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Email in the job search

Email is essential business communication and can elevate your job search or derail it. Read on:

Email structure

Just like any form of writing, your email should be written considering your audience.

Your email alias, your subject line, and your content all have to be clear and appear appropriate to your recipient. Failure to do this can get your email ignored and/or deleted as junk or spam.

A good approach is to make it your full name with "" as in That's what the recipient will see in their in-box; better than

Using the "edu" extension lets the recipient know you are affiliated with an educational institution — and being a student is your main job now.

Your recipient also might recognize the "vt" part. Not a bad thing.

"Hotdogdude@hotmail" or "Sillyefgrl75849" are not appropriate. True story: employer received email from "sexy[1234]." That is an excellent way never to be taken seriously or viewed as professional — or end up in a junk/spam filter.

Clear and meaningful to the recipient, as in: "Application for graphic designer position listing 84G11" or "Follow-up to meeting at Natural Resouces and Environment career fair at Virginia Tech."

A blank subject line is unacceptable. You've given the recipient a good reason to ignore or delete your email.

"Read this" and "information" and "for your consideration" and the like are meaningless. Aren't all emails supposed to be read, and contain information, etc.?

Salutations: Mr. Ms. Dr. ?
And what if you don't have a person's name?

Don't ever misspell a person's name if you have it. Have you received mail with your name misspelled? If so, you know the impression it makes.

If you know you're writing to Jack Caretta, use "Dear Mr. Caretta:" Not "Dear Mr. Jack Caretta:" Only use a last name after Mr./Ms./Dr.

If you know you're writing to Allyson Abernathy, you'll use "Dear Ms. Abernathy:"

It is never appropriate to assume a woman's marital status, and her marital status is irrelevant to business communication. Therefore, don't use "Mrs." or "Miss" in business communication. Use "Ms." for women; it's the feminine equivalent to "Mr." Only exception to this is is when a person uses those salutations for herself. However, note that it is not protocol to use Mr., Mrs., or Miss to refer to oneself in business. Obviously salutations are used in some settings, like school settings in which students are expected to address adults as Mr., Ms., Miss, Mrs., or Dr.

For individuals with Ph.D.s, other doctoral degrees, and medical degrees that confer the use of "Dr." then use "Dear Dr. [lastname]:" regardless of gender. There is nothing about the salutation "Dr." that implies anything about gender.

What if the person does not use "Dr." and the person's name leaves you uncertain about gender? Your best bet is to do some research. Get on the organization's website and see if you can learn anything. If not, call the organization and be honest: Say, "I'm writing a letter to Pat Watford. I apologize, but I have not met Pat Watford and I want to properly address Pat Watford as 'Ms.' or 'Mr.' Can you advise me?"

What if there is no name supplied? Good question. "Dear Sir or Madam:" is always appropriate. If you don't know who will see and read your letter, using just "Dear Sir" or "Dear Madam" is inappropriate and suggests gender bias on your part. An exception might be if you're writing to a single-gender institution, and you are absolutely without question certain that every possible person who might receive your letter is of one gender.

Another approach when you have no name, but you do know the department to which you must send your letter is to do something like, "Dear Human Resources Department staff:" or "Dear Hiring Manager at XYZ Inc.:" Be very careful if you do this. You don't want your letter to look like a form letter you sent to 30 employers unless you want it ignored.

Business-like writing style.

Attention to grammar, spelling, punctuation, applying the same rules as for hard copy correspondence.

Clear, concise, to the point. Respect the employer's time. Don't expect the employer to work to figure out why you're writing. Unclear emails risk being ignored.

Start by saying why you're writing. "I'm applying for the accounting internship position your firm advertised through the Virginia Tech Accounting Department." If you're applying for a job, employers like to know how/where you learned about the job.

Brief information about yourself. "This May I will graduate from Virginia Tech with a bachelor's degree in human services. My experience includes two internships in community mental health agencies."

Don't write like the script of a phone call as in "Hi, I'm such-and-such. How are you today?...."

Avoid fonts that are so stylized that they are difficult to read.

Don't use all capitals. It's the email equivalent of shouting and people don't like it.

