How to write a good email message

Today's college applicant is much more likely to email, not call, someone with a question or request.  Whenever you email someone, the person on the receiving end is going to make assumptions and judgments about you based on what you write and how you write it.  So here's an email checklist before you send anything to an admissions officer, teacher, counselor, or anyone else involved in your college application process.

1. Do you actually have permission to email this person?  A college rep who hands you his card at a college fair and says, "Feel free to get in touch with me if you have any questions" has given you permission.  But just because you found the email address for the Dean of Admissions online doesn't mean she's invited you to email her.  Don't be a spammer.

2. Make sure your email address is just a name, not something embarrassing like sexyhotpartyguy33@email.com.  Get a new email address just for college application stuff if you have to.

3. Make the subject line something descriptive.  "Question" isn't descriptive.  "Question from a fall 2011 applicant" is.

4. Address the person by name at the beginning, like, "Ms. Harrington-"  Imagine if someone walked up to you and just started asking you a question without even saying hi first.  Wouldn't it be rude (and a little weird)?

5. If the person doesn't know you or may not remember you, identify yourself in the first paragraph.

6.Keep your email to one screen.  Don't write something so long that they have to scroll through it.

7. Use punctuation, capitalization, and proper grammar.  Don't make excuses not to do this.  This is not a text message.  Nobody ever looked stupid for sending a properly capitalized and punctuated email, but they have looked that way for ignoring the rules. 

8. Observe the difference between "your" and "you're."  Sorry–I know that's related to #7 but it's ignored often enough that I thought it deserved its own mention.

9. Don't ever type in all caps.  When you write "PLEASE RESPOND TO ME ASAP" it reads like you're yelling at the person.

10. Be careful with exclamation points for the same reason.  "I really hope you can write my letter!" sounds like you're yelling.

11. It's OK to write like you talk as long as you're respectful.  "The purpose of my email is to request your assistance with my college applications" is too formal.  "I'm writing to ask you if you might be able to help me with my college applications" gets the job done.

12. Use a normal font.  Think black type and normal size.  No bright colors, cursive, blinking lights or animated creatures of any kind.   

13. If you're asking for something, say "please."

14. Always say "thank you" at the end. 

15. Proofread it carefully.

16. Type your full name at the end of the message.  If you need a reply back, leave a phone number, too, so the person has the option of calling.

17. Don't include a quote in your auto-signature.  You don't need to remind this person that "the only way to have a friend is to be one."  And nobody in the history of email has ever read one of those quotes and said, "Wow, that really made me stop and think." 

18.  Be careful CCing people on the email.  The receiver doesn't know those people.  Imagine if you walked into this person's office and didn't introduce the two people you brought in tow. 

19. Think twice before you mark your email "urgent."  It might be urgent to you, but it's not necessarily urgent to the person you're sending it to.

20. Read it through one last time and try to imagine receiving this message yourself.  Is it clear?  Is it polite?  Does it make you want to reply?  If the answer to any of those questions is "No," wait to send it until you re-write your way to a "Yes."

*Bonus email tip that may or may not have to do with college admissions:

Are you angry?  Are you sending this email to someone who's made you angry?  Warren Buffet once said, "You can always tell a guy to go to hell tomorrow.  You don't give up that opportunity."  But once you put your anger out there, it's there.  You can't take it back.  So write it, but don't send it.  Come back tomorrow and read it again.  And if you're still angry, then click "Send."

How far can a love of learning take you?

I've written often on this blog that the most successful students work hard because they love to learn, because they're passionate about what they do, not because they want to be admitted to a prestigious college.  They don't make college the reward.  College is the fortunate byproduct of their drive to know more and to make an impact.

Richard Feynman was a professor of physics at Caltech who won the Nobel Prize.  He worked on the atomic bomb and was a member of the team that investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.  And he also wrote a fantastic book about how the best scientists are driven not by the chance at fame or notoriety, but by the joy of learning something nobody else has known before.

Here's a short video of Feynman explaining that he doesn't care about awards, not even the Nobel Prize.  As he puts it, "I've already got the prize–the pleasure of finding the thing out."

