Why You Shouldn’t Start Your Cover Letter With “To Whom It May Concern”
You have been searching for a job for weeks. Maybe months.
You finally see a job posting that interests you. After reading the job description, you are sure that you not only qualify, but can excel in the job.
You get to work. You update your resume and proofread it for any mistakes. All set.
You have to write the one document which can make or break your application.
The cover letter.
With talk about cover letters being dead, you may be wondering why you should “waste” time reading about them. But you might want to consider one reality of the hiring process.
There are often at least two people on the other side: the recruiter and the hiring manager.
The recruiter is the one who receives applications and narrows down to a few good candidates. The hiring manager is the one who makes the final decision.
Recruiters will generally not read cover letters because of the huge number of applications.
But hiring managers normally will.
This document, which ideally should be no more than one page, is what could stand between you and the job.
In fact, it plays four key roles in your application.
The Role of a Cover Letter
You may not know it, but your cover letter is of great importance.
Many hiring managers will not even look at your resume before reading your cover letter.
Whereas the recruiter may not have had the time to go through your letter, the hiring manager has that time.
He is probably looking at three to five applications only.
To understand the importance of putting value to this document, consider the below roles it plays.
1. Introduces you – the cover letter serves the important role of introducing you to the reader. Like a face-to-face meeting, your introduction carries the responsibility of making a great first impression.
You therefore need to not only make your cover letter presentable using a good font, but also impressive with the kind of writing you do.
2. Shows your interest in the company or vacancy – no matter how long you have been job searching, you cannot afford to imply that you just need a job. You have to show that you are interested in working in the company.
This is not done by simply stating it, but your words and tone must show it.
A great cover letter will mention something about the company which will make it clear that you know the organization.
At this point, you will also need to keep in mind that you are supposed to be a solution. So don’t focus on yourself too much.
Remember to show an understanding of the problem which makes them look for a solution. You can know the problem from the job description.
3. Draws attention to your resume – your resume carries more information than your cover letter does. As such, one of the things your letter needs to do is to convince the reader that he should check out your resume.
4. Motivates the reader to interview you – note that the hiring manager has received only a few applications and so it is a scramble for the interview. It is obvious that all these applicants are qualified.
But who will stand out even before the interview?
First impressions go a long way in making someone interested in what is presented. If your cover letter isn’t better than the rest, you might be the last to be considered.
Apart from drawing attention to your resume, your cover letter should make the reader desire to work with you.
This is not something your resume can do. You can only achieve this through your cover letter.
This means you need to put in a lot of effort to make your cover letter effective.
Only then can you be confident of being called for an interview.
Does the salutation really matter?
Central to your success with the cover letter is how you start the conversation. That salutation makes a big difference.
Being the first words you speak to the reader, they can either have a positive or negative impact.
Just think of how you start a conversation the first time you meet someone. What you say and how you say it has a lot of power. You can end up being accepted as a friend or pushed away as one who is not interesting.
The same applies in this case. You are meeting the hiring manager for the first time. Your cover letter is really the first meeting which is used to plan for the face-to-face meeting—the interview.
With this understanding, how do you start the conversation?
WHY YOU SHOULD NOT USE “TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN”
Over the years, there is at least one salutation which has become popular with job seekers. This is “To whom it may concern.”
Having been widely used, it may have appeared to be right but that was quite far from the truth.
This salutation poses very serious problems. Here are some of them.
It’s an Old-Fashioned Salutation
“To whom it may concern” is too formal an opening to use in your cover letter. You may have borrowed this from some business letters you read or the old days when you were taught this in school.
While all that is okay, take note that those are really the old days.
In those days, businesses embraced nothing but strict formal communication. This is what set business apart from everyday life.
Being formally employed meant wearing a blue or black suit/dress, being very serious, learning a new way of communication, including specific words you couldn’t use in your daily conversations etc.
There was simply too many rules and regulations around communication that you wouldn’t be wrong to refer to it as red tape.
But this has changed.
Nowadays, business communication is largely conversational.
The same way you would talk to your friends is the same you would in the office.
It is also the same you would write an email. The only thing to remember is being grammatically correct.
And of course, avoid slang.
When the recruiter or hiring manager sees this opening, you automatically get labeled as old-fashioned.
That means you are not current. You do not know what is going on in the world. You are not up to date with how people are communicating, relating etc.
