Hey design students! Stop sending those lame job-seeking emails
They say you’ve built a successful business when you start getting regular spam and solicitation requests. I say it’s when you get inundated with endless emails asking for employment.
Around this time of year, right when the design students are putting away their graduation gowns, is when my inbox gets flooded with various cold email requests. (For those of you who don’t know, a cold email is 1: an email sent to someone you don’t know 2: an email sent that the receiving person did not ask for.)
So I get these a lot. Some students want me to review their work. Some are inquiring about internships. Most flat out ask for a job.
And, without fail, they almost always sound the same. Generic. Stiff. Predictable. I immediately delete most of them. That sounds harsh, but there are reasons. Read on, my young Padawan.
I’m going to break down what to do and not to do, and how to improve your prospects of actually landing a job.
Rule #1: Do NOT start out with “Hello,” “Dear Sir/Madam,” “To Whom it May Concern,” etc.
This takes the cake of the worst possible things to do in your email. I will trash an email that starts like this without even reading it.
Why? Because it shows a lack of interest in my company; you didn’t even bother to research me or my studio. I have a very easy to find “About” page, and my name is plastered everywhere. If you are too dense to find that (or worse, don’t care), then why should I waste my time reading your email? Show some respect, and research the companies you want to work for.
Address your email by name to the person you think you should contact. If you can’t find that contact, get off your ass and pick up the phone. Creative directors are looking for resourcefulness and problem-solving skills. Starting your email with anything other than the person’s name is just plain lazy.
Rule #2: Do NOT just talk about how amazing you are.
Yes, I’m sure you graduated at the top of your class, you would bring a lot to my company, blah blah blah. And yes, I get it, you are amazing at Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator.
What do you want, a cookie? Tell me something I don’t know. Better yet, don’t make the whole email all about you.
Tell me what is it about my design company that interests you. Which projects caught your eye, and why. Learn to talk about design. Tell me what you’d bring to the table, and be specific. Better yet, try to find something in my portfolio that I don’t have that you think might be beneficial. For example, I’m a horrible illustrator. If you are, that might be something to bank on.*
Rule #3: Do NOT just ask for a job
I really hate this. While I know you’re desperate for employment to start paying off that student debt, this is not something you can rush. Building and cultivating relationships takes time. Your first email really shouldn’t even ask for anything: I don’t know you, you don’t know me. I’m very busy; I don’t have the time to read your résumé or peruse your portfolio, let alone send you a reply.
Like or not, you are just one of dozens of such emails I get. If you were a friend or a colleague I would entertain your inquiry, but you’re not.
So instead, just start making contact. Let them know you found their website, follow them on Twitter or Facebook, get to know them. This helps get your foot in the door. It’s harder to turn down someone you are vaguely familiar with, than a complete stranger.
Rule #4: Do NOT just copy and paste the same template. We can tell.
(This is a real email I got. Sucks, doesn’t it?)
Generic emails get generic results. I especially love it when I can literally see that they bulk-sent the same exact email to dozens of other companies. Lame.
Each inquiry you send should be custom-tailored to that agency. Sure, you can use the same basic layout for your emails (no need to reinvent the wheel), but be intentional. Research the design company you’re interested in (see below).
So now you know what NOT to do.
Good. That will get you halfway there. What should you say then? Read on.
Rule #1: DO research the company you’re applying to
Spend some time on their website. Check out their social media. Read their blog. Sift through their about page. Study their work, study their clients. Take note of things that stand out to you.
Above all, research the person you’ll be sending the email to. Get a name, no matter what you do. Pretend like you already know the person and want to be friends. This knowledge will result in your inquiry being more warmly received.
Rule #2: DO offer them something; giving is better than receiving
That would be different and make you stand out in a sea of needy applicants. If you’re good with words, offer to contribute a guest blog article. If you find a broken link on their site, give them a head’s up. Share an interesting article you think they’d enjoy.
Small acts of kindness given freely creates goodwill and are hard to turn down. It’s human nature to return the favor when given an unexpected gift; this is why companies will mail out free address labels. It’s a small thing, but people are more likely to buy something because of it. Follow their example.
Rule#3: Target companies that are big or actually hiring
Look, I’m a small design studio. Usually a one-woman team, if you get my drift. When I’m busy, I take on only as many interns as I need, and not one more. So if I’m in need of additional help, I will advertise it or look for candidates.
