How to cold email for competitive internships | A step-by-step guide

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Cold Email for Internship

You remember high school right? It was a stressful time for everyone. The unhealthy pressure to get straight A’s, a 2400 on the SATs, play a varsity sport, be a nationally ranked musician, win a debate competition, cure cancer… all to get admission to college.

I was far from that. My GPA wasn’t great, I didn’t play any sports, and I wasn’t a good enough musician. Despite these shortcomings, I always had a knack for business-related things.

In elementary school, I sold 1 rupee coins (valued at 1–2 cents) in handmade paper packages for $1 each.

In middle school, I became obsessed with this online game called Runescape because I loved figuring out how to make a lot of money.

In high school, I participated in business plan competitions through an organization called DECA, and made it to the International level.

I loved this kind of stuff, but knew it wasn’t enough. I wanted to learn more about business and improve the odds of getting into a good college.

But how could I get started? I didn’t know anyone in the business world. I didn’t have any marketable skills.

It was frustrating that business was such a vague concept and seemed impossible to get real experience before college.

I noticed that my friends interested in engineering learned how to code and build their own apps. Others interested in medicine volunteered at the hospital and helped set up experiments for researchers at prestigious institutions.

After some reflecting, I decided maybe I could help a university professor with their research. But unlike many of my friends, I had no idea what kind of research I could help with and had no connections to any business professors.

I didn’t let that stop me — I was determined to help a professor with their business research

After some quick Googling, I found a list of business professors at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business — along with all of their emails. I was onto something, and it was exciting.

I wrote a short email introducing myself as an eager high school student interested in learning more about business and helping with research over the coming summer. I then sent this email off to 50 college professors with minor customized changes for each one.

The next day, I got 4 responses.

3 thanked me for the interest but did not have a summer research position.

1 said there may be an opportunity to work together.

After a few more emails and chats, it was settled — I was going to help her build the curriculum for a Haas MBA class in Supply Chain Management.

I went from having no connections in business to landing an internship with an MBA professor in the span of 2 weeks.

This was the start of a deep appreciation for the power of sending cold emails.

Why is cold emailing important?

Cold emailing allows anyone, virtually regardless of background, the opportunity to get in touch with anyone else in the professional world. In a world deeply dependant on nepotism, it is the single most powerful tool to level the playing field of opportunity. Cold emailing enables you to build your professional network as large as you want and compete for the most exclusive career opportunities — depending on your willingness to put in the work.

You can use cold emailing for many things including:

  • Talk to graduate students about the tradeoffs of further education
  • Explore different career interests
  • Talk to people with similar hobbies
  • Get that dream internship

The list is endless — cold emailing lets you talk to anyone about anything.

Each dart you throw at the board is an opportunity to hit the center — and each cold email you send is an opportunity to change your life.

Sending cold emails is genuinely exciting — you never know where the opportunity might take you.

Along with the hypothesis-driven career, cold emailing is the most important tool to learn as early as possible in college.

What exactly is cold emailing and why does it  work?

Cold emailing is when you send an email to someone you have never met and you ask them for something. That “something” can be to clarify a few questions, chat on the phone, meet for coffee… even consider you for an internship.

It sounds crazy right? Why would anyone do you a favor when they don’t know you?

In my experience, the value you provide by asking someone to chat with you about their career is validation. People love to help others — it empowers them and makes them feel good.

Many professionals are willing to give you career advice if it means potentially making an impact on your future. Don’t feel bad for emailing them!

In my next post I will walk you through my process of finding professionals and cold emailing. This is broken down into 4 key topics:

  1. Where do I find professionals to cold email?
  2. How do I write a strong cold email?
  3. What are the 3 key drivers for successful cold emails?
  4. How do I keep track of all my emails and get the most out of each one?

This process is the first thing I teach my friends in helping them kickstart their careers. It works for freshmen and seniors alike.

All 5 of my internships in college were the result — in large part — to cold emailing.

  1. Trumaker: I cold emailed a guy about my interest in clothing and technology. After a brief chat in the office, he offered me an internship to help with marketing and strategy
  2. Morgan Stanley: I cold emailed a husband-wife team about my interest in finance. After 3 meetings, we decided to work on a unique project that involved some programming
  3. I cold emailed an ex-Bain consultant to learn more about his transition from management consulting to startups. He ended up giving me a sales strategy internship because of our conversation and my persistence
  4. Levi’s: I cold emailed an MBA graduate from my undergrad business program to learn more about a strategy internship. I ended up getting an interview with that same person
  5. Disney: I cold emailed a few analysts on the corporate strategy & mergers and acquisitions team and kept in touch throughout college. By the time I was eligible for the internship, I had a strong relationship with a few of the team members and got an interview

I would not have had any of these internship opportunities if I didn’t learn to cold email. It’s that simple.

