On the employer’s side, understand that your messages are usually viewed as typical of how you would perform as an employee. So, demonstrate your understanding of email etiquette, your good judgment, and your ability to communicate clearly with colleagues and customers or clients.
Tip: Expect that your emails may be saved and searched so be sure to include keywords important and relevant to your job search in your messages as well as in your resume and other job search documents.
Some of these mistakes are fatal all by themselves (see 1 thru 4). Others may be tolerated if your message is read, you don’t make more than one or two of them, and you are the only qualified candidate. Best to avoid the whole list!
These are 20 most common mistakes:
1. Bad FROM: address.
AVOID putting numbers in your email address, particularly numbers that can look like the year you were born. How old do you think MJSmith1966@… might be?
Use a professional, private, not-related-to-your-current-job email address, and not “cute” like HotChick@whatever.com or BigGunner@whatever.com.
A Gmail or cable provider (Comcast, Charter, etc.) mail account is usually credible. If you own your own domain name, use that, assuming it’s appropriate.
If necessary, add accurate, relevant, and tasteful personal marketing to your name, like MJSmithCPA@…, MJSmithMBA@…, MJSmithMarketingManager@…, or whatever is appropriate for you.
2. Bad TO: address.
Typos, incorrect information, and format errors can all blow away a message. The system is unforgiving, and you may never know that your message wasn’t delivered. So double-check the address before sending. (Or add the TO: address after the message is complete, including the attachment being attached.)
3. Bad SUBJECT:
Relevance, interest-generation, clarity, and keywords are critical. So is brevity. The subject is the “headline” of your message – the reason someone will click on it and start to read it. “Subject: Your Branch Manager job opening in Quincy (#165-06)” is specific and contains important keywords. And it doesn’t look like spam.
4. Bad opening.
Double-check the gender and spelling of the name before you click Send, particularly if you have typed “Dear Mr. (or Ms) Whoever”!
When the name is wrong in the opening, it’s obvious the sender doesn’t know what is correct, doesn’t care, or is in too big a hurry. Not impressive!
“Dear Sir or Madam” looks like spam. When accurate, a better opening is “Dear [first name]” or “Dear Mr. [or Ms] [last name]” or “Hi [first name]” if you have met the person, spoken on the phone, or have some prior connection.
Addressing medical doctors, college professors, and generals/admirals usually requires use of the formal title rather than the first names. Err on the side of being too formal rather than too informal in your job search.
[When responding to a message, I often take cues from the message I’m answering. If someone starts out “Dear Mrs. Joyce,” they are probably expecting “Dear Mrs. Smith” in response, and someone who starts out “Hi Susan” should be OK with “Hi Mary Jane” in response.]
5. Bad closing.
“Hugs!” or “Cheers!” is much too familiar to use in a business message, particularly to a stranger or almost-stranger. More conventional closings like “Best regards” or “Sincerely” are more appropriate.
6. No signature.
In business email, the very bottom of the message, below the closing, is an excellent location for additional information, restrained self-promotion, and keywords.
Type your target job title – or, if employed, type a standardized version of your current job title – below your name, plus your job search contact information and your LinkedIn Profile URL. Like this:
James J. Jones, Jr
Social Media Marketing Analyst
A business email without a signature block below the closing looks very informal and inexperienced to me. Most email software makes it easy to append this to the bottom of every message.
7. Too much signature.
Typically, 4 to 6 lines are considered appropriate. Longer may be ignored or look a bit self-obsessed. A general rule: the signature block below the message should not be longer than the message itself, unless it’s a two-line message.
8. Most important point saved for the end/bottom of the message.
This is a common mistake and a fatal one. The first paragraph is where the most important point should be, with the supporting information below it – not above it. Email is more like a newspaper article than a research paper.
9. Too complicated.
K-I-S-S! (Keep It Simple S…) Email is typically read on a computer (or smart phone!) screen by people in a hurry, which means most people scan it. Something complex may be misunderstood, ignored (see # 10), or postponed until later (and “later” may never happen).
10. Too long.
The simple goal of email is to convey a message. But the message is only conveyed if it is read. A message longer than one printed page may be too long. For some people, a half-page may be too long. Remember those tiny smart phone screens!
11. No context.
Sometimes a response gets separated from the message or conversation that triggered it, and the message’s meaning is lost because the context is unclear. “I will meet you there” is a nice, short message, but without specifying where or when, the outcome could be bad.
When responding to a message, include the complete message or the portion to which you are responding. Make sure the relevant details are documented for the reader of your message.
12. Too pretty.
The patterned and/or colored background may not look as great on someone else’s monitor (or smart phone screen), and most business email does not use a colored background. Stick to plain white for most situations.
13. Too similar (cookie cutter).
Sending the same message to different people can be a good idea if you want to get the same idea across and the people are not apt to compare messages. But, particularly in a job search if you are thanking several people or sending your resume to several people in the same organization, customize each message to the person receiving it.
14, Bad language.
Use of swear words and other potentially offensive language can end an opportunity very quickly! So, don’t.
15, Too many acronyms/texting shorthand and cute stuff.
A business email is not a text message to your BFF! If only! LOL! 😉
16. Bad timing.
Try to time your message so it will not be lost in an avalanche of other messages or when the recipient won’t have the time or interest to read it. Friday afternoons and Monday mornings can be very poor times to send email to people working in offices.
17. Missing attachment.
This is my personal favorite, given how many times I’ve forgotten to include the attachment.
My colleague and Career Coach Cafe team member Chandlee Bryan calls this “attachment disorder.” Very appropriate.
When the attachment is your resume or other job search document, it pays to double-check to be sure it is there (and it is the correct version!). Attach the .doc version of your Word document rather than the .docx version, enabling more people to read it.
[Note to Microsoft: Shouldn’t smart email software notice use of the word “attached” and the lack of attaching anything? Just saying…]
18. Bad grammar.
You know this one is not good!
19. Bad spelling.
Avoid this one, too.
And, of course, use standard upper and lower case letters in your message. No capitalization or the wrong capitalization makes your message looks like it was sent by a spammer unfamiliar with proper English usage. And, of course, NO YELLING IN YOUR JOB-SEARCH EMAIL!
I’ve seen so many message from recruiters and hiring managers about the importance of the last 3 in the list above as well as misspelling their names. People making those mistakes are typically eliminated immediately.
Don’t forget, you are “on stage” when you send email in a job search. So, take the time to demonstrate your understanding of good business email as well as your ability to communicate effectively. Show them what an asset you will be to the organization smart enough to hire you.
For More on This Subject
Email Basics for Your Job Search (Job-Hunt.org)
Making Email Work for Your Job Search (Job-Hunt.org)
Finding and Adding the Best Keywords for Your Resume (Job-Hunt.org)
About the author…
Online job search expert Susan P. Joyce has been observing the online job search world and teaching online job search skills since 1995. Susan is a two-time layoff “graduate” who has worked in human resources at Harvard University and in a compensation consulting firm. A veteran of the United States Marine Corps and a former Visiting Scholar at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Susan also edits and publishes Job-Hunt.org. Follow Susan on Twitter at @jobhuntorg and on Google+.