It gets scary when you are thought of as someone who could hinder effective communication in the company.
Will people be unable to understand you because of the way you talk? Will you cause a communication breakdown?
If that is the case, then they are better off without you.
It is Impersonal
When you start your cover letter with “To whom it may concern,” you actually prove that you are not very good with relationships.
In every type of relationship, be it friendship, family or workplace, communication is key. And the cornerstone of any communication is to create and maintain a connection.
This is why communication experts will tell you that you have to maintain eye contact when having a face-to-face conversation.
They will also tell you that it is important to mention the other person’s name.
Instead of saying, “Hi, do you have a minute?” You will get a better response and connection if you said, “Hi Shawn, do you have a minute?”
When you are impersonal, you are not really appreciating the other person. As such, you cannot be sure of a kinder response.
If this is what you’re doing with your cover letter, don’t be surprised when you end up in the “rejected” pile.
It Shows a Lack of Concern
You might think that you are being general when using this phrase.
But the truth is that you are actually showing no concern at all.
You are simply saying that you don’t care much who reads your cover letter.
As far as you are concerned, it might as well be read by anyone. The most important thing for you is that you made the application and sent it where it’s supposed to go.
This paints a picture of someone with a very poor attitude towards work.
If this is your attitude and you have not been employed yet, how much more when you become an employee? Will you not be an arrogant employee?
Remember that you do not have the opportunity to explain anything.
You are not going to receive a reply email asking you if this is what you meant.
The conclusion will be reached and you may find yourself continuing with your job search.
It Shows Unreliability
Job descriptions and interviews are used for two main purposes.
The job description serves the first while the interview takes care of the second.
The first is to prevent unqualified candidates from applying for the job. This is why job posts include a description. Some descriptions of the job are more detailed than others.
Typically, there will be information on what is expected of you every day and maybe some of the traits you are expected to have.
If you realize that you don’t have these traits, or can’t do what is described, you don’t apply.
The interview on the other hand is used to weed out the “wrong” candidates.
Or, from a different perspective, it is used to pick the right candidate from among the qualified ones. And one of the qualities needed by any employer is reliability.
Being reliable means that you can be left to handle a situation and you will do it well.
The issue of the person to address the letter to is the first test of reliability.
You see, you cannot be reliable if you don’t take the initiative to do what is right or expected.
It is clear that you cannot do some research to find out who to address a letter to.
If that is the case, will you do any research to find the right solution for the company’s problems?
That cannot be guaranteed.
HOW TO KNOW THE NAME OF THE HIRING MANAGER
It is very likely that no-one will directly tell you the name of the hiring manager.
Nevertheless, you should not address your cover letter to some generic person. It should be addressed to a specific individual.
It might not be easy to know who to address it to because companies rarely give the names of their employees in job posts.
It might also be that the reason the names are not given is to provide a challenge to job applicants.
The person or people who manage to get the name of the hiring manager are automatically considered proactive.
This is a trait any employer would like to see among his employees.
The good news is that this trait can be learned. And we are here to show you how to learn it for now then you can practice it in other situations too.
Use an Available Email Address to Get the Name
After the initial excitement of seeing a job you want to apply for, take your time and go through the post again. Do it more slowly checking for an email address.
Business email addresses can give you a big clue since they often contain a name.
You might see an email address like this one, email@example.com which tells you who will receive your application.
In this example, the last name of the person to address is Williams. Your cover letter will thus be addressed, “Dear Williams.”
Last names are often used in business settings. First names are reserved for communication between people who are already acquainted with each other.
Check the Job Description for Who You Will Be Reporting To
If you cannot get an email address or a name, then find the title of the person you will be reporting to. This will help you get the name of the person.
Armed with the title, the first place you should head to is Google.
Search for the title alongside the name of the company. Among the many results, you might find one which mentions the name of the person holding the position.
Check the date the resource (blog post, social media conversation etc) was published. If it was a long time ago, you need to verify the information.
And the best place to start is LinkedIn.
Use the advanced search to narrow down the search results.
The good thing with searching on LinkedIn is that you will be able to know whether the person is currently holding that position.
If you see signs that he is not, then you will have to dig some more.
Search for that company and the title from the job post. As long as the position is filled and the person is active on the network, you will have the name you are looking for.
Search for the Job Post on LinkedIn
Many employers and employees have profiles on LinkedIn as it is the number one networking site for professionals.
