The Humanities Major’s Guide to Writing Cold Emails

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 humanities majors, 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. Three to five sentences is a good target length.

Before you write the email, research your contact. Have a look at their LinkedIn profile, see if there are any details to be gleaned from a Google search, and see if they’re on (and have mutual friends on) any social media platform you use. 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”

“Current Marching Illini member with questions about your HR career?”

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

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

  1. The salutation:Dear Ms. Lastname” or “Dear Firstname“? 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’ve never met; it might seem odd if you’re trying to establish a connection with someone just a few years older than you whom chatted with 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 they 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 Italian, 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 Illinois in May with a BA in History, 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 philosophy student here in Urbana-Champaign, 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? It may feel awkward, but it’s important to be specific about time, place, and means. Your contact may well respond with something like “Tuesdays are bad for me — let’s make it Thursday” or “I hate the phone — let’s Zoom” or “I’m working against a deadline for the next two weeks — please reach out to me again next month.” That’s fine! The fact that you started with an invitation makes it all the more likely that you’ll arrive at a mutually convenient time. It’s less likely if you leave it to your contact (or a future email) to start planning a meeting.

“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 some evening this week to talk to me by phone about your career path? Let me know a good time and number to reach you.”

“Could you join me on Zoom for twenty minutes on Tuesday morning or Wednesday afternoon next week? If you’d prefer to talk outside of work hours, I can do that, too.”

  1. The close:  Match the formality of your salutation in thanking the person for their consideration and signing off. Your signature block should include  ways to contact you and stalk you: include your phone number, Twitter or Instagram handle (if you post professionally relevant content), LinkedIn URL (particularly if you have a common name), 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).

Some general considerations:

  • You’re asking a favor, but you’re also one (soon-to-be) 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 an important skill. 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 awkward in others.
  • It’s worth saying 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 2019 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. “Reply all” to your first email with something like, “Wondering if you got my message last week. I’d like to talk if you’re free Thursday or Friday after work. Let me know if another time works better.” If your second request doesn’t get a response, move on.
  • If you do hear back, follow up immediately (preferably within 24 hours).
  • For help with structuring the conversation, see our advice about Informational Interviewing.
  • ALWAYS follow up any further contact with a “thank you” email in the original email chain. Thank them for taking the time to meet with you and mention something specific that stuck with you from the conversation.
  • If your meeting leads to additional contacts or opportunities, make note of the connection, and follow up to let your initial contact know that you followed their advice.