivan Kerbel is the CEO of Practice LLC, an educational services firm that conducts an intensive, annual pre-orientation program for newly-admitted MBAs, The Practice MBA Summer Forum.

Ivan served previously as Director of the Career Development Office at The Yale School of Management and as a Sr. Associate Director at Wharton’s MBA Career Management office. He is a Wharton MBA alumnus and a former management consultant at Katzenbach Partners, a New York City strategy consulting boutique. Ivan can be reached via LinkedIn.