How to write a cold email

I’ve written before about why cold emailing is such an effective tactic for getting yourself in front of a hiring manager as you search for jobs. I’ve seen many students land great jobs this way, and as a consultant I have personally secured dozens of contracts by pitching myself to a company over a cold email. A cold email gets you directly in front of the hiring manager for your desired position, and it allows you to frame and highlight your most compelling skills in a way a resume just can’t.

Keep in mind: a cold email should be sent directly to the hiring manager (the person who asked that the job be filled) and not to a recruiter. I’ve written before about how to find the right person to contact at a company during your job search. So in this email, you’ll be speaking directly to the person who would most likely be managing you were you to land the job. If you come across as a capable, talented candidate in your email, a person the hiring manager can already envision working with, they will be excited to bring you in for an interview.

So once you’ve decided to send a cold email, what should you say? I have a strict template I follow.

The basic structure

Your email should have three paragraphs and only be about 9 sentences long. It will break down like this

  1. Intro paragraph: 3 sentences
  2. Pitching paragraph: 4 sentences
  3. Conclusion: 2 sentences

Before you start writing, adopt the right attitude: Your email is going to be concise and to the point. It is going to leverage concrete facts—not just *telling* what you can do, but actually *showing* it. It is going to focus on specific, compelling skills directly relevant to the job you want to apply for (just saying you’re a fast learner is not enough!). It is going to convey a positive attitude: open and enthusiastic, direct and competent. It is not going to beg for anyone’s time (“I know you must be really busy!”) or frame your skills in a negative light out of self-consciousness (“I’m transitioning into data science from field X, but I’ve worked really hard on building my skillset!” Avoid “but” statements in general).

Ready? Let’s get to it.

The intro

Here’s how you start:

Hi [FIRST NAME],

I saw [on LinkedIn / on the company’s job page / wherever] that [COMPANY] is looking to hire [ROLE]. I am a [data scientist / data analyst / data engineer / whatever you are] [plus one brief identifying detail]. I am excited about the work you’re doing at [COMPANY] and I would love to talk to you about how my skill set might be a fit for the [SPECIFIC ROLE FROM THEIR JOB WEBSITE] role.

The only place you will have to get creative in this intro paragraph is in the second sentence, with the “one brief identifying detail.” This should be a phrase of less than ten words that sums up either who you are, what you’ve done, or what is your area of specialization. Your second sentence could read something like…

  • I am a data scientist graduating with a BS in Computer Science this spring.
  • I am a data scientist with experience in natural language processing.
  • I am a data scientist with a background in quantitative finance.

This identifying detail should communicate some concrete signifier of academic or professional competence, though it isn’t your full pitch. It’s just a brief hook in which you introduce yourself to the reader as a serious, capable person.

Meanwhile, starting the sentence with “I’m a data scientist…” conveys that you are thinking of yourself as a competent professional already. You don’t want to oversell your skills, but you also shouldn’t shy away from directly stating who you are and what you do. It also helps orient the hiring manager as to what job function you’d be most suited for. If they’re hiring for multiple positions, they’ll be wondering: Is this a data scientist? A data analyst? A data engineer?

Keep in mind: for any individual person, there are probably several “brief identifying details” you could choose. Tailor yours to fit what the company is looking for. If the jobs site says they want someone with skill [x], and you have that skill, then you may choose to highlight that skill over something broader in your background in your opening hook. Experiment with different options here, and tailor them for each hiring manager you write to.

The four sentence pitch

Your next paragraph is where you sell yourself. This paragraph will highlight your background and the concrete achievements that will translate into success on this job, as well as your interest and enthusiasm for working at this company in particular.

For this paragraph, I use a method I call the four-sentence pitch. Here is the structure:

  • 1 sentence = who you are
  • 2 sentences = what are your past projects & achievements
  • 1 sentence = why you’re excited about this company

Sentence #1

The first sentence of your pitch will vary substantially from person to person, based on where you’re coming from. Based on the three examples below, you may want to combine the elements that best fit your situation and that do the best job of highlighting your unique skillset and background.

For a new grad…

I just completed my [DEGREE] in [SUBJECT] at [SCHOOL], where I [name the most impressive thing you did in school or an award you won].

For someone changing industries…

I am transitioning into [DATA SCIENCE] from [FIELD], and my most recent role was as a [ROLE] at [COMPANY], [3-5 word description of your last company].

For a bootcamp grad…

After [an X-YEAR career FIELD / graduating from SCHOOL with a degree in SUBJECT], I have spent the last [X MONTHS / YEARS] following a structured study of [languages / domains of study] through [BOOTCAMP / UNIVERSITY / COURSE ORGANIZER].

