When you’re job hunting, every communication with hiring managers and contacts takes on extra weight. After you decide how to sell your career story in your resume and cover letter, consider the framing you’ll use when you send them by email.
What you write in your email subject line may be the first words a recruiter or potential colleague will read about you, and you want those words to get your email opened. You definitely don’t want them to be the reason your message ends up ignored. A winning email subject line will help get you the response you want.
But Ashley Watkins, a job search coach with corporate recruiting experience, said she’s received resumes with no subject line or even no message in the email body, and she calls that a big mistake.
“I have no reference as to what it is for, and a lot of times I didn’t open those emails because I don’t know if it’s spam,” she said. “I’m not going to click and download a document from a source I don’t trust, so you build that trust by letting the person know, ‘Hey, this is what this is in reference to.’”
A job seeker could write something like, “Executive director seeking nonprofit leadership roles” in the email subject line, Watkins said. “That way, I know who they are and I know what they want. And then in the body of the email, they back up what they said in the subject line,” she added.
Here are lines you should consider in common job-hunting situations:
“Your goal is to say, ‘Hey, this email is relevant to you, and you should click it and open it.’”
– Josh Doody, salary negotiation coach and former hiring manager
1. If you are making a specific ask, get right to the point in the subject line
When you are emailing to ask about job openings or to request an informational interview, lead with that ― and save conversational starters such as “How are you?” and “How is it going?” for the email body. With the subject line, “Your goal is to say, ‘Hey, this email is relevant to you, and you should click it and open it,’” said Josh Doody, a salary negotiation coach and former hiring manager.
“People frequently try to get too cute with their email subject lines, and I think it’s much better, especially when it’s a transactional sort of thing, where you’re trying to say, ‘Hey, do you have any job openings?’ to be as direct and as explicit and as clear as possible,” Doody said.
Doody said one way to write such a subject line is “Do you know of any good opportunities for a software developer?” This works, he said, because “you’re telling them exactly what is going on: ‘I’m looking for this kind of role.’ And you’re also giving them an explicit call to action by asking them a question in that subject line.” If the answer is no, they can ignore your email, but if it’s a yes, they can reply immediately.
Your goal is give the recipient the simplest possible next steps, so if they can help you, they can do it with the minimum amount of effort, Doody said.
2. If you’re emailing about a specific role, list it in the subject line
If you are responding to a specific posting, you can email the recruiter with a subject line that includes your name and the job title, or your name and the job posting number given on the job listing.
This may seem like a boring subject line, but it will make your email easily accessible to a recruiter: They can find your email by your name or by the position, Watkins said.
“If you list something that has nothing to do with your name and the position, when that recruiter closes the email and wants to refer back to it, they have no idea what they’re looking for, because they don’t remember your name,” Watkins said.
She also suggested keeping your subject line short, because you don’t want it to be cut off by an email platform.
3. If you have a referral, lead with that as your subject line
Mentioning a referral in your subject line is one of your best chances of getting that email opened, said Watkins. “Recruiters absolutely love referrals, especially referrals from high performers,” she said. “There is also that element of trust, because if I trust you, I’m going to trust your referral.”
Watkins suggested leading with the referrer’s name in language like “Referral from [their name]” or “Referral from [their name], quick question.” This is because they’re probably going to remember and respect the referral’s name before they remember yours, Watkins said.
Doody said he would mention the referral in the subject line with language such as “John Smith suggested I reach out to you about [job title] openings.”
4. When you are networking with strangers, keep your subject line request in proportion
When you are networking for a job with people with whom you don’t have a prior relationship, you don’t want to make big asks, like a referral or an informational interview that takes up an hour of their time.
Your subject line should reflect the level of commitment you can ask of someone at this stage in the relationship.
“If what I’m asking ultimately is for you to give me an informational interview, then what I would put in the subject line, is ‘Could I have a few minutes of your time?’ or ‘Quick question,’” Watkins said.
Pro tip: Don’t start a new subject line for follow-up communications
If you are having an ongoing conversation with someone about a job, you don’t need a new email subject line titled “Following up.” In fact, if you write a new subject line, it will probably break the email thread and make it harder for the other person to follow your conversation, Doody said.
“I would discourage against starting a new thread, because you’re probably giving that person a whole lot of homework if they’re a busy person. They may not remember all the details,” he said. Instead, stick to the original email thread and let the hiring manager or company contact direct you to new email threads as the hiring cycle moves along.
“From your side, you’re trying to start a conversation, get something going. From their side, they’re managing essentially a prospect pipeline … and you want to let them use their process and their system,” he said.