What do you think he would have said to a kid who was taking calculus because "That's what Harvard wants"?

Why do you need a college to think you do good work?

From Seth Godin's blog today:

"If you're waiting for a boss or an editor or a college to tell you that you do good work, you're handing over too much power to someone who doesn't care nearly as much as you do."

Here's how I think high school students should apply this thinking to college admissions.  

Seth isn't suggesting that you shouldn't try to achieve your goals, or that there's no need to work hard to gain admission to college.

But if you work hard in your classes, you shouldn't need an admission from Yale to feel proud of your effort. 

If you spent every Saturday of your junior year volunteering at a local homeless shelter, you've done great work whether or not Duke says, "Yes."

If you played three years of varsity basketball, or had a successful stint in Model United Nations, or acted in plays, sang in musicals, trained guide dogs for the blind or flipped burgers for extra money, you don't need your dream college to admit you to know that you're a good, talented, hard working kid.

The pressure of college admissions has pushed too many kids to leave their self worth in the hands of a very short list of selective colleges.  They believe admission from one of these colleges will validate all of their efforts.  If you believe that, you're giving too much power to the colleges.

Study.  Work hard.  Be curious and engaged.  Be nice to other people.  Make an impact in activities you enjoy.  Show your enthusiasm for things you're doing.  I promise you that you will get into college.  Keep being that same engaged learner and doer while you're there and you'll be happy and successful, no matter which college is lucky enough to get you for four years. 

And parents, if you've raised a good kid who tries his best, who plays on the soccer team, who kids and teachers like, who's nice to his sister and always helps clear the table, you shouldn't need him to receive an admission from a highly selective college to be proud of him (or proud of the job you've done as a parent).

Recommended reading for leaders

If you're a student body president, team captain, section editor for the school newspaper, or in any other role where your job is to supervise or lead people, here are three great books to learn the skills you need to be great at it.

OneThing The One Thing You Need to Know by Marcus Buckingham

Leadership and management are not the same thing.  They require very different kinds of skills, and Buckingham explains how to do both.  He's also got a surprisingly simple secret for personal success that involves quitting.  It's a good read. 




Good2Great
Good
to Great
by Jim Collins

Collins is a professor at Stanford Business School who based this book on his exhaustive study of great companies and the leaders behind them.  Some of the findings are surprising, like the fact that charisma can be as much a liability as an asset for a leader, and that spending time and energy trying to motivate people is a waste of effort–if you have the right people, they will be motivated as long as you don't de-motivate them.

FirstBreak First Break All The Rules by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman 

The authors worked for The Gallup Organization and did a comprehensive study to find out what great managers do differently.  If you're in any kind of supervisory role, this book will give you great ideas about how to manage the group and get the best out of each person.  Every single adult I know has a story about working for a terrible manager, but you can start learning to be a great one while you're still in high school

Why thank-you notes are so great

I got a great thank-you note the other day.  It was thoughtful and
sincere and really made me feel like this person appreciated the
(actually pretty small) thing I did. 

It was also, of course,
totally unnecessary.  But that's why thank-you notes are so great. 
They're unexpected and a nice surprise.  They're free to the writer,
but worth a lot to the receiver.  It's rare that you can do something
so easy that's so well appreciated. 

So think about a person who's helped you or done something nice
who deserves your thanks.  Maybe it's a teacher, your counselor, your
boss, or a friend who helped you when you needed it.  Write a nice note of thanks and let them know you appreciate their help. 

If you need some tips to write a good one, here's a prior post.

What students can learn from Major League Baseball

A lot of colleges' essay questions ask you to describe a time that you failed or made a mistake.  Nobody is successful all the time, so colleges don't expect seventeen year-olds to be perfect.  But they ask the question because the way you handle these circumstances says a lot about your character. 

Baseball fans saw a great example of that this week when umpire Jim Joyce absolutely blew a call that cost pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game.  The replay made it obvious to everyone, including Joyce, that he'd missed the call.  So he did something you almost never see an umpire do.  He admitted he was wrong and apologized. 

“It was the biggest call of my career, and I kicked the sh*t out of it, I just cost that kid a perfect game. I thought he beat the throw. I was convinced he beat the throw, until I saw the replay.”