Very large fonts can also seem like shouting.

By the same token, don't use all lower case letters. Your purpose in business correspondence is not to attempt to pass for the poet e.e.cummings.

Don't Randomly Capitalize Words That are Not Proper Nouns. It's incorrect and useless.

Be judicious about color and bolding. For job search correspondence, don't use it. For correspondence letting people know about an event, it can be used judiciously.

The terminology "signature block" evolved from hard copy correspondence on which a handwritten signature is a must, followed by your typed name. Of course, in email, there is no handwritten signature. The term just refers to the block of information that closes your email.

Include one in business correspondence outside your own office or department. It should give your full name and full contact information, including mailing address, email address and phone number(s). After your name, you can include something that identifies you (as a job title would), like "Junior Biology major at Virginia Tech."

You might think you don't need to include your email address because your recipient can hit "reply" to email you. However, if your recipient forwards your email to someone else who might like to reply to you, that person might not be able to see or access your email address. By including your email address in your signature block, you make life easier for others (this will contribute to your success in the job search and on the job), and help people reach you.

Attaching a signature file is not a substitute for having a signature block. Don't assume that your reader will open attachments to get basic information that should appear in the content of your email, like your name and how to reach you.

Be careful about including quotations and sayings in your signature block. Obviously don't include anything that has potential to be offensive or misunderstood. Think about the impression your message sends to someone who doesn't know you, and be judicious.

Generally avoid graphics and backgrounds in email for your job search. They are unnecessary, make your email file larger, and can sometimes load slowly. A small logo in your signature block with your school affiliation might be okay. Otherwise, don't do it. Better safe than sorry. Moving graphics are annoying and are disability-unfriendly.

If you're emailing an employer because the employer instructed applicants to do so: Again, check any instructions the employer has given. If the employer said to attach a resume, do it. If an employer said to attach a cover letter, do it. In your email give a short explanation of what's attached, why, and who it's from. Use the format the employer requests.

Name your attachments logically for the recipient, not yourself. "EmilyAlderResume.doc" works fine. "Myresume4jf206" might work for you, but won't mean anything or be helpful to the employer.

When attaching any type of file, include the appropriate extension ".pdf" or "docx," or whatever the case may be, so the employer's computer can open it with the appropriate computer application.

If you can't find out the employer's preference for a pdf or a docx, you could opt to send both to give the employer a choice. Obviously a pdf retains your formatting as an image.

Don't send a content-empty email that forces the recipient to open an attachment to know why you're writing. Include a brief, clear summary in your email telling why you're writing and what the attachments are. Many people will not waste time opening an attachment if the email does not give sufficient information. This can also be an IT security issue; in many work environments we are told not to open unsolicited attachments from unknown senders.

If you are sending a resume and cover letter by email, should your cover letter be the email content, or an attachment?

Either are possible. Consider this approach:

  • If the employer's website or a person doesn't instruct on this, and you just have an email address, make your email a brief version of your cover letter, and indicate that your resume and cover letter are attached. The attached cover letter can be a bit more detailed and formal.
  • This way, you've essentially given the employer the option to look at just one or both, and you have included the more formal document as an attachment.
  • Be sure the email has at least enough info so the employer knows why you're writing: the job of interest, your basic qualifications and your complete contact info.
  • Be aware that in more formal professional environments, an attached cover letter may be desired.
  • Be aware that email is a form of written communication and it creates a written record.
  • Retain copies of the email you send and receive.
  • Don't let the speed and ease of sending email blind you to the fact that you will be judged on what you say and how you say it.
  • Email, like other written correspondence, doesn't reveal your tone of voice. Choose your words carefully.
  • A well-written email can quickly impress an employer. A poorly-written email can do the opposite.
  • When people take time to respond to you and give you information, respond with thanks. That person has given you time, and time is precious. Don't treat people like servants. If you treat people poorly because they are lower on the organizational chart than others, be assured those up the chart will be informed. Failing to say thanks makes you look lazy, unintelligent, self-centered, or immature.

Appropriate use of email

For a first contact, email employers when an employer specifically invites or instructs you to do so — with instructions on the employer's website, a job ad, a verbal conversation, other reliable advice, etc.

