The Top 4 Mistakes Students Make with Networking Emails – and How to Fix Them and Double Your Response Rate
What’s the biggest difference between an MBA and an undergrad?
“Work experience” or “age” might immediately come to mind.
Or, perhaps, “level of polish” or “presentation skills.”
And if you’re more cynical, “amount of student debt” might also be up there.
But how can you distinguish an MBA from an undergraduate at a glance?
There’s no foolproof way to do this in real life, but if you’re looking at email, it’s trivial.
I can look at any email message and tell, based on the first 2-3 sentences alone, whether a high school student, university student, MBA, or seasoned professional sent it.
It’s easy because emails from younger students are almost universally awful.
It’s a quick win, but also an impactful one.
Why Does This Matter?
I still believe that in-person networking will get you better results, but even with in-person networking you will need to use email in some way.
Also, I’ve seen a significant uptick lately in the volume of “bad emails” that ruin networking efforts.
Finally, while we provided email templates in a previous article (read that one if you haven’t already), we didn’t say much about how to use them in your networking efforts.
Should you contact senior bankers first? How frequently do you follow-up? How many questions can you ask, and when should you ask them?
This article will address those points and more.
The good news is that relatively simple to refine your strategy and get better results with email.
The tips here are partially based on a new bonus module on effective emails in the Networking Toolkit we offer.
The Top 4 Investment Banking Networking Email Mistakes Made by Undergrads and Recent Grads
I’ve seen hundreds of emails from university-level candidates over the years, but four mistakes stand out as the most egregious:
Mistake #1: Adopting the Wrong Mindset
Younger candidates tend to go to extremes when it comes to mindset.
After sending an email to the senior banker, they either 1) Expect a same-day response with an interview invitation in-hand, or 2) They think they can do nothing useful, and attempt to “sell themselves low” if there’s no response.
The reality is somewhere in between.
If you do not already know the banker you’re contacting, yes, your email will be near the bottom of his or her priority list.
He has to worry about a $5 billion deal falling apart, a new Associate who just quit, a big pitch for a $10 billion M&A deal in the afternoon, and the Chairman who wants to ruin his career – plus his wife who’s having an affair with the landscaping guy down the street.
So if you email someone and do not hear back, resist the urge to label yourself a failure: there’s a 99.99% chance the other person simply has bigger problems.
On the other hand, it’s also a mistake to go in with the attitude that you can add no value and can therefore only do menial tasks for no pay.
Even if you don’t have amazing Excel skills or you’re not a valuation pro, you can still save junior and senior professionals time.
Remember: even in highly technical groups, over 50% of the work consists of non-technical tasks – updating buyer lists, creating and revising slides, doing research, contacting potential clients or investments, etc.
Solution: You should never “expect” a reply from a professional contact. This rule is true if you don’t know the person, but it holds up even if you have met him/her before.
I would recommend going into it hoping for a 5% response rate.
If you do better than that, great!
If not, well, the odds weren’t good anyway.
When you present yourself, your tone should be as follows:
“I’ve learned a bit on my own, and I believe I can save you time if given the opportunity. I certainly have a ton more to learn, but I am confident I can pick it up on the job and I would appreciate the chance to assist in any way I can.”
Students tend to come across as overly cocky, or they go to the other extreme and insert unnecessary negative information in their emails (e.g., “I haven’t yet received any offers at banks”), both of which show poor judgment.
Mistake #2: Contacting the Wrong People at the Wrong Time
We’ve gotten more questions on “Which person do I contact? A senior banker or more junior one? Should I go for the MD or VP?” than any other topic.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer, but here’s how you can think about it:
If you are extremely polished, you have highly relevant work experience, and you are directly asking about internships or jobs, then you will get faster results by contacting senior professionals (MDs, Partners, and Group Heads) and asking about hiring at their firms.
But he also had a lot going for him: a private equity internship, a top school in the UK, and good academic results and A-Levels. His emails were also exceptional.
If you don’t have those advantages, or you have little experience with email networking, or you’re taking a longer-term approach rather than directly asking for internships / jobs, then you are better off contacting junior bankers first.
Reach out to an Analyst or Associate, set up a quick call, and then ask for referrals to anyone else in the group at the end and “work your way up” like that.
Younger candidates tend to waste time by contacting senior bankers when they are not at all polished enough to exchange emails or speak with them.
Or they reach out to the newest Analyst in the office and ask about job openings, which is another good way to waste time.
And then there’s the worst mistake you can make: contacting multiple people in the same team at the same time, or CCing multiple team members on your initial outreach email.
Never do this.
Solution: Even if you met and spoke with two bankers at the same time at the same event, still contact each one separately.
You really need to do this if both bankers work in the same office in the same team.
You never want to email 4 people in the same physical area on the same day – they notice that type of thing quickly, and they don’t react positively.
Space out your outreach, and wait 1-2 weeks if you’re going to contact another person in the same team and location.
If you have so little time that it is not possible to do this, pick 1-2 people and limit your outreach to them.
Exceptions: If you get a response and the other person has CC’d additional team members, you can get away with a “Reply All” in some cases (for example, the person introduces you to another team member and you thank both of them).
Mistake #3: Sending Emails at the Wrong Frequency
Just as with mindset, younger candidates tend toward extremes when it comes to follow-up frequency.
They assume the person is not interested at all after sending a single message and not getting a response, or they start emailing the person every day.
