(The Improved) “Student Seeking Advice”
The below post was originally written and published in April. I have done some editorial work to improve it as well as obtaining the consent of the people mentioned below so hope you'd enjoy this re-published version.
Having put my email address on the internet as well as actively fostering an online presence, I receive a significant number of “Student Seeking Advice” kind of emails and LinkedIn messages. In most of the cases, I don’t reply to such unsolicited contact. Because I received many and replied to hardly a few, parts of me urges to express to you what I have observed and the best practices to getting a response for unsolicited communications. This article aims to illustrate why I usually don't reply. My hope and intention is that it'd help you write better cold communications.
Most “Student Seeking Advice” emails or messages I receive consistently follow the below format with a surprising similarity among all. The below language is an excerpt from an actual email I received (which I have asked for the consent of the sender). I have also censored all the personally identifiable information.
Dear Mai Le,
I came across your website and profile on LinkedIn and hoped to get in touch with you.
About myself: I am an Undergraduate student at [...] University, aspiring to work within the Investment Banking industry upon graduation. I completed a Spring Week at […] within IBD a couple of weeks ago, will be commencing a First-Year Summer Internship with […] this summer, and [insert more CV-related items]
[… ] have confirmed IBD is the correct career path for me since I found myself to be more suited to the proactive nature found in this division with the long-term projects… [insert more reasons about why he'd like an Investment banking job]
I understand you must be extremely busy; however, I would really appreciate it if I can ask you a couple questions about what it is like working at Goldman Sachs and to hear your story about breaking into one of the most competitive industries in the world, and any advice you have to offer with regards to my penultimate year Summer applications.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Why I don’t reply to such emails
I remember the days when I was a student. For every email that supposedly would go to a professional in the industry, I’d spend at least 30 minutes, or even hours on composing them: adjusting the languages or have them triple checked by myself and my friends. I, therefore, know first-hand how much effort is put into such cold emails. I should probably explain why I wouldn’t reply to the email above or other similar emails. Although what I say here in hindsight may sound harsh, I hope to show you frankly the thoughts that come to my mind - which may resonate with many professional who you may be emailing. I can’t speak for all of the others but believe this will help you improving your success rate of getting a future reply.
The two main problems with the above email are as follows:
Problem 1: I don’t know what he’s asking for
What he ask is too vague. There are millions of advice I can give in many different aspects of the applications, millions of things I can share about my job, millions of details I can say about my career story. How I am supposed to share “anything you have to offer”. To type all of my experiences up, it’d take days. By writing such vague email, he seems to assume I will do the heavy lifting work for him by selecting the best among those millions of things by myself.
An analogy of this situation would be as if he walks into a butcher shop where I am the butcher. It is meant to be a straightforward and quick transaction: he tells me what he wants, I respond, he takes the product and walks out (Notice that in this transaction, I am not paid). However, the only thing he says here to the butcher is that he wants meat, and expect me to do all heavy lifting of figuring out what to give him and put it on a plate for him (when there’s nothing I benefit out of this transaction). I cannot make the choice for him about what he wants to know. I also don’t want to spend any more of my time on investigating from a stranger what he specifically wants - when he should have told me that in the first place.
It’s meant to be a straightforward encounter. He only complicates it by not stating what he wants. He does not help me help him. This anecdote results in me rather be spending my time doing something else than replying.
Problem 2: He has not yet earned the right to my time
Because what he required is too vague, it’d take me too long to reply to this email. Typing a typical email response of about 80 words will take about 5 minutes. Typing an email with good advice and some quality substance, as well as explaining the idea well and thorough at length will take me at least 30 minutes. (There is a reason why I only blog once a month - it takes that long to write decent advice!) If I take that amount of time - say, 30 minutes, to reply to one unsolicited email a day, I’ll spend 3.5 hours every week on responding to unsolicited emails alone. The reason for this excessive waste of my time is because by proposing a vague ask, these people don’t help me help them.
On top of that, he does not anywhere mention why this act is worth my time. It’s all about him, his needs, what he wants – nothing about me, my needs, what I want. How is he going to persuade me doing something for him if he says nothing about why this is relevant or beneficial to me? Too many people who send this sort of emails do not seem to get this rationale that it takes a lot more than listing your CV related items to convince someone to do something for you.
As my time is so valuable to me, if someone put a gun to my head and force me to respond to this, my reply will be as follows:
What’s your number? This is best discussed via a call.
I much prefer calling them and speaking in real-time instead. With a call, I can guarantee of how much time it’d take: it usually only takes me 15 - 20 minutes to extract what they specifically want. I can also end my time commitment when I like by excusing myself to hang up.
In summary, my time is the most valuable assets that someone can ask for. I value it above all else. If someone wants some of it, they should make sure I am convinced fully of why what they want is worth my time.