Cold email is incredibly important to finding internship and job opportunities. The concept is simple: you email a professional you don't know, build a relationship with them, and eventually ask for an internship. In this post I will walk through my process of finding professionals and cold emailing them to land an internship. This is broken down into 4 key topics:

  1. Where do I find professionals to cold email?
  2. How do I write a strong cold email?
  3. What are the 3 key drivers for successful cold emails?
  4. How do I keep track of all my emails and get the most out of each one?

Cold emailing basics: How to find “leads”

One of the most important parts to cold emailing successfully is the ability to find many great leads. A lead is a professional who you want to chat with.

So how do you find a good lead? The short answer is LinkedIn. LinkedIn provides many advanced search filters so that you can basically “Google” everyone in the professional world who fits the criteria you are looking for. All you have to do is run a search on LinkedIn, filter down the results, and guess their email.

Let’s do an example: say you want to intern in private equity, a notoriously difficult to break into niche in finance. First, compile a list of private equity professionals with varying levels of seniority.

Step 1: Use search operators to find the right people on LinkedIn

Search operators are little things you can add to a normal Google or LinkedIn search to narrow down your selection. One of the most important operators is to use quotes around the phrase you want to search on LinkedIn.

In our example, go to LinkedIn and type in exactly this: “private equity”

This tells the search engine to only include profiles who have the phrase “private equity” in them. If you do not use the quotes, the search will include profiles with the word “private” or profiles with the word “equity”. The words “private” and “equity” individually do not mean the same thing as the phrase “private equity.” Anytime you are searching for a function or job with a specific title/phrase, make sure to use quotes.

There are many more operators you can use to specify your search. Here’s an article detailing the common ones.

Instantly you now have a list of professionals who have “private equity” on their LinkedIn profiles. I got 180,000 hits. We should narrow that list down.

Step 2: Implement relevant filters using the “All people filters” feature

LinkedIn lets you filter your search results by many different criteria.

LinkedIn Cold Email Search Filters

My favorites are:

  • Location: If you’re looking for an internship during the school year or to meet for coffee, look for professionals in the nearest major city.
  • Industries: This ensures the only people who show up are those that indicated they are in the Venture Capital & Private Equity industry. It helps weed out people who may have worked in Private Equity in the past, but now work somewhere else.
  • Schools: Try filtering for your university to find alumni -- alumni are more likely respond to your cold emails.

There are many other very powerful filters. You can search for people who previously worked in Private Equity using the Past Companies filter. Similarly, you can limit your search to people who work for specific Private Equity firms with the Current Companies filter.

Once you have tailored search results, choose relevant people who are likely to help you with your objective. In the example of trying to find an internship, look for people who can make the decision to hire you. It usually won’t help much to email an entry-level person unless they have influence over the hiring process.

Running specific searches on LinkedIn is crucial to learning about a variety of industries and building your network — spend the time to do it well. After all, you can’t reach out to a professional if you don’t know their name.

Step 3: Use email verification tools to guess the lead’s email address

Most of the time you have to guess the lead’s email. The great part about professionals working at large companies or startups is that their email follows a pattern 90% of the time.

That pattern is usually one of the following (using my name as an example and “company” as a placeholder for the real company name):

  • (only for small companies where duplicate first names are unlikely)

One you found the person who you want to reach out to on LinkedIn, use one of the 3 methods to find their emails:

  1. Email verification tool (like this): type in random email permutations like the ones above until one of them works
  2. Chrome plugin (like this): these find the person’s email for you — I’m not sure how accurate they are but it’s worth trying
  3. Brute force email: Just send 7 identical emails to each of the formats above. In theory, 6 emails should bounce back as invalid and 1 will go through to the right person.

The point is there are many methods to find emails — look online for one that you like the most. Also keep in mind with any of these methods there is a chance that you won’t be able to figure out the lead’s email. This happens to me 10% of the time. When this happens, try sending an Inmail via LinkedIn or just throw that lead out and move onto the next. Remember, it’s a numbers game. Don’t get too caught up on 1 lead.

Drivers for successful cold emails

Before diving into how to write the cold emails, you need to know some of the behind-the-email mechanics that will greatly influence your probability of success.

First, let’s define what a successful cold email entails.

Typically a successful cold email is one which gets you on a call or a coffee chat with the professional you are targeting.

If you are trying to get an internship in an industry without prior connections, use cold emails to set up calls and coffee chats with multiple industry professionals and focus on learning about their jobs. Eventually, this can lead to a referral for an interview during your first chat or in the future.

