We've been wondering: In our increasingly digital world, have thank-you notes—once a post-interview mainstay—gone the way of encyclopedias and the Yellow Pages?
On one hand, a handwritten note may signal to your interviewer that you're serious about the position and went the extra mile with a personal touch.
But what if it arrives too late—or the hiring manager finds it outdated?
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We asked five people with serious career chops—and discovered the answer isn't so simple: While some professions have fully transitioned into the digital realm of emailed follow-ups, handwritten notes are still alive and well in others.
Curious which camp your industry falls into? Here’s what recruiting, etiquette and HR professionals had to say on the matter.
Kathy Harris: “The handwritten thank-you note has gone the way of the horse and carriage.”
Managing Director at Harris Allied, an executive search firm specializing in the technology industry
If you’re interviewing for a high-paced tech job, Harris warns against sending a "throwback" card. “I’ve been working in this industry for 16 years and haven’t seen a single handwritten note,” she says. “Tech people embrace email; it’s part of the protocol. If you send a card, you risk appearing irrelevant.”
Plus, the snail-like pace of mail could cost you the job: “The turnaround time is quick enough that by the time you write the card, drop it in the mailbox and it arrives a few days later, the manager has likely already made a hiring decision,” Harris says.
But even though you can toss the notepad, don’t underestimate the importance of following up. According to Harris, if a hiring decision comes down to two equal candidates, a strong thank-you email can be the tipping point. “A well-written and thoughtful email demonstrates your ability to follow through and pay attention, and reinforces your interest in the position,” Harris says.
She suggests emailing everyone who was part of your interview process within one business day. (Gather business cards during the interview so you have their contact information.) And remember: “It shouldn’t be boiler plate,” Harris stresses. “It should sound like your genuine voice and reflect your personal experience.”
Dana Hagenbuch: “A handwritten card shows you’re a cultural fit for a nonprofit organization.”
Vice president of Commongood Careers, a nonprofit recruiting firm
In the nonprofit sector, thank-you cards are decidedly not on the endangered species list. “Ultimately, it’s more about the content than how it’s delivered, but handwritten notes do require extra effort, which is always valued,” Hagenbuch says.
When you’re applying for any job, it’s key to show not only that your skills are in line with the company’s needs, but also that your personality is a good match. Because nonprofits are often focused on helping others and being team-oriented, a card drives that point home: “It communicates that you care about relationships, about making someone feel their time was valued,” Hagenbuch says.
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As you craft your note, she suggests leading with a line that emphasizes how you enjoyed meeting everyone and learning what the team is all about (“team” is a powerful word in this sector), then delve into what interests you about the organization’s mission and why you want to work for them. (Your card should be about five sentences long—and only one of them should touch on your fit for the role.)
Presumably, your skills and experience should have come out through your interview, résumé and cover letter. “At this point, you don’t need to sell yourself anymore,” Hagenbuch says. “Your intention should be to stay top-of-mind with the hiring manager and leave a great impression.”
She also stresses the importance of writing a separate, personalized note to everyone you met during the interview process—though she says it’s fine to write a card to only the hiring manager and email the others.
Oh, and don’t worry about a card not arriving in time; according to Hagenbuch, it’s very rare that a nonprofit makes a quick hire.
If you’re going the card route, type out your message before putting it on paper so you can organize your thoughts and run it through the spell check.
Bonnie Zaben: “Your approach to the thank-you note should reflect the company you interviewed with.”
C.O.O. of AC Lion, a digital media recruiting firm
Although a handwritten card is far from expected in the digital media world, it can give a candidate an edge in certain situations: “Employers want to see that you’re going to be a good fit for the company, so you have to read the person,” Zaben says.
“For example, if you’re writing to someone from an older generation, I would send a card because it’s traditional. On the other hand, if you walk into the manager’s office and there’s not a piece of paper for miles around, you’d better stick to email,” she says.
If you’re going the card route, type out your message before putting it on paper so you can organize your thoughts and run it through the spell check. “Don’t cross words out, and if your handwriting is atrocious, ask someone else to write it for you,” she urges.
Whichever medium you choose, the meat of the message should be specific to the job, so follow up on something you discussed.
Some ideas: Elaborate on an interesting nugget from the interview (“The story you told me about how you started the company was impressive …”), circle back to a question that you didn’t adequately answer in the moment, or—for emails—include a link or attachment to a relevant project you worked on (“I was thinking about our conversation, and it occurred to me that it might be helpful for you to see how I approached something similar …”).
Again, customization is key: Hiring managers can smell a template a mile away. “I once had a pretty good interview with an applicant, but in her thank-you note, she mentioned the wrong company name,” remembers Zaben. “I laughed and didn’t take it any further.”
Barbara Pachter: “A thank-you note isn’t outmoded, but it may be too late.”
Etiquette expert and author of “The Essentials of Business Etiquette”
Pachter often tells this story: An HR director she knows interviewed four people for a position on a Tuesday. On Wednesday, she received thank-you emails from three of the applicants. On Friday, she made her decision—and didn’t even consider the candidate whom she hadn’t heard from, assuming that she wasn’t motivated enough for the job.
Then on Monday morning, she received the fourth thank-you note in the mail—one business day too late. “We are an email society, and hiring managers expect a quick response,” Pachter says.
So does that mean we should do away with the handwritten card? Well, not necessarily. “If you’re sure that timing won’t be an issue, then a note will make you stand out,” Pachter says.
Pachter says this is especially true if you're in a creative field. For industries like interior design, fashion or graphic design, a card can be a smart branding opportunity. (It’s a reflection of your sense of style, so use a nice pen and elegant stationery.)
And whether you’re writing a card or an email, Pachter suggests sending the note within 24 hours and including a proper salutation. “Address the person using ‘Dear,’ and close with ‘Best regards’ or ‘Sincerely,’” she says.
For industries like interior design, fashion or graphic design, a card can be a smart branding opportunity.
“In the right setting, a thank-you card can make the right impression.”
HR professional and founder of Blogging4Jobs.com
Miller-Merrell agrees that a handwritten note is no longer the norm (she received only about five of them over a two-and-a-half-year period in her last corporate HR role), yet she asserts that in certain circumstances, it can give you a leg up.
“These days, when everything is mass-produced, a one-of-a-kind card gets the hiring manager’s attention,” says Miller-Merrell.
But as we've learned, whether or not to send one depends on the field you’re in.
For science-type jobs (engineering, tech), Miller-Merrell says to go for the direct approach: email. “But if you work in a creative industry, it’s important to showcase your unique perception of the world. A card accomplishes that more effectively than email,” says Miller-Merrell.
She says a handwritten card can also tip the scale in your favor if you're applying for a "warm, fuzzy job," like teaching. For example, one of her acquaintances who landed a position at a university learned that she nudged out the other top candidate because the hiring manager was touched by her genuine thank-you note. In such a traditional, personal setting, it was a better fit than an email would have been.
When making the card vs. email judgment call, Miller-Merrell suggests taking into account the lifestyle of your interviewer. “If he or she travels frequently, email may be a safer option,” explains Miller-Merrell. “And if the person has an assistant who opens their mail, a card might not get to them in a timely manner.”
But if you know there’s ample time before the hiring decision will be made, another option is to send both an email and a card.
“This dual-pronged approach has the advantage of keeping you at the top of the hiring manager’s mind,” explains Miller-Merrell. “Write a quick email after the interview, reinforcing your excitement about the position. A couple of days later, send a heartfelt card that gets into more specifics.”