As such, hiring managers often post job vacancies on this network.
One benefit of this is that they can easily vet candidates by checking their profiles before interviewing them.
Turn this hiring manager’s convenience to your advantage.
Do a search for the job post and do not forget to use filters for an advanced search.
When you get the job post, you can be sure you have struck gold. Seeing the person who posted the job gives you their name and many other details you can use.
You can also learn about the company and show that you did your homework well.
Google the Job Post
In this era of internet connectivity, there is very little that a certain big company doesn’t know.
That company is called Google.
Google knows a lot because it has the best web crawling and indexing algorithms compared to its competitors. As a result, it gives the most relevant search results.
This has made it the favorite search engine for many. Being a favorite means many people make use of it. And you can do the same.
It is virtually impossible to have an actively-available web resource which Google is not aware of. A web resource could be anything from a full website, web page, online document, social media post, job post etc.
Since Google indexes web resources so well, it could have picked on a mention or conversation about the job post you are interested in. This could be from social media platforms or the hiring company’s website.
Do not just go through the first few results then end your search. If all the results in the first page are relevant, go to the next page. Check at least up to the third page.
As you open the links, carefully search for the mention of a name, title or email address which could give you a clue.
You can use your browser’s search function to search for the “@” sign. You can also search for other words related to the job post like “Manager,” “Director,” “Sales” etc.
Find the Name from the Recruiting Agency’s Website
In some cases, the job may have been posted by a recruiting agency. If so, visit the agency’s website and look around.
Many agencies provide some information about who their partners or clients are. Find the link and search for the name of the company.
Since this is primarily a recruiting business, you are likely to find the name of the HR manager listed.
If you get this, then celebrate and use it in your address.
If there is no HR personnel, there might be someone else, maybe the CEO of the company.
Now there is no way you are going to address a job application to the CEO.
But you can use his name for further research. And the best place to direct your efforts will be LinkedIn.
The CEO is very likely to be up to date with the information about his company.
Moreover, his connections will include senior employees like HR. Y
ou can go through his connections and find out who the HR is, then address the letter to him.
Utilize Your Network
If all these fail, you still have the option of making use of your network.
You can start by checking LinkedIn itself.
Are any of your connections working at the company? Has any of them worked there previously? You can get the answers to these questions quite easily using the advanced search.
If you don’t get any headway there, it’s time to move to the next step.
Does any of your friends know anyone working at the company?
If so, go ahead and request them to get the information for you.
Do not feel embarrassed to do this as it is one of the reasons you are connected with them.
As long as you haven’t been a bother to them, e.g. by spamming them, they will gladly help you out.
Contact the Hiring Company
Although this is listed as the last thing you can try, it is actually heavy with benefits.
Apart from knowing the name of the hiring manager, you will learn a lot about the company before the interview.
It might require some courage to approach the company for this information though.
To make it easy for yourself, do not call the company. If their offices are near where you are located, visit them and talk to any of the junior employees.
You can also talk to any security guard stationed at the premises.
Often, junior staff or security guards will be very helpful.
They can divulge more information and help you understand things like the company’s work culture. This will go a long way in helping you during the upcoming interview.
WHAT TO DO WHEN ALL THESE FAIL
Very rarely will you do all these things and fail in your search for a name to address your cover letter to.
But in the event that it happens, you will have to resort to using one of several alternatives.
These are not the best but at least they are better than “To whom it may concern.”
We will look at three alternative salutations you can use based on the situation.
Dear Hiring Manager
If you don’t find a name, this will be an acceptable opening for your cover letter. Whereas it will not make you stand out, it will at least point to a particular person.
It is also fine since it mentions what the letter is about—hiring.
This is similar to the one above though slightly different. Use this for the job post you are certain has been posted by a recruiting agency.
This is important in order to avoid being seen as not keen with the information provided. If you use this where there is no recruiter involved, you might come across as one who makes conclusions through assumptions.
Dear Hiring Committee
In some cases, the hiring decision is made by a committee and the job description might mention it.
Committees are different from panels as they may be made up of more people holding different positions in the company.
Jobs which involve committees are normally quite high-profile.
Decide today that you will no longer be passive about your cover letter.
Use the given tips to find out the name of the person you will address your letter to.
When you do, you will have inched closer to landing the job.
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