He also apologized personally to the pitcher, Galarraga.

"Joyce felt badly enough about it that, long after the game was over,
he asked to meet with Galarraga. It’s an incredibly unusual move, but
given the circumstances, it was understandable.

Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski brought Galarraga
from the home clubhouse into the umpires’ room.

'He asked if he could see Armando and I brought Armando in there,' Dombrowski said, 'and [Joyce] apologized profusely to him and he said he
just felt terrible. They hugged each other and Armando said, ‘I
understand.’"

Major League Baseball gave Joyce the option to take the next game off, but he declined, even though he knew what he was in for.  He said he was, "Ready for boos" and promised,

"I’ll take it.  “I’ll take whatever you can give me, and I’ll
handle it like a man, and I’ll do the best I can.”

And here's what happened in the next game.

Successful people don’t just “think” about doing things

Successful people don't just think about doing things; they actually do them.  That's why colleges are always looking for students who make things happen. 

According to his IMDB biography, Stanley Kubrick once said, "Perhaps it sounds ridiculous, but the best thing that young filmmakers
should do is to get hold of a camera and some film and make a movie of
any kind at all."  Note to potential film majors:  You don't become a filmmaker by talking about your favorite films.  You've got to actually make some.

Most people didn't know who Ben Affleck and Matt Damon were back in 1996.  Then they wrote "Good Will Hunting" and won an Academy Award.  They could have just talked about writing a movie; but they actually did it.

Bill Bowerman was a track coach at the University of Oregon in the late 60's.  He thought the standard racing shoes with metal spikes were too heavy.  So he started making his teams' shoes himself complete with rubber soles he forged on his wife's waffle iron.  A few years later, he co-founded a little shoe company called Nike.

Steve Jobs didn't know much about computers when he started Apple in 1976.  But his friend Steve "Woz" Wozniak did.  Woz had been building circuit boards that computer hobbyists could buy and turn into computers.  But he was just doing it for fun.  It was Jobs who saw the potential for the personal computer.  It took awhile, but he eventually convinced Woz to start a company with him–Jobs even sold his VW bus for $500 to help fund the start up (according to iCon).  Jobs wasn't just a thinker–he was the person who actually got Woz on board and started the company.

Ben and Jerry were sitting on the steps at Jerry's parents' house in 1977 talking about what kind of business they could start together.  They both loved to eat and decided to open an ice cream parlor because it was cheaper than opening a restaurant.  First, they took a $5 correspondence course through Penn State (they split the tuition and shared the material) to learn how to make ice cream. Then they found an abandoned gas station they could rent cheap and did all the renovations themselves.  They put the last coat of orange paint on the ceiling the night before they opened.  They combined thinking with doing (and eating) to start their business.   

What are you thinking about doing that you actually could be doing?

  • Does your softball team need to raise money new uniforms?
  • Is your senior class looking for a place to hold your prom?
  • Do you wish you knew more about the Civil War?
  • Do you need to learn more about which colleges are right for you?
  • Would you be a better basketball player if you could sink more free throws?
  • Does the homeless shelter where you volunteer need someone to supervise people on Saturdays?
  • Does the store where you work part time need a website?
  • Could you be the first chair violinist if you practiced a little more?
  • Does your soccer team need to organize practices for the summer?
  • Would it be great if your art class could display their work in the hallway?
  • Is there a kid at school who's being treated badly and would like someone to reach out and be nice to him?

Thinking about doing something is the easy part. It's the doing that's important.

Asking, “What can I do to help?”

"What can I do to help?" is a powerful phrase.  But someone who really needs you will be especially appreciative of the offer if you don't expect anything in return.

In the last week, my bank has started offering new products, discounts and benefits as "Our way of thanking you for all that you do."  I even got a call from someone who just wanted to "check in and see if I needed anything."  OK, that's nice.  But all I keep thinking is,

"Where were you guys 18 months ago when the bottom fell out of the economy?"

It's easy to offer help when it benefits you.  But tough times are great opportunities for you to make a real difference for someone who could use your help.  So reach out.  Offer to pitch in and help.  And do it without necessarily expecting anything in return.

