How to Reach Out to Alumni/Advisors/Professors and Get the Best Response by Stephen Weiss
Asking For Help? Make It Easy
There was a time when there were few things I found more intimidating or fear inducing than asking for help. This was particularly true when I was an undergraduate reaching out to professors, recruiters, or alumni. As a student, I didn’t feel worthy of these important people’s time and wasn’t even sure what to say.
Here’s the thing though: overwhelmingly, my experience was that once I asked, I was uniformly surprised by how kind and generous people were.
Now, when I have to ask someone for help, I assume that the person wants to help, but also that I need to make it as easy as possible for them to do so.
Nuts And Bolts Of How To Reach Out
No matter where you are in life, it’s probable that you’ll need to lean on others for help to advance, grow or for clarification at some point. Learning how to reach out appropriately and effectively then is a skill that will pay dividends for years to come.
I’m not claiming to have a silver bullet to this issue. I‘m learning new tips every day. Still, there are two tips that have proven particularly helpful:
- Being clear in my request
- Offering options that I have thought of myself
Clarity Of Thinking Is Your Friend
As Economists, we may be forgiven for thinking that the best idea will win in the marketplace. Unfortunately, my experience is that doesn’t always happen. Instead, ideas that are clearly articulated tend to perform better.
As a student, one place you may find this to be the case is when you ask for a letter of recommendation from a professor. I recently heard a great example of a student who employed clear thinking to secure a letter of recommendation from a professor.
Before going to speak with him, she sent the professor an email that included:
- Introducing herself and reminding him of what class(es) she had with him
- Her resume and a little bit about her career goals
- An offer to write a few specific bullet points
- Let him know that she would like to meet to request a letter of recommendation from him and letting him know of the deadline
The professor was happy to write the letter and appreciated having all of the information up front. By articulating her goals and tying them to a plan of action, she secured her objective before she’d even begun!
Don’t Ask People To Think… Unnecessarily
Sometimes, the thing we’re asking for is time. This can be tricky. As a student, I took great pains not to be a bother or to appear too assumptive. What this meant is that I tried to be as accommodating as possible to people’s schedules.While being accommodating is important, I have found it can sometimes be ineffective to say “Please let me know when might be convenient for you.” because it creates unnecessary back and forth in emails to set up a time and had the effect of making them do unnecessary work to set up a meeting with me.
I thought letting the person pick the time was me being kind. Though the intention is in the right place, I found this to be the most effective way to kill a request. I don’t remember exactly when I first heard the advice to leave times, but few things have been more helpful in improving my response rate!
Cal Newport, a professor of computer science and one of my favorite thinkers, summarized the strategy nicely in his blog post here.
This was how I learned that there were many people who actually did want to help me but weren’t responding because I wasn’t making it easy enough for them. I was asking them to do unnecessary work and think about things that didn’t add value. In the end it hurt me more than it helped them.
How To Follow Up When You Don’t Hear Back
One of the hardest things about putting myself out there and making myself vulnerable is the potential for rejection. I have rarely received a strong “no, I won’t help you.” More often, “rejection” comes in the form of silence.
Once the request has gone out, however, I’ve found that having a strategy to deal with silence is almost as necessary as reframing how I asked for help.
First of all, I remind myself that many people do want to help. More than anything, this puts any future requests in the right frame of mind. Instead of feeling like it’s a personal slight, I can begin to imagine the struggles they’re facing as reasons why they haven’t responded. Once I’ve done that, I can see if there’s something I can do to help alleviate those pressures. Said another way: I ask myself again, how can I make this as easy as possible?
Sometimes I’ve done everything right and I still don’t hear back right away. That’s okay. In cases like this I like to remind myself of the phenomenon in psychology called the Spotlight Effect. One consequence of the Spotlight Effect is that we think more about ourselves than other people. This also means that while your interests may be your #1 priority, it’s unlikely that the same can be said for the person you’re asking help from.
If someone hasn’t responded, I try to wait at least one week before following up. (Set yourself a reminder if you need one.) After a week, I send a short follow up. I acknowledge that life can get busy and problem solve by offering another set of options to meet.
(Side note: If your original request needed a response in less than a week, I’d recommend thinking about whether there was anything you could have done to avoid the urgency.)
Pulling It All Together
As a student, there weren’t many things I dreaded more than reaching out to someone with a request. It’s only in retrospect that I’ve realized that a lot of the anxiety I felt was unnecessary.
Getting there required a shift in my thinking. I needed to realize that people generally want to help. Once I did that, I saw that more often than not, when they didn’t, it was because I didn’t make it easy enough for them. Learning to simplify my writing, clarify my thoughts, and not badger (see what I did there?), all helped me get more out of my requests. Hopefully they can help you too!