Question: “What’s the best way to follow up after an interview?  Should I send an e-mail note, mail a follow-up card, or engage in some other type of gesture entirely?”

The best part of this question is the assumption behind it — which is that the person asking the question already realizes that following up with employers after an interview is a professional necessity in today’s marketplace.  Despite common sense, and the fact that every career book and website under the sun recommends that people send follow-up correspondence, an amazing number of people still don’t practice this behavior.  And while somewhat sad in a holistic sense, this is actually good news, since it means that those candidates who do practice good follow-up will continue to gain a competitive advantage.

So with this baseline stipulation in mind, what is the actual approach that a motivated candidate should take to the follow-up process?  That’s an easy one.  The standard method, from which one rarely needs to deviate, is to send a handwritten thank-you card immediately after the interview that expresses your appreciation for the meeting, perhaps shares an interesting insight or inside joke that came out of the conversation, and then wraps up with a genuine expression of enthusiasm regarding next steps.  Such a message might sound something like this:

“Sylvia:  I just wanted to quickly write and thank you again for your time this afternoon.  I greatly enjoyed the chance to sit down with you, meet the other members of your team, and learn more about your specific needs and vision for the Director of Finance position.  I hope I was able to convey my enthusiasm for this opportunity and my sincere belief that I could be a valuable asset to your department, particularly in the area of Sarbanes-Oxley compliance.  All the best and I look forward to next steps!”

See?  Doesn’t have to be anything fancy, just a sincere note of thanks that gets your name in front of the employer yet again and highlights your ongoing interest in the opportunity.  The key isn’t so much the words you write, but the gesture itself.  And it’s for this exact same reason that we normally try to discourage people from sharing their thank-you sentiments via e-mail.  Unless you’re dealing with a diehard technology company, e-mail messages are simply too lazy and too pedestrian to make the distinct impression you are looking for.  Busy employers get hundreds of e-mails a day and can delete them with the flick of a finger.  How many handwritten notecards do they get, on the other hand?

This brings us to the other extreme, which is the possibility of foregoing the notecard route in favor of composing a full-fledged letter that allows you to express your sentiments in a more substantial and detailed fashion.  In general, we believe such a step is usually overkill.  Not only does it sacrifice some of the elegance of a shorter message, but letter-writing candidates also run the risk of seeming too wordy, overly desperate, or of selling themselves right out of the position by writing a letter highlighting the wrong selling points or qualifications.  And yet, there are still a few situations where a letter might be appropriate.  One case where it might be justified is when you feel in your bones that you didn’t present yourself well in the interview — and might have little choice but to try to “resell yourself” in written form in order to get back in the running.  Additionally, letters can make a powerful impression if you come up with some great ideas after the interview that you want to share with the employer, or if you want to actually supply your desired future boss with a work outline or some tangible “proof” of your ability to do the job at hand.  If the substance you provide is of top quality, you can definitely hit a home run!

In the end, however, you should find interviewing follow-up activity far easier than pre-interview preparation.  Just follow the simple guidelines above you’ll be in great shape.  Your default gesture after each meeting should be a classy notecard to each person you met during your company visit, and when special circumstances require, you might consider investing some effort into a more detailed and thoughtful letter, instead.  Just make sure you avoid e-mail whenever possible: it’s the path of least resistance, and trust us, the person on the other end knows it!