1. What does sending a thank-you note achieve? Thank-you notes contribute to the overall picture of a candidate. They serve two functions: First, they signal that you pay attention to the little things and care about presenting the best possible face to your candidacy. And second, they signal interest by showing that you went home, digested everything you learned in the interview, and concluded that you're still enthusiastic about the position.
Now, if you're not the best candidate, a thank-you note isn't going to change that. No one is going to hire the lower-tier candidate just because of a thank-you note. And if you're the undisputed top candidate, the lack of a thank-you note probably isn't going to stop you from being hired. However, when the decision is close between you and another candidate, a thoughtful note can tilt the scales in your direction—especially if the note isn't just a perfunctory "Thank you for your time," but contains substance that builds on the conversation you had during the interview. Speaking of which…
2. What should the note say? The job search advice industry has done candidates a disservice by calling these "thank-you notes." It's better to think of them as follow-up notes. After all, most interviewers don't really care if you thank them; they're not interviewing you to be charitable but rather because they might want to enter into a business arrangement with you—one that they'll benefit from. So, despite the term "thank-you note," your note shouldn't be as much as thanking them as about providing follow-up on the interview that demonstrates your enthusiasm for the job. That means it should build on the conversation from the interview. Talk about specific topics that were covered, and use the note to strengthen your candidacy, not just to express thanks.
3. Is it okay to send it through email? It's perfectly fine to send your note through email—and sometimes it's even better than postal mail, because it will arrive quickly. If an employer is moving quickly, a letter sent through the mail may arrive after a decision has already been made.
4. How soon after your interview should you send the note? Send it within a few days of the interview—but wait until at least a few hours have passed. If you send a thank-you email just minutes after leaving the interviewer's office, it comes across as a bit perfunctory and less genuine. After all, you wouldn't have had time to reflect yet, so the interviewer will know that you're just checking off an item on your to-do list.
Keep in mind that employers want to know that you went home, thought about what was discussed, digested it all, and concluded that you're still enthusiastic about the position. If the email is sent on your way out their door, that won't be realistic.
However, any thank-you note is better than no thank-you note, regardless of timing.
5. Do employers really care about thank-you notes? There are certainly hiring managers who don't. But that shouldn't dissuade you from sending them, because there are also plenty of hiring managers who will tell you that a thank-you note has swayed their hiring decisions. And as the candidate, you have no idea which type you're dealing with … so it makes sense to err on the side of sending them. Why not spend five minutes on something that could impact your chances?
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.