If I don’t have work for you, no matter how pretty your portfolio is or how well you wrote your letter, I can’t help you. So stick with agencies that are actually hiring, or big enough where they might make a position for you.
Rule #4: DO use proper grammar and spelling. But don’t be too formal or stiff
I cannot stress this enough. Odds are you’re a college graduate; write like it.
I’ll admit, I am a bit of a grammar Nazi. But that’s what spell check is for. The minute I see a grievous typo, that email gets filed in my special folder that looks like a trash can.
Why? Because it shows a lack of attention to detail, which is vital in our industry. If you can’t be bothered to spell check your email asking for employment, how can you be bothered to make sure the design is in the right color space or has proper bleed?
At the same time, don’t come across as overly stiff or formal. This is the design industry.
We wear jeans to meetings, dye our hair bright colors, and cuss (I don’t recommend cussing in your email, but you get the idea). Be conversational. Try reading your email out loud. Does it flow? Do you sound intelligent, yet down to earth?
No one wants to work with a personality-less tightwad.
Rule #5: Follow up once, then leave them alone.
This usually isn’t a problem, but once in a while I’ll get a rather…persistent job seeker. Which is fine, I’m sure that works in an alternate reality. But mostly it just irritates the people you’re trying to win over.
Send the first email, wait a week. If you haven’t heard back, consider it a no. If you want to make double sure that your email didn’t end up in the spam folder, send another or call once. Then move on, they’re not interested.
Rule #6 Use a professional email and get a real domain
Domains are cheap. Hosting is cheap. So please, do yourself a favor and come across as a serious candidate with a legit email and portfolio website.
Don’t use your firstname.lastname@example.org personal email address when you’re sending out resumes. I’m sure it was a hoot when you were 16, but that doesn’t impress potential employers.
Don’t link to your Behance or Instagram. Do you even have a real portfolio site? Most students don’t, and this is where you can stand out. Again, the top cats at design agencies are looking for workers that go above and beyond; don’t do the bare minimum. Take the initiative with your work.
So, we covered the do’s and don’t’s of your emails.
What does that look like exactly?
I’m glad you asked. Here’s a great example I found on what a good job-seeking email should look like by Smit Patel on Creator to the CEO of Buffer:
My name is Smit Patel and I’m a 20 year old student from Boston. I’ve previously worked at startups like ScriptRock, HubSpot and Flightfox. (Quick two sentence intro)
I’ve been huge fan of your blog especially your recent post on ratio thinking because that’s how I live my life, i.e persistence. I LOVE Buffer because you showed how to focus on one thing i.e scheduling and do it really well. In fact, I got 10 of my friends to sign up for it and they are heavy users now. (Touching their ego by appreciating their blog. The important part is you actually got customers (friends) for him even before getting a job!)
My experience in past couple years with customer acquisition can be really helpful for Buffer. If you’re interested, I’d love to set up a call with you next week to see if we can work together. (You have a clear ask that you want to work on customer acquisition. The clear call to action is to reply for setting up a call next week.)”
See? Not that hard, right.
I hope these tips help you, but I’ll be honest here. Sometimes, no matter what you do or how well played your attempts are, the answer will just be no. Don’t take it personally. Life is full of rejection, and acceptance. You will find the right job for you, eventually. It just might not be with your dream company.
Sometimes the agency just isn’t hiring. Sometimes they’re looking for something different. Sometimes (and I hate to say this), your portfolio just sucks.
Know your strengths and weaknesses before applying to positions; look at the projects they’ve done, and compare your design work. Is yours really up to par? Now is the time to be brutally honest with yourself.
You may not be ready to work at Pentagram, but you can find work freelancing (build up your portfolio) or a nice local studio to get started. Remember, we all had to start somewhere. I was lucky and got a paid internship at my church while I was still in school. I also delivered pizza on the side to make ends meet.
There’s no magic bullet to getting an entry-level design position. If there was we’d all be gainfully employed right out of college. Finding your first design job takes work, perseverance, creativity, resourcefulness, and a good attitude. But hopefully, armed with this knowledge, you have a shot. Good luck*.
*I wrote this blog article for illustrative purposes only; Apex Creative is not currently hiring for any positions, so please don’t email me, even using this knowledge you now have about cold emails. But you have my permission to practice these skills with other studios 🙂
What are some common cold email mistakes you’ve seen or done? What’s worked for you?