Going back to the Day in the Life of the MD above, your email is at the very bottom of the other person’s priority list.
Here’s a quick story to illustrate how important follow-up is:
He wanted to ask some of his former team members about his plans, so he began contacting them via email.
He only got a 10% response rate to his initial emails sent to his former team members.
His work had generated tens of millions in profits for the bank, and he had known some of these people for 5+ years.
In his words: “It was all about the follow-up. Hardly anyone responded to my first messages. I only got responses after waiting a week and checking back, and then checking back again…”
So if you do not yet know the person and you have not yet made him/her millions of dollars, what kind of response rate will you get to your initial emails?
Solution: Here are my simple rules for follow-up:
- If you send an email, wait one week (7 days) and then send a follow-up message.
- If you still do not get a response, wait one more week (7 days) and then send your next follow-up message.
- If you still do not get a response after 4 emails (1 initial + 3 follow-up), put the person at a lower priority and contact him/her once per month for 3-4 months before stopping.
- If the other person does respond, reply quickly – ideally within 24 hours or less.
If you’re directly asking for an internship or job, you could make an argument for following up more quickly – maybe once every 4-5 days instead.
You have to be a bit careful with the last point about quick responses – which leads us into mistake #4…
Mistake #4: Sending Stream-of-Consciousness Messages
And now to the last, and perhaps most common, mistake: sending “stream-of-consciousness” messages as you think of new problems and questions.
For example, you get a response from the person and set up a 10-minute call.
At the end of the call, you asked if it was OK to ask more questions in the future.
The other person said yes.
So far, so good.
Then you think of a new question two days later, and you respond to the original email with your question.
The person replies, and then you have a new question two days later… and then you keep thinking of random questions and sending them over every few days.
This behavior indicates a lack of respect for the other person’s time, and also demonstrates poor judgment on your part.
Some networking guides recommend “pinging” your contacts with new articles, updates, and questions.
But this tends to annoy the other person – especially if you are a student with no work experience and you are constantly asking questions rather than sharing useful information.
Solution: Yes, you should stay in touch, but you can do this by sending a simple “update” email to your best contacts once every 3-4 months. For example:
Thanks for speaking with me a few months ago. I just wanted to give you an update and let you know that I have accepted an internship offer at [Company Name]. I am really looking forward to it, and I could not have won the offer without your advice. Thanks again for your time and assistance.
Even if you are infinitely curious about investment banking, private equity, or any other field, resist the urge to turn your new contact into Quora.
Ask your questions in your initial outreach or call, be thankful and appreciative for the responses you receive, and if you have additional questions, perhaps come back to the person after a few weeks to a few months have passed.
Consolidate your questions, ask them in batches, and do not pester the person as you think of minor inquiries.
Putting It All Together: A Tale of Two Email Chains
To make these tips more concrete, I’ll share with you two email exchanges I’ve had over the past 2-3 years.
One exchange was executed flawlessly. The person who contacted me demonstrated sound judgment, professionalism, and respect for others’ time.
The other exchange started off “OK,” but quickly devolved into a textbook example of why students are especially weak at email communication.
One year, I published an article on impact investing. It generated a lot of attention since we had never covered the topic before, and one reader reached out and asked to be put in touch with the interviewee.
Here’s the timeline for the entire exchange:
- August 12th: I published the article; the reader contacted me right away and asked about being put in touch.
- August 20th: I finally got around to replying, said I would ask, and then I got sidetracked with travel / work.
- September 1st: The reader followed up with me again. I responded, said I hadn’t forgotten, and that I would get back to her soon.
- September 15th: I still hadn’t done anything, so the reader followed up very gently and reminded me once again. This time, I finally reached out to the interviewee, got permission to make the connection, and put them in touch.
- September 20th: They finally spoke with each other, and ended up meeting in-person.
Take a look at how expertly composed her emails are: they’re short, polite, and indicate that she was appreciative of me, even though I had been procrastinating.
She gets the follow-up time (1-2 weeks) right, she gets the language right, and she has the right mindset: she is politely persistent, but she does not expecting anything huge.
Emails That Could “Use Improvement”
By contrast, here’s another email exchange that did not go quite as well.
It started when one reader wrote in and asked me how to request an unpaid internship at a small firm.
His timing was good because he happened to write in two days before I respond to all my emails each week.
Unfortunately, instead of taking my advice and running with it, he started asking stream-of-consciousness questions and making basic mistakes, such as failing to use my name in his responses:
And, of course, he has completely the wrong mindset:
“I have nothing useful to offer, so I’ll ‘sell myself low’ and provide free labor. Oh, and by the way, Brian, you have infinite time so I will keep asking you questions as I think of them every 30 minutes.”
This behavior is guaranteed to hurt your chances of developing professional contacts and winning job offers.
I stopped responding because I can’t devote more than ~30 minutes per week to responding to non-client emails, given that I am already spending 70-80 hours per week on real work.
The punch line: Oh, and this reader never followed-up once I stopped responding.
A Winning Email Strategy: Reply All?
I hope not: “Reply All” is a great podcast, but it’s a horrible networking strategy.
If you’re an undergrad or recent graduate, you’ve probably made some, or all, of the mistakes above.
But if you can avoid them and use the correct email strategy, you might just trick your contacts into thinking you’re an MBA rather than an undergrad.
And as a bonus, you’ll also have a whole lot less student debt.
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