How to get a reply
I can’t speak on behalf of others; however, how to get a response from me is fairly straightforward: just don’t do the two things above. An unsolicited email stands the best chance with a short, specific question and language to show that the sender has earned the right to my time. For example, why is this request relevant to me, what’s in it for me, if he knows someone I know, or if he has something that can benefit me – for example, some of my current projects
This email is an example of a great cold email. It does not only have a reply but also gain the sender the opportunity for $2m seed funding from investors.
The reason for such splendid results are:
1/ The ask is precise and short: "Do you want a web crawler that can help you gain more customer?". In term of length, there are only five sentences in this email. Short email gives the light-hearted impression that the recipient can also reply with a short answer, therefore increasing the chance of a response.
2/ There are several hints in this email to convince that it's worth the recipient's time. For example, "several of my friends pointed in your directions" means the sender have mutual connections with the addressee, "do you think information like that would be valuable for your company" suggests the sender is offering something that the recipient may want, or may consider. The language is not fancifully crafted and fancy, but it serves a purpose of initiating a good discussion based on the mutual beneficiary.
Cold emailing or initiating unsolicited contact is an etiquette that needs to be learned. I have learned it by mentoring a lot of people. When I am a mentor to others, by receiving several questions from my mentees, I understand how my mentors will feel. By observing how the mentees treat me, I know the best practice for me to become a better mentee to others. Mentoring to me is not only about giving back, but also about me putting myself in my mentors’ shoes to understand how I best interact with them. I’d recommend you to mentor and help others to learn the same etiquette of how to reach out.
Reciprocity - "What's in it for me?"
Recruiting mentors, advisors and teachers is an art in itself. One of the sure tips I can think of is for you to think thoroughly and hard about how you could benefit the sender.
On this topic, I am usually in the same position cold contacting people who are much more senior than me. I’ll tell you a trick of how I make them my then mentors. My trick is to offer them some value adding ideas about what they deeply care about. Ideas are free, and everyone can have ideas, regardless of their seniority. Of course, I need to take my time and research about some value adding ideas, not random ones. My research certainly shows I care. (Similar story here about a girl getting a job with AirBnB) With such emails, I usually get >90% reply rate from these people, no matter how senior they are.
For example, one of my mentors cares deeply about the issues facing his own business. Below is an email I sent him.
I have spent some time thinking of possible solutions to your scaling problems in Kenya. Below are some wild ideas from a fresh perspective. I am not aware of all the specific details of what could be feasible to the business; however, I thought it’d be helpful to spread the thoughts.
1. Partner with broadband companies in Kenya:  year joint venture/ cost sharing on the installation and set-up of broadband networks; beyond five years the company own the assets, and you pay them small on-going rental fees based on usage of the schools only.
2. Registration “van”: Instead of setting up large infrastructure with computers and broadband connections; if the focus is mainly on children’s registration of attendance, you can do a registration using a moving van/car, equipped with internet connection and device for registration.
3. Use of USB internet dongles instead of fixed broadband internet connections: The use of internet dongles (USB internet modem) will reduce the fixed cost to establish infrastructure. One school may be given ~  laptops to be circulated to different classes for registration. These laptops are connected to the internet using USB internet dongles.
... I hope you get the idea.
How you find out what problems they care about is up to your research. What I am trying to say people don’t reply to the kind of generic messages that can be copy-pasted and send to multiple recipients. Taking initiatives such as doing research is a way to “earn” the other person’s time.
My trick has been to use / sell my ideas because I have plenty of them. Maybe there are other alternative methods too - please let me know in the comments if you have some others, I'd love to hear!
Short email, specific ask and to the point
Do not write generic email as mentioned above i.e. if you replace my name with other people's names in the same organisation and the content of still applies / makes sense - then that's a generic email. As soon as I think it’s a generic message, I stop reading. I may never make it until the end so if you hide the ask at the end of the message it’d never get known. So the trick is to put what you want to ask specifically for in the first sentence of every email (because everyone reads the first sentence) and then all the lengthy explanation, reasons, etc. afterwards.
In general, I’d say the shorter the email the better. When I was at university, an average email I write is about half an A4 page. When I started working, I am shocked how short are the emails people write (E.g. “Thx” is also an email). In general, don’t write an email that is longer than seven sentences. The absolute maximum ten sentences for normal communication. (lengthy emails are used for legal reasons or for those communications which must be put on the record / have particular reasons to be long, etc.). Below is an example of an email I replied to:
Mai - Hope you are well and had a nice Easter. I have now joined GS for the spring program and wonder if you have the time to grab a quick coffee with me?
The ask is short and precise. If it’s a yes-no ask, it’s even better.
In conclusion, if you want advice from others, help others help yourself by writing better cold emails that are tailored, with specific questions and short.
Illustration: Jacques Wilbaut (French, 1729 - about 1816), Presumed Portrait of the Duc de Choiseul and Two Companions, French, about 1775