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How to Cold Email Professors

GuidesDaniel Hazard

American anthropologist and writer Zora Neale Hurston once said, “Research is formalized curiosity. It’s poking and prying with a purpose.”

Research is the name of a learning process, but also the attitude that goes with it. It is a wandering, roving search for information. It is an obsession for details and minutiae that embraces uncertainty and surprise.

It is also the state of mind that college admissions committees look for in college applicants. This is because the mentality of the researcher is the mentality of those ambitious students who, after a lifetime of being told by teachers what to believe, are ready to take the reins of their own education. For this reason, an aptitude and passion for research are some of the hallmarks of a truly competitive college applicant.

Demonstrating Interest in Research

High schoolers applying to college have many ways of signaling their interests in research. A simple and very effective tactic is to use the supplemental section of a college application as a space to discuss the student-led research opportunities that are available on campus. This kills two birds with one stone, communicating to admissions officers an appetite for research as well as making a case for there being a match between an applicant’s needs and a given college’s resources.

At a further level of involvement, there is the tactic of communicating directly with a college’s own experts in research—professors! As college admissions continue to become more and more competitive, admissions officers are having to come up with ways of distinguishing and weighing between applicants. An increasingly common metric is demonstrated interest. A great way to demonstrate to a college that you really, really want to be accepted is to write cold emails to faculty, especially to faculty members whose classes you might envision yourself one day taking.

How to Cold Email a Professor

1) Picking the Right Audience

There are a few secrets to cold emailing professors. The first is to pick a professor who is likely to read an email from a high schooler who is also a stranger. This means to avoid reaching out to academic celebrities, because these professors are already overloaded with emails from prospective students and admirers.

2) Deciding What to Say

The second secret is to appeal to a professor’s intellectual interests. The cold email should avoid flattery and small talk. What professors care most about is their research and you come bearing the best kind of gifts: anecdotes, bits of information, small insights—souvenirs from your world that add to the researcher’s map of their own. This will of course require that you become acquainted with the professor’s research, enough to see parallels between your own experience and the professor’s scholarship and activities.

3) Choosing How Many Professors to Contact

The third secret is to cold email widely—enough to ensure that you will be read at each of the colleges on your list. As with everything else in applying to college, there is strategy. 

Say you are applying to 10 schools. You will want to send multiple cold emails to each institution. But there are risks to anticipate here. In the event that most of your emails are received and read (as might be the case at some smaller colleges), you will want to aim for a consistent impression. 

If you are applying as a prospective history major, don’t waste time writing to a business or engineering professor. Instead, target faculty in your prospective major and in proximate fields. It can be helpful to look at the courses being offered in your major and note how they are cross-listed in other departments. This way you can see how your intellectual interests map onto the overlaps in a given college’s faculty.

Quality control is key. Each email should be personalized and appear as a unique piece of communication. If an email appears too generic, it might be dismissed as spam, or even worse, as thoughtless. This will naturally impose an upper limit on how many cold emails you will be writing—perhaps 3-4 at a smaller institution and 6-8 at the larger schools.

Cold emailing professors is a time-consuming process. But once you have completed the cold emails for one of the schools on your college list, you can use them as templates for the rest. Most professors will have counterparts at other universities. Their research won’t be the same, but there will be overlaps that will aid you in reusing your emails.

Example cold emails

Below are two sample cold emails, one for STEM faculty and for humanities faculty. Both scripts aim to make personal connections with faculty research. The first sample poses a question, whereas the second sample is a note of appreciation.

STEM (environmental science)

Dear Professor …,

I was looking through your department’s pages when I came upon your research on improving water quality in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. It caught my attention because it seems like the local governments in the area have been coordinating their efforts, following the recommendations made by your research. 

I live in the Colorado River basin. As you know, the main threat facing the Colorado River today is not so much pollution, but water supply. Because of drought and population growth, the Colorado River is running dry. I wanted to ask your perspective on what you think cooperation between government officials and scientists will have to look like to resolve these problems.

Sincerely,

Humanities (sociology)

Dear Professor …,

I was looking through your department’s pages when I came upon your work on inmate populations at the Gotham State penitentiary. I grew up seeing the prison, passing by it everyday on my way to school. I looked at one of your books and your account of life inside those walls has forever changed my sense of the landscape of my childhood. I wanted to thank you for helping me realize how different things are below the surface.

Sincerely,


From Cold Email to Doing Research

When applying to college, cold emailing professors is part of the larger task of demonstrating interest in a school. In the longer term, these emails can help serve as introductions to faculty at the college where you will enroll. In four short years, you will need recommendation letters for the job market or graduate school and it is never too early to start cultivating the relationships that will lead to those letters. A thoughtfully composed cold email not only has a higher likelihood of receiving a reply—down the line, it could lead to you working more closely with a professor and even doing your own research under their mentorship. 

Are you interested in getting some research experience now to better prepare you for college? Apply to do a project with Polygence and be matched with an expert mentor in your field of interest.