Read instructions: Many employers require applicants to submit materials (resume, cover letter, etc.) through their online system. Applicant tracking systems (ATS) help employers manage applications, and enable employers to treat all potential candidates equally with consistent procedures to apply. If an employer provides an email address, don't use it before reading instructions.

(Failing to follow instructions is a common reason that applicants cannot be considered.)

Don't ever send an email without doing your research online first. If you ask a question easily answered on the organization's website, you'll create the impression that you are lazy or unintelligent, or both. It's the unfortunate truth and we'd rather not see you make that mistake. And it's worse if you claim on your resume that your skills include "Internet research" or being "detail oriented."

Don't send an email randomly to someone saying "I'm not sure if you're the correct person, but I figured you could forward this...." Don't figure. If you write to the wrong person, they have no reason to respond or forward. Do your research, and say why you're writing to the person ("you were listed as the contact for the XYZ career fair").

If an employer emails you, you can probably respond via email. The key is to read the email sent by the employer and follow instructions. For example, it might instruct you to do some follow-up online or with another person.

Be very careful about noting to whom and how you should respond. Morgan McKenzie of XYZ Inc., might send the email, but instruct you to mail your resume and a cover letter to Chris Corrigan of XYZ.

Emails that have been forwarded to you (or to many) or have gone through lots of forwarding may take more time for you to interpret. Read the details so you do the right thing. It won't help you to send off a response to someone who just happened to forward the email but isn't the correct contact person.

When you reply to an email, stick to the same topic and place your response above the email you received. If the subject line, as received, is vague, misleading, or useless (ex: "please forward," or "attention students," or "how do I post a job?", or the like), you can change the subject line to something more literal and useful to the recipient (as described above in "subject lines.")

Don't delete the content sent to you (unless there is something inappropriate or unnecessary for your recipient to see). If you delete the relevant message from the person to whom you are responding, you force that person to dig up their prior email to see what you're responding to (a time-waste for that person). Be efficient and make communication clear and easy. 

Delete unnecessary forwarding code and text that is irrelevant to the content. Again, don't waste people's time.

This question arises often from students: Should a thank-you note be sent by email or hard copy?

A prompt, nicely-wriiten, professionally-written email of thanks is very appropriate. Employers will appreciate that you sent thanks. Obviously, email can reach your recipient much sooner than hard copy will arrive.

When you send email thanks, do so promptly. An email sent a week or two after an interview is going to seem late (especially if the person is interacting with many candidates, as recruiters often are). That said, late is better than never; a late email of thanks should be especially well-written. If you apologize for writing late, don't make excuses or blame it on something; keep it brief and simple; and the apology should not be the first thing stated.

A handwritten note of thanks is a very nice touch, and can follow an email, and shows that you really made an effort.

Negotiations are better conducted verbally than in writing. If you don't understand the benefits package information provided with a job offer and have questions, a verbal conversation will be best. However, if speed is of the essence and you are only reaching voice mail by phone, you could alert the employer via email that you have some questions and are hoping to speak directly. Suggest multiple times when you are available to speak. (The process of scheduling can be cumbersome and a time-waster; be efficient.)

If an employer has been communicating with you, take your cues from the employer. If they clearly prefer phone contact and there's no problem reaching each other, use the phone. If they use email, follow suit.

If you do something important verbally — like agree upon an interview date and time, or accept a job offer — it's important to follow up in writing, and an email serves that purpose. Usually an employer will confirm an interview time by email (or they may have an online system that does this).

But if the employer doesn't, you can. For example: "Thank you so much for the offer of an interview at your McLean, Virginia, office. I look forward to seeing you on Tuesday, March 7, at 8:00 a.m." Putting information in writing creates a record and can protect everyone from confusion and misunderstanding.

An employer should always follow up a verbal employment offer with a written offer, which could be conveyed via email (and perhaps in some cases by hard copy). 

Email etiquette doesn't really change with gimmicky trends. So for example, it won't be suddenly cool to have non-sensical subject lines (just in case someone decides to get attention by saying that's clever).