You'll end up doing a lot for people at times when they really need it.

How to write a high school graduation speech

Every year around this time, a few of our Collegewise kids ask us to look over the graduation speeches they’ve written so we can give them feedback. And every year, our most important feedback is that they not write the standard high school graduation speech.

Every kid in America who writes a high school graduation speech seems to say the same three things.

1. “We’ve come so far in just four years.”

2. “We’ve endured good times and bad, but we’ve gotten through it all together.”

3. “Now we’re going off into our futures, but we’re well-prepared thanks to our high school.”

It's not that those are inappropriate thoughts to share. But the rules we teach for great college essays all apply here.  Don’t say what everybody else says, exactly how they say it.  Be honest.  Be specific.  Be forceful.  Say something meaningful.  Don’t resort to quotes or clichés.

We’re not in the speechwriting business, but in the interest of high school graduation guests everywhere, here are my five unsolicited tips for potential graduation speakers.

1. Be specific.

Details make writing interesting.  The same can be said of details in speeches. There’s nothing original or interesting when you say,

“Our freshman year, we were somewhat unsure of ourselves, lost in a large school, and apprehensive about what our future held for us."

But details make it personal and relatable.

“It’s amazing how much we’ve all changed in the last four years. On my first day here at school, I could barely reach my locker. I estimated that most of the senior football players had to have been at least 28 years old. And sadly, I got lost trying to find Freshman English and had to ask for directions. Twice. Today, I’m proud to report that I can reach my locker, the football players don’t look older than I do, and I can find any class on this campus, from drama to physics without having to ask for directions. How different will we all be two years, or four years, or ten years from now?”

2. Put the quote book away.

Forget the famous quotes. You are the graduation speaker. People want to know what you have to say.  The crowd doesn't want to hear what Nietzsche or President Kennedy or King Ferdinand has to say. 

3. Thank someone.  And ask others to do the same.

It’s always good to recognize parents, teachers and your friends. But I think a very nice thing to do is to publicly thank a specific person, one person who helped you, who made a difference, or believed in you. It could be a coach, a counselor, a teacher, your dad, whoever. Thank them in front of everybody. And then encourage everyone else to find and thank the person who helped them, and to do so before they leave graduation.

Who you thank will not be that important to the audience so keep that part short. What will be important (and very cool) is that you’ll ask the crowd to think about who they have to thank. The speech shouldn’t just be about you.  If your speech inspires other people, you’ll be a speaker to remember.

4. Don’t say anything you’ll regret in thirty years.

Most kids who are selected to be graduation speakers are the type of kids who have always set a good example. But every year, they’ll be a few kids who want to take controversial stand, or call out a teacher or administrator, or make an inappropriate joke. Don’t be that kid. You want inspiration? Write the speech you can show to your own son or daughter thirty years from now and say, “That’s how it’s done.” 

5. Save your most important message for the end.

You are the student who will have the collective attention of your entire senior class. So put down the speech and ask yourself, what is the one thought, the one thing you would most like to say to every single member of the graduating class? If they remembered nothing else, what’s the most important thing you want to say to them?  Stay safe during graduation night so they can start their futures tomorrow?  You hope they all find success and happiness?  Whatever the answer is, make sure you include it in the speech, and make sure you close with it.

If you’ve got a friend who’s hoping to be a grad night speaker, feel free to forward this along. I hope it helps.

What’s your most important message?

A good friend of mine got married yesterday, and I was the officiant at his wedding (I'm legit).  I wanted the ceremony to be meaningful and thoughtful. I wanted to do a good job.  So I started by figuring out what I would say to the couple if I were only given the chance to express one thought at the ceremony.  That took some time to figure out, but once I had it, the most important part was done.  The beginning, middle and end just served to introduce, support and sell that one all-important message. 

When you're writing a paper, giving a speech, filling out a college application, having an interview, or meeting with someone important and you're trying to figure out what to say, start by asking yourself, "What's my most important message?"  Start there and spend some time on it.  Your most important message deserves the most time and attention.    

Boil everything you're thinking down to the one thing, the most important message you need to get across, and the rest will fall into place from there.