How to Email Like a Grown-Up
Getting a job or impressing a professor all starts in your inbox.
Once upon a time, email felt like a really cool, new innovation. So cool and innovative, in fact, that the 90s rom-com canon gave us a movie anchored by that familiar robotic phrase: "you've got mail." But if you're a teen who can hardly remember a time before the iPhone, email probably feels extremely archaic.
I'll admit, email was a thing I rarely used until I got to college, and I'm a millennial (aka snake person), but when I got my college email, it didn't feel like a weird old tool—which is why it took me by surprise when I started hiring freshman for my on campus job and their email etiquette was just...wrong.
The fact is, dear Gen Z-ers, you're going to have to use email once you leave high school (if not before), and it's important that you use it right. Often your email is your first impression, and if your first impression makes you look disorganized or unprofessional, it might be your only impression. We know you're probably the smartest generation yet, as you all came out of the womb knowing how to write code. Just take these few tips and maybe you can avoid all the bad stereotypes we millennials have been bequeathed.
Actually Use Your Email
Let's start from zero. If an employer reaches out to you on Monday and you don't get back to her until Thursday at 10pm, it's not going to bode well for you. You need to be checking your email daily at the very least. When Professor Z sends an email saying class Tuesday is cancelled, you don't want to wait until Thursday 10pm when you do your weekly email check to see that.
I have my Gmail app send me push notifications every time I get an email, which I would highly recommend you do for all emails you use for school and professional purposes--have a separate email you relegate all the junk to.
Then, respond promptly. Generally if someone emails you past business hours (after 6pm or so) you can wait until the next morning to deal with it, but as a rule of thumb you should try to answer emails that require a reply—even if that reply is just a "Thanks, see you then!" or "I'll have an answer for you next week"—the same day you receive it. Not only will you look more on top of things, but the people you're emailing will feel like you respect their time. If I ask you to come in for an interview, I don't want to have to keep that space in my schedule open for days while waiting for you to get back to me.
Write it Right
Now, the email itself. Think of email as a middle ground between texting and letter-writing (which, granted, how many of us have ever sent professional snail mail?). Starting off with a "Dear so-and-so" and ending with "sincerely" is a little too formal, and makes you sound like a spambot—although, full disclosure, I did once have a professor demand that we begin our emails to her with "Dear." This is the only human being I have ever known to do or ask for this, so generally starting with "Hi" or "Hello" and signing off with "Best" is fine. As for how to address the person, it's better to err on the side of respect: Ms. or Prof. or Dr. is fine until they sign off with just their first name (and even then, if you feel more comfortable keeping it formal, that's alright. Calling professors by first names, even when they ask you to, will probably feel weird your first semester or two of college.) Different colleges, workplaces, and individuals have different preferences on how students and subordinates should address them, so follow cues.
In the body of the email itself, just make sure to speak politely, don't use too many exclamation points, be clear and concise, and proofread. After your "I hope this finds you well," cut to the chase efficiently and get your point across.
Be sure to set up an email signature—it's a good way to make sure the people you're contacting have a little information about you and how to reach you, in case you didn't include it in the body of the email. It also just looks hella professional and makes you seem a little more legitimate. Good things to include are your name, job title (if you have one) and/or on-campus position (i.e, Student Health Ambassador), school and grad year if you're still in college, and phone number. You can even include social media handles or a website if they're relevant to your professional life. Make it look sleek, too, using simple font options. Example:
Writer | Peer Tutor, Academic Learning Center
M.F.A., Creative Writing | University of Email Correctness 2018
c: (305) 555-0101 | e: email@example.com
As a final note—which email provider to use? While you're a student, it's fine to use your school email for non-school things, like applying to internships. Some universities deactivate your email once you graduate, however, so in those cases it's good to have another one to tell people where they can contact you permanently. Some schools let you keep your email forever, so you can keep using it after graduation. Mine does, and I do, in part because I think the suffix looks a little more unique than an @gmail, and in part because it comes with unlimited email and Drive storage.
If you're making your own, personally, I think Gmail is the best program and looks the most professional to have as an email suffix (no @aol or @hotmail, please please please). And for the love of all that is good and holy, keep your email address as simple and close to your name as possible. I probably don't have to tell you this, but if you're thinking of emailing a potential employer from "firstname.lastname@example.org" or "email@example.com," don't. Seriously.
- How to write a good email message ›
- 6 Quick Tips For Contacting Colleges | Apply | The Princeton Review ›
- How to Email Your Professor (without being annoying AF) – Medium ›
- Advice for students so they don't sound silly in emails (essay) ›
- For Generation Z, Email Has Become a Rite of Passage - WSJ ›
- 15 Mind-Blowing Stats About Generation Z ›