Email Etiquette for the Aspiring Career Girl

Posted -

In the immortal words of Spider-Man, “With great power comes great responsibility.” So, while it is super amazing to send and receive information via email in mere seconds, you have to remember that when you’re sending emails to potential employers, you need to maintain a respectful, professional attitude at all times. James Wynn, Ph.D, a professor of Professional and Technical Writing at Carnegie Mellon University, specializes in teaching students how to present their work in a top-notch professional way, and this of course extends to email. Here are some helpful hints from Dr. Wynn to keep in mind before you press ‘send’.

Your Potential Employer is Not Your BFF (Yet)

We write emails to our friends in really informal tones and styles (omg i totes luv your new scarf, chicaface! where'd u get it? xoxoxoxoxoxoxox), but if you write to your potential employer that way, there’s no way he or she will be able to take you seriously. “People need to know that email could represent you in the mind of your potential employer,” Dr. Wynn says, so you need to be conscious of your ethos, the reputation you create for yourself when you’re writing. If you’re writing to your potential employer, you should be writing in a formal, respectful way. First, offer a greeting. “But not ‘Hi’!” Dr. Wynn exclaims. “Your greeting needs to be more formal. ‘Dear’ or ‘Hello’ followed by the person’s name [Mr. Jones, Ms. Stevens, etc.].” Even if the person replies to you with their first name (“Sincerely, Sam”), you need to maintain a formal tone on your end unless you have been specifically asked to do otherwise, so continue to address them sticking with Mr., Ms., and so on. Then, introduce yourself (My name is…) and politely express your interest. “If you’re asking for something from others, be appreciative. People don’t mind giving information as much when they know that someone on the other end appreciates them,” Dr. Wynn says. All you have to do is say “I appreciate your time and consideration,” or a similar phrase that shows you value the attention they’ve given or will give you. And sign off with a respectful, appreciative [i.e., not gushy] closing. “Sincerely” should always be the order of the day. Anything else (“Warmly”, “Fondly”, “Forever Yours”) is much too personal. But be careful! “You can be too polite and complimentary,” says Dr. Wynn. “One easy way [to stop this], though, is to avoid the use of intensifiers (really, very, etc.). Instead of writing ‘I am really excited about the opportunity to meet with you’ you might write ‘I am excited about the opportunity to meet with you.’ Also, the choice of adjectives can be important. Instead of ‘excited,’ which is a pretty intense emotional state, you might use the less frenetic phrase ‘look forward’ as in ‘I look forward to the opportunity to meet with you.’” Overall, remember to keep your emotions in check and go for subtlety: less is more.

Keep it Short and Sweet

e-mail communication internet keep in touchIn the world of email, people communicate quickly and succinctly so, to put it bluntly, get to the point! “Clearly articulate what you want and why,” Dr. Wynn says. “I’m X and I’m writing to you because Y.” You should do this because, as Dr. Wynn says, people reading emails are what are known as “satisficing readers”: they’re busy, so they’ll skim over something quickly and they can get what they need to know faster. “This isn’t the place for paragraphs and paragraphs,” Dr. Wynn says. Say what your interests are in the first line or two so your potential employer can figure out what you want easily. Your employer will gain respect for you because you haven’t wasted his time. Also, when and if you need to follow up, Dr. Wynn suggests two weeks is a reasonable amount of time. That way you come off as interested rather than desperate.

Speedy Doesn’t Mean Sloppy

Of course email is fast—that’s one of the reasons we love it. It’s so easy to rattle off an email to anyone, at any time of the day. What you have to remember when emailing a potential employer, however, is to double check, even triple check, the message before you send it. “Remember, this is an official document, just like a resume or a cover letter,” Dr. Wynn says. “Read, then read again,” he continues, to make sure you’ve spelled absolutely everything correctly, properly punctuated every sentence, and have your grammar completely in check. If not, you’re not putting forth a very positive image of yourself. Would you hire someone who doesn’t take them time to correct simple errors in an email? Neither would your potential employer. When it comes to your resume and cover letter, make sure to attach them to the email unless specifically requested to do otherwise. You should attach both as pdfs as well so their formatting remains fixed. According to Dr. Wynn, “Word files can appear differently when sent through email. They can also be changed,” which is a scary thought when you’re trying to put your best foot forward. You don’t want a silly thing like a Word file to ruin your chances at getting a job, so pdf is the way to go. If by some stroke of bad luck you do send your potential employer an email with errors, you’ll just have to let it go. If you resend it, you might actually highlight the errors, according to Dr. Wynn. “If the mistake is in grammar or punctuation, there really isn’t much you can do. By resending the email, you may simply call attention to the mistake. The same might be said about informational errors,” he says. You can avoid this by, again, rereading your email several times. Dr. Wynn also suggests having a friend who is a good editor read it over as well. They might be able to catch things that you won’t be able to see.

Mind Your Manners

You should always say “Thank you” or “Thank you for considering my request” or “Thank you for your time” at the end of an email in which you ask for something or hope to receive some kind of information. You should also send a thank you email to the person who interviewed you. “Thank you cards are nice,” says Dr. Wynn, “but they might not be necessary or prudent after an interview. An interview is a nice thing employers do for lots of people.” A thank you card is more appropriate for a more personal experience, but an email is better for something like an interview especially since you’d want to thank your interviewer quickly.

So, What Does This Perfect Email Look Like?

success celebration girl sitting cross legged with her arms up in the air business attire business casual wearing a suit laptop computer work
Well, I’m glad you asked! Something important to remember is to maintain traditional business letter formatting in your email.

This means: Greeting (space) Message (space) Closing (space) Signature


Dear Ms. Wintour,

My name is Elyssa Goodman and I am writing to be considered for the Editorial Assistant position at Vogue. I have attached my cover letter and resume as requested.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Elyssa Goodman

Bam! Short and sweet, polite and appreciative (and approved by Dr. Wynn himself). Overall, though, just know how to say what you want and how to (politely) ask for it, and above all, always be a lady. If Audrey Hepburn were your potential employer, how would you speak to her?

Source: James Wynn, Ph.D, Professional Writing Professor at Carnegie Mellon University

College is hard. We make it easier!

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of HC delivered to your inbox.


About The Author

Elyssa Goodman likes words and pictures a lot. She is a Style Consultant at Her Campus, was previously the publication's first Style Editor, and has been with the magazine since its inception in 2009. Elyssa graduated with honors from Carnegie Mellon University, where she studied Professional Writing, Creative Writing, and Photography. As an undergraduate, she founded and was the editor-in-chief of The Cut, Carnegie Mellon's Music Magazine. Originally from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Elyssa now lives and works in New York City as Miss Manhattan, a freelance writer, photographer, stylist and social media consultant. Her work has appeared in Vice, Marie Claire, New York Magazine, Glamour, The New Yorker, Artforum, Bust, Bullett, Time Out New York,, and many other publications across the globe. Elyssa is also the photographer of the book "Awkwafina's NYC," written by Nora "Awkwafina" Lum. She loves New York punk circa 1973, old-school photobooths, macaroni and cheese, and Marilyn Monroe. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @MissManhattanNY.