There are 3 key drivers to maximize the number of industry professional calls and chats you get:

  1. How well you can establish a connection to the person you are targeting
  2. How many people you reach out to via cold email
  3. What time and day you send your emails

Driver #1: Connection Strength

Establishing a connection with the person you are emailing can greatly increase the chances they reply back.

Consider the following probabilities of receiving a reply from different people:

  • If I email my family asking for a favor: 100% Reply Rate
  • If I email a friend asking for a favor: 80% Reply Rate
  • If I email an alumni of one of my student organizations: 60% Reply Rate
  • If I email an alumni of my university: 30% Reply Rate
  • If I email a stranger with no connection to myself: 10% Reply Rate

The stronger the connection to the person you are emailing, the higher the likelihood of a reply.

Obviously emailing your family doesn’t count as a cold email and these reply rates are a ballpark estimate based off my experiences, but the point is to try to find any common ground possible with your lead.

  • Did they go to the same university or high school as you?
  • Are you a part of the same organizations or nonprofits?
  • Did you grow up in the same area?
  • Do you like the same things? (Hint: Research their LinkedIn profile)

Find any common ground possible and your chances of a reply increase dramatically.

Driver #2:  Quantity

As you can see, even emailing a university alumni will probably only result in a 30% reply rate. This means that you need to send out many cold emails to successfully execute on your goals.

My general rule of thumb is to email 10 people for each reply you want. That’s on the conservative side, but it forces you to find many people to send emails to thus increasing the likelihood of getting multiple replies. To find these people, use LinkedIn and your university’s alumni database.

At the end of the day, cold emails are a numbers game. The more you send, the higher your odds of success. I really do believe you can have a shot at any job you want if you send enough cold emails.

Driver #3: Timing

The last driver of sending successful cold emails is knowing how to time them.

Sending a cold email on Sunday is usually a bad idea. Professionals will ignore work emails over the weekend then catch up on monday morning. Because cold emails are low priority, they will often open your email and forget about it or miss your email altogether because it’s buried by other emails.

I’ve found the best time to send cold emails is between Monday afternoon and Thursday night. This ensures that your lead has ample time to check your email before heading out for the weekend, while minimizing the chance that your email gets buried by other work emails.

Sending out well-timed emails will increase your success rate significantly — don’t miss out by sending over the weekend!

How to Cold Email for an internship or job?

Now that you know how to find leads and understand the drivers of successful cold emails, let’s talk about what exactly you should write in each email.

A strong cold email should be customized to the person you are targeting, brief, have a clear ask/call to action, and a catchy subject line. Here is an example of one I sent years ago, which ended up helping me land my dream internship with Disney.

Sample Cold Email

Now, keep in mind I sent this email 2+ years ago. While there’s a lot that can be improved, this email worked because it has the following basics:

  1. Customized to the recipient: This email is semi-customized to the recipient. A good way to test whether an email is customized is to ask yourself “could I have sent this exact email to other people?” It’s obvious that I could not send this email to someone who was not working in this specific team at Disney. Yet I did not reference anything personal about this individual and therefore could have established a stronger personal connection.
  2. Brief body: This email is very straight forward. It follows the following format: introduction, why I’m reaching out to you, why you should talk to me, call to action, and attached resume. Also notice the use of line breaks to make the email easy to read. Most professionals will look at your email for less than 30 seconds. Strive to make it as easy to digest as possible.
  3. Call to action: It is obvious that I am asking to schedule a call to learn more about this person’s job. I made the call to action its own line to emphasize the importance. There’s no point sending an email without a call to action.
  4. Catchy subject line: I would give this subject line a B-. It gets the job done of informing the professional why I’m reaching out but is not very compelling. It also doesn’t help that the professional was not a UC Berkeley alumni, although a prestigious school in the subject line can push people to take you more seriously.

I sent out many emails that look like this and my hit rate was around 10%. This person was the 1 in 10 who responded to me and it ended up helping me land the internship.

Some things I would improve about this email to increase the hit rate:

  1. Customized to the recipient: Mention something specific about this person’s career path (from LinkedIn) that I found interesting and how I found his/her profile.
  2. Brief body: I think my “why you should talk to me” sentence is pretty weak and doesn’t quite show that I did my research. I would give a more compelling, yet still brief, explanation for why I think I’m a good fit for this team at Disney.
  3. Call to action: I would bold this sentence to make it stand out. Also, rather than asking to schedule a call and forcing this person to check his/her calendar for availability, I would try the following: “Do you have time this week to schedule a call? I’m available Monday after 6pm, Tuesday before 3pm, and Friday between 11am and 4pm.” I love it when people do this when sending emails. It makes it very easy to choose an option and move on.
  4. Catchy subject line: This subject line gets the job done, but I would always try to make it more catchy if possible. For example, I once sent an email with the subject line “Berkeley undergrad interested in your career jump from consulting to startups.” This was a strong subject line because it compels the recipient to open the email to learn about why I am interested in his/her career. The goal of a catchy subject line is to get them to open the email.

