How to email a potential mentor

This post was originally published on Medium.

You. You’re a college senior. Or maybe you’re an early career go-getter. Or maybe you’re trying to learn a skill and break into a new industry. Bottom line is, you’re thirsty (in the best sense of the word), and you want to do everything you can to get ahead.

You scroll through Twitter and see people with gleaming accomplishments up and down your timeline. A quick click on their profile shows they’re a leading expert in X field or they’ve won Y award or they work at Z company. And you want that. So you find their email and dash off a note that looks something like this:

Subject line: Hello
Dear Professional Idol,
You don’t know me at all and I don’t know you, but I am a college student/professional in X and I want to get into your industry. Would you have time to grab coffee sometime so I could pick your brain on your career and how you got to where you are?
Thanks,

Connection made. This is how networking is done, right?

Wrong.

This person might respond to you. But chances are she’ll be at least a little bit annoyed.

What you have to remember is that this person is busy. Sure, they would probably love to help you out, but you have to make it easy for them.

Here are a few quick tweaks you can make to your initial email that’ll make your potential mentor more interested in responding to you:

  • Before you even start writing the email, think critically about what you want a meeting to achieve. Has this person written about the topic you’d like to ask them about? Some people have FAQ sections on their websites. Easy win: Make sure you aren’t asking a question that’s already there.
  • Make your subject line specific. Who are you? What do you want? Do you have a mutual connection you can draw upon? (“John Smith College introduction”)
  • Introduce yourself quickly and succinctly. In one line, say who you are and why you’re emailing. (“I’m Alex Laughlin and I’m a senior at the John Smith College majoring in women’s studies.”)
  • Demonstrate that you’ve done your homework. Prove that you’re not just emailing this person because they work at X company, but because you’re genuinely interested in the route their career has taken, or in the work they’ve done. (“I noticed on your LinkedIn profile that you were also a women’s studies major. I am experiencing some anxiety about pursuing a career in journalism with my major and I was wondering if you had any advice about not seeming too biased in my reporting.”)
  • Maybe don’t ask to get coffee/talk on the phone. If you can ask a specific enough question that they can answer it via email, it will be easier for them to respond. But if you really, really want to meet up…
  • Give them a few specific date/time options to choose from. Again, make it as easy as possible for them to say yes.
  • Finally — and this is crucial — make sure that you are not asking something of this person that they get paid money to do. If you are reaching out to someone who does editorial consulting, don’t ask them for free advice on your new publication. This is especially important when you’re reaching out to self-employed experts. This is how they make their living, so don’t ask them to give their expertise away for free.
Alex LaughlinComment