Job Search Tips Professional Development

A Quick Guide to Writing Professional Emails

Written by Miranda Pennington

I will confess to being an overly formal emailer. I stick with professional titles and last names longer than I need to, I continue using salutations and closing phrases even in a conversational chain, and I can’t seem to stop signing off with “best” or “regards” and second guessing my use of exclamation points. This has all been exacerbated by teaching college students as an adjunct—their instant informality, use of text-speak, and round the clock emails make me want to crawl inside a mailbox and never come out.

Lucky for me, the folks at have some guidance for the overthinkers among us who are composing job application emails. Come across as too stiff, and you’re a bad fit for the office culture. Too informal, and you lack the poise and polish they expect from an employee. What to do?

First Contact

Look carefully at the website of the company that you’re applying to work for. Have employees contributed bios? Does it sound like a person or a marketing firm drafted the copy? Does anyone link to their social media profiles? Let the formal or relaxed tone of your email match what you see on their site.


Though many companies encourage an informal persona, a more formal approach is always preferable if you’re writing to a senior employee or a hiring manager. Play it safe by starting with “Dear” and using whatever professional title you’re aware of (Dr., Mr., Ms.— don’t get cute with “Miss” or “Mrs.”). You never know how that might rub someone the wrong way. Use their full name, and end with “Best,”  “Sincerely,” or “Thank you.”


OH THANK GOODNESS, any reply that’s not outright dismissive tells you that you did something correctly! Let their attitude guide yours—match your response’s relaxation to theirs. Don’t overdo it! My students make the misstep of taking a brief, speedy response from me as a sign they can write back with emojis and “sup” and “Thank uuuuuuuu.”

Keep in mind this is American-centered advice—companies in a variety of cultural context may approach their email communications very differently.

So to sum up:

  • Err on the side of formality.
  • Let them take the lead.
  • Don’t drop your guard too quickly!
  • Happy emailing! Now take that inspirational quote out of your signature.

Job Application Advice: How Formal Should Your Email Be?


About the author

Miranda Pennington

Miranda K. Pennington is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared on The Toast, The American Scholar, and the Ploughshares Writing Blog. She currently teaches creative nonfiction for Uptown Stories, a Morningside Heights nonprofit organization. She has an MFA from Columbia University, where she has also taught in the University Writing program and consulted in the Writing Center.