The English/CW Major’s Guide to Writing Cold Emails

Emailing strangers develops your professional network and is a crucial part of any job search.  The “cold email” is the email you write to someone who doesn’t know you in order to get something you want.  In the case of the career-seeking college students, the goal of the cold email is advice, guidance, or mentoring.

Students find writing a cold email intimidating, but understanding the genre can make it easier.  The cold email has six components and nothing else.  Three to five sentences is the target length for the entire message.

Before you write the email, research your contact.  See if you have mutual friends on Facebook, find out if he or she is on Twitter, have a look at the LinkedIn profile, see if there are any details to be gleaned from a Google search.  The more you know about the person you’re writing to, the more effectively you’ll be able to target your email.

  1. The subject line: Wait until you’ve composed the email to write the subject line.  Isolate the most compelling point of connection and make it your subject:

“Prof X at UIUC suggested I contact you re social media careers”

“Alumni Mentoring Directory: advice about HR careers?”

“Read your [title of article] and have some questions”

“Fellow CW major from UIUC seeking insight into comic book industry”


  1. The salutation: There’s no one-size-fits-all approach.  Professionals in some fields (academia, law, health care) value formality–so it makes sense to look up the proper title (Prof., Dr., Mr., Ms., Capt., Rev., etc.) and use it.  In other lines of work (entertainment, tech, media), that kind of formal salutation just establishes that you don’t really understand the field.  More formality is appropriate if you’re writing to an upper-level manager you only know of from your research; it might seem odd if you’re trying to establish a connection with someone just a few years older than you whom you met at a family wedding last year. Don’t drive yourself crazy over the issue though: err on the side of formality if you’re in doubt.


  1. The connection: How do you know about this person?  Is there some reason he or she should recognize you and read on?  The more precise you can be in establishing a context for the relationship you want to build, the better.

“We met briefly last year at my parents’ 25th anniversary celebration, and you mentioned that you work in human resources at ADM.”


“I’ve been following your blog on industry trends in video gaming for a year now.”


“When Professor X heard that I was interested in science outreach, he suggested that I get in touch with you.”


  1. The purpose: Why are you getting in touch?  Who are you?  Keep this part short–no need to share your life history, just the points that are relevant to the request you’re making.

“I’m a junior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and though I majored in English, I’ve been doing some concert promoting in my hometown, and I hope to turn my hobby into a career.   I’d like to hear your story and know how you got started in the recording business with your BA in English.”


“I’m graduating from UIUC in May with a BA in Creative Writing, and I’m planning to apply for some communications and media positions at [company where addressee works].  I’d like to talk to you about what it’s like to work there.”


“As a first-year Creative Writing student in English at UIUC, I’d like advice on what I should do over the next few years to position myself to someday write for the video game industry.”


  1. The ask: What do you want this person to do for you? Be specific; it’s much easier to say “no” to a nebulous request for information or advice. Generally, twenty minutes is a good way to frame an initial request–less time makes you seem less serious, more time is a bigger commitment than most people are willing to make for a stranger.

“I’m going to be in Chicago next week–would you have twenty minutes to meet with me on Friday?  I’d be happy to buy coffee at the Starbucks in your building.”


“Would you have twenty minutes in the next day or two to talk to me by phone about your career path?  Let me know a good time and number to reach you.”


“I’m planning to be in Los Angeles over spring break.  Would there be a good day between March 22 and 28 that I could stop by and meet you?”


  1. The close:  Match the formality of your salutation in thanking the person for their consideration and signing off.  Your signature line should include a range of ways to both contact you and stalk you: include your phone number, Twitter handle, Facebook URL (particularly if you have a common name), LinkedIn URL, website address (if you have one), and the like.  Make sure your email address is professional sounding (an address that is as close as possible to your name is ideal), and omit links to any online material that will convey a poor impression to prospective employers.

Some general considerations:

  • You’re asking a favor, but that doesn’t mean you’re not one professional writing to another.   Avoid any language that sounds desperate or pleading, (e.g., “I’m free to talk any time you’re available, day or night!”).
  • Be brief, particularly about yourself and your history.
  • Keep in mind that the ability to communicate clearly and professionally is one of the skills you have to offer potential employers–this email is your opportunity to demonstrate it..  Avoid texting abbreviations and proofread carefully.
  • Think carefully about what constitutes an appropriate professional tone, given the field your contact is in and the nature of your connection.  Avoiding contractions and colloquialisms is an excellent strategy for some contexts, but can make you sound stuffy or ill-at-ease in others.
  • Once again: do your research.  Find out as much as you can about your contact before getting in touch.  Don’t be afraid to let the fact that you’ve done some homework show (e.g., “Congratulations on the 2015 Industry Leaders award.” or “I’m so glad to hear you have another book coming out next year!”).
  • Keep track of whom you contact and when and what happens as a result. Time spent setting up a spreadsheet to keep these records may seem ridiculous early on the job search, when you’ve only got a couple of contacts in your network, but you’ll be glad later to have the information on hand.
  •  If you don’t hear back in a week or two, follow up.
  •  If you do hear back, keep track of when and where you meet or speak.
  • If your meeting leads to additional contacts or opportunities, make note of the connection.
  • If you get a response, reply promptly (preferably within 24 hours) even if the person you’re writing to takes longer.
  • ALWAYS follow up any further contact with a “thank you” email in the original email chain. In your thank-you, mention something specific that stuck with you in the conversation.

Other resources

The internet abounds in “how to” advice for cold emails.  You can find a few links below.

Keep in mind that people write cold emails for a lot of different ends, and not all advice applies to every situation or industry–it’s crucial to do your research on the person you’re contacting and their professional field.

Advice on writing cold emails for sales/marketing purposes often urges writers to convey what they can offer the person they’re writing to.  It’s great advice if you’re trying to sell the app you designed or draw traffic to your website, but it doesn’t apply to college students looking for advice, mentorship, or guidance.  What you have to offer is…the opportunity for your contact to do you a favor. That’s okay!  A lot of people like to be helpful; others are happy to be able to return the favors they got when they were in the same position you are now; yet others love what they do and want to help other people get started in that career.