In a recent episode of our podcast, Georgetown Professor and author of Deep Work, Cal Newport, talks about adults’ diminishing expectations for teenagers to both pursue and follow through on opportunities to grow themselves professionally and formatively. Cal mentions a high school student whose performance in an unpaid volunteer research position had a domino-effect of opening up multiple unexpected opportunities, resulting from the initiative she had demonstrated during her time as a volunteer.
However, more often than not, the first impression that a student can make in pursuit of opportunities such as these is via email. As an Admissions Director, I’ve noticed an increase in email directly from student applicants rather than parents. I don’t mind this at all; in fact, I welcome it. Indeed, our own students at The Heights are using email as a way to complement or accompany the non-virtual, real world interactions that happen in-person; another potential good, so long as conversations are improved rather than displaced.
In reading emails from young persons, however, I notice a tendency to conflate the tone of the email with that of the text message, comment, chat, or whatever digital mode of communication. The two are very different, especially as one enters the professional world. As these members of the post-millenial generation (or iGen, or pick your term) begin to hunt for internships and later, employment, it becomes increasingly important to exceed expectations by putting their best foot forward, even if it is thus placed through fiberoptic cable by way of an email.
Here are a few rules for your high schooler to consider when electronically corresponding:
Begin with a salutation
Initiate email to a prospective employer (or teacher) with a salutation. The timeless “Dear Mr. or Ms. So-and-So” is a great way to start. DO NOT launch right into the body of your email. The immediate thought of your older and wiser recipient will be, inevitably, “who does this kid think he is?” A proper salutation infuses the text that follows with a tone of respect, which leads to a more receptive audience, which leads to… well… better results.
Spelling and grammar count
Observe rules of spelling and grammar! Many, likely most, of your readers will see these as goods in and of themselves. Ideas are best conveyed by good writing, and good writers tend not to make spelling mistakes. Even if, however, your recipient is him or herself a digital-junky in the cloud, odds are they will judge your attention to detail by your attention to spelling. The care with which you proof, may be perceived as (and usually is in fact) the same care with which you will work. DO NOT hit “send” without proofing.
Be professional in the tone of your communication. Technology does not mean that professionalism is dead. It just means that young persons, as 17 or 18 year olds, can now enter the professional world with greater ease than ever before. But remember, it is still the professional world. Write accordingly and DO NOT speak familiarly to a person with whom you are not familiar. Emoticons, excessive exclamation points, even, to a lesser extent, jokes, are not a great way to open a line of communication with a person in a position of power. Keep it professional.
Mind your manners
Be polite. DON’T tell you reader what to do without asking nicely. At least for the time being: “Please find attached. . . ,””Please call me . . . ,” “Please let me know . . . ,” all sound better than, “Find attached,” “Call me,” and “Let me know.”
Close with a sign-off
End your digital letters with a sign-off and signature. “Sincerely” works well in the first email; you can graduate to “regards” or “best” in time; after you’ve landed the job and are crushing it, you might be able to move on to a signature without a sign-off… maybe…. so long as you are talking to a regular recipient.
Print and proofread before clicking send
Take the time to print more important emails to proof them. I strongly support the primacy of paper over pixel when it comes to comprehension and proofing. But over and above that, when you proof paper, your email (and career?) isn’t competing with browser windows for your attention. Read it once top to bottom, then, if you really want to make sure it’s perfect, read it backwards–any lingering spelling mistakes are sure to reveal themselves when you see the words a bit out of context.
Get a second set of eyes
Ask mom or dad to take a look. Students have a huge advantage over many job seekers insofar as their life coach and biggest fans are within a few seats of them at the dinner table on a near daily basis. Parents know a thing or two about what employers might be looking for. Take pride in writing, but accept correction graciously. DO NOT be unduly defensive about your writing. You might give your proofing-parents pause in offering future corrections, and, let’s be honest, you owe them a grateful and receptive response even if you decide, after thoughtful consideration, to forego a proposed edit.
While an email is no substitute for a face-to-face conversation, it can be the difference between whether or not one achieves that conversation. While these are some helpful guidelines to keeping digital correspondence professional, they are by no means exhaustive. Have any additional tips for students? Feel free to leave them in the comments section at the bottom of the page.