For those changing industries, the middle template works best if you’re transitioning from a profession that is adjacent to data science, with skills that will translate to your new job (or at least, that will appear to translate). Quantitative finance, actuarial analytics, or even something like marketing in a technical environment could all work here. If you’re coming in from a field where you don’t think the skills will translate, you don’t have to touch on your old industry too heavily in the pitch. You can use a version of the bootcamp template instead.

For bootcamp grads or those transitioning from non-adjacent industries, you can either mention the industry you’re coming from (if your past jobs are ones that you’re proud of and that you think highlight something interesting or compelling about you), or you can skip it and mention what you majored in in school instead. Or you can do neither of these and jump right into the fact that you’ve spent X number of months studying data science. Experiment with what opening statement communicates your value most powerfully.

A special note for bootcamp grads: some in the industry are still biased against bootcamps, to the extent that I have had students experiment with sending emails that don’t mention the bootcamp at all. However, as long as you focus on the concrete skills you’ve acquired and the projects you’ve completed, I don’t think the bootcamp is too big a mark against you. Your work should speak for itself, which is why the next two sentences of the pitch lean heavily into descriptions of past projects.

Sentences #2-3

These sentences should give a broad overview of your technical skills and highlight a specific project you’ve done (pick the most impressive one).

I have experience [building/doing/using] [list of 3-ish things you’ve done or skills you have that are relevant to this job]. Most recently, I [built a specific project] that [name 2-3 impressive details about what the result of the project did or how the project worked] (which you can [check out on my Github (LINK IT) / read more about in this Medium post (LINK IT)]).

If you’re newly graduated from school or from a bootcamp, you might want to open this section with something like: Outside of my coursework…

You’ll want to tailor your list of skills and the description of your project for each company you apply to, highlighting whatever is most relevant to them. Resist the urge to write a laundry list and hone in on the one or two most interesting and relevant elements of your work.

It’s extra compelling to link to your Github or a blog post describing your project! Students who do this see a significant boost in their response rate. This way you’re not just *saying* you can do the work, you’re *showing* that you’ve already done it. Writing a blog post is also just a great exercise for compiling everything you’ve learned from a project, so I highly recommend posting a writeup of your project on Medium.

Sentence #4

In this sentence, you want to express your enthusiasm for working at the company in question and give a concrete, believable, and compelling reason for why their work interests you. This is your chance to show you have some insight into the company’s business, and that you’ll be looking to drive value for the company (and not just sit in the corner playing with algorithms) once you join. It also shows you’ve put serious thought into this email and it’s not just a form letter.

I’m particularly excited about [COMPANY] because [compelling reason! are you passionate about the mission, curious about the data, interested in a specific challenge you think they might have, etc], and based on my skillset and background I thought I would be a good fit for [ROLE].

The conclusion

This is the easy part. Here’s what you write:

If it makes sense to talk, I would love to chat further about how my skills and interests might fit into your team.

This is my preferred way for ending cold emails for job solicitations. You’ve done all the necessary work in the preceding paragraphs, so this is just closing things off. “If it makes sense to talk” reads to me as a courtesy: you’re putting the ball in their court.

In my consulting emails (and also back when I was starting a software company and sending cold emails for sales purposes), I used a difference approach. In those emails, I always ended with: If it makes sense to talk, what does your calendar look like? In sales, many recommend ending the email with this kind of “call to action,” a question that prompts the reader to do something. But for job seekers, I like the above version better. It’s humble, it’s simple, and it gets to the point. If you experiment with different closing sentences, let me know if you notice any impact on your response rate!

In the signature line

Your signature should include four things:

  1. Your full name
  2. A link to your LinkedIn profile (make the text say “LinkedIn” and put the link underneath that text—don’t just put the raw link)
  3. A link to your portfolio—either Github or a personal website
  4. Contact info—email address & phone number

While there are versions of your conclusion that could include this info in the body of your email, in general I don’t think there’s any reason to clutter up your email with contact information (except in the pitching paragraph, where you link to your Github). Sharing it in the signature line makes it easy for the hiring manager to find you online / contact you in the future, without having to cram more information into the body of your email.

If at first you don’t succeed…

It takes a lot of work to tailor this template to highlight your best skills and address the specifics of each company, so don’t be discouraged if it takes a few tries to get it right. A 1/3 response rate is generally considered awesome among salespeople for the initial stage of cold email outreach. If you get a 1/5 response rate, your pitch could use some refinement—you’re doing okay, but you could be doing better. If you’re getting only 1/10, take some time to revise your content before sending more emails.

Go through your pitch with a fine-toothed comb. Pay attention to feedback you get when people do respond: What worked for them in the pitch? What needs to be improved or could pack a greater punch? Figure out how you can tailor the skills you highlight and the language you use to match what each company you email is looking for. Edit relentlessly, solicit feedback from friends and mentors, and try again.

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