One last note: you may have noticed I attached my resume with this email. In general, it is probably best to refrain from attaching your resume if you are just looking to learn more about an industry and have interesting conversations. Attaching your resume can be helpful in 2 scenarios:

  1. You need to add credibility for the other person to take you seriously
  2. You need an internship ASAP and are willing to be more up front

In this instance, I felt the need to prove my credibility as a serious candidate for the internship in order for this person to spend time talking to me.

Keeping track of your cold emails and following up

Once you have your leads and are ready to send cold emails, it’s important to organize this information.

If you are serious about getting an internship or building your network, you should run a structured outreach process. This entails building an Excel spreadsheet with all the people you want to reach out to and track your progress in sending them emails.

Here is an example of a spreadsheet tracker:

Google Sheet Tracker

You will be able to find most of this information on people’s LinkedIn profiles. If you get lucky, you will also find their email on their profile. Otherwise just guess and verify using the patterns described earlier.

After you have a list of a bunch of leads in your industry of interest (aim for 50+), you need to cold email them. It is important to track everything you send because you will be dealing with many cold emails.

First it is important to realize that most people will not reply to your first email. Do not take this personally!

Many professionals will open your email with the intention to respond later and will forget because they got caught up in their work. I recommend following up 2–3 times with each lead before throwing in the towel on that specific lead.

To manage all these emails, I use a basic color coding system. When you send the cold email, change the “First Email” box to yellow. If the professional emails back agreeing to your ask, then I turn the “First Email” box green and that row is now done. Similarly, if the professional emails back saying he/she is too busy to talk or just flat-out rejects your ask — turn the box red. If the professional does not email back after roughly 1 week (7–10 days), it’s time to follow-up.

This is how I follow-up if the professional does not respond:

Sample Cold Email Followup

By sending this email, your original email will now float to the top of the professional’s inbox. Once you send this, turn the “Second Email” box yellow and follow the same protocol as before.

If another week passes by and the professional still has not responded, try sending a 3rd follow-up. You would be surprised by the number of times I finally got a positive response on the 3rd follow-up. In fact, one of my previous leads hired me on the call because my consistent follow ups demonstrated my persistence and desire to learn more about his company.

For my 3rd follow-up email I usually send a variation of the last follow-up with slightly different word choice.

Variant Sample Cold Email Follow Up

Lastly, you may have noticed the green eye icon on some of my emails near the date. This is a gmail plug-in called Yesware. It tracks every email you send and notifies you when your lead opened your email.

This is helpful to understand the behavior of your leads. For example:

  • 70% of the time the lead opens the email once then doesn’t respond. I will follow-up after a week.
  • 20% of the time the lead does not open the email. Now I know to send multiple follow-up emails until they at least open it.
  • 10% of the time the lead opens the email 3+ times. Now I think this professional is actually interested in my email and may be very open to chatting with me.

As you can see, this information is nice to have but not crucial. However, these email plug-ins are free so you may as well download them to get the extra information for guiding your follow ups. My 2 favorite plug-ins are Yesware and Streak. There are many out there so use whichever you like most — right now I use Streak and I love it.

Seriously, cold emailing can change your life!

Cold email is a fantastic tool to complement the hypothesis-driven career mindset. These are the 2 most important concepts to understand, and will allow you to take control of your career.

You should now understand:

  1. The 3 steps to finding leads: run a search on LinkedIn, filter down the results, and guess their email
  2. The 3 drivers of successful cold emails: establish a connection with your lead, send 10 emails for each response you want, and time your emails
  3. Each email should be customized to the recipient, have a brief body, a catchy subject line, and a call to action
  4. Use Excel to keep track of your emails and always follow-up 2–3 times

The earlier you start the better, but it’s never too late.

Just remember, don’t expect your first email to get you an internship.With each of my emails that led to one of these successes, there were many other leads that never replied back or didn’t end up being helpful.

Therein lies the magic with cold emailing. The failures don’t matter.

Don’t worry about what your leads might think of you because you cold emailed them. They are people you don’t know, and I promise they won’t care. If they don’t reply after a few polite follow ups, just move on.

It only takes 1 lucky email to go through to someone willing to help you — and this can change your life.

But you have to start now. Pick up the darts and start throwing.

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