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A Simple Guide to Determine Who to Address In Your Cover Letter

Jose Fermoso by Jose Fermoso, Career Advice Contributor

A cover letter can help you explain to potential employers the reasons why you are a good fit for a job. But it can also be used as a test to separate good candidates from the not-so-good. And one of the trickiest parts illustrating this test is the address because it’s the first thing employers see.

Want to make sure you start your letter off on the right foot? Follow the directions below.

Do find the full name of the person in charge of the application

Hiring decisions come down to the smallest detail. Believe it or not, the most common mistake job seekers make is not writing the specific, proper name of the person to which they are sending a cover letter. People who read cover letters can tell you that if their full name is easily found inside a job listing or Google, or if it’s fairly easy to discern they are leading the job search, their name on the letter is an absolutely necessary component because it’s seen as a sign of respect.

But do not add multiple names unless instructed

Job posts can offer applicants the option to send applications with a cover letter to multiple people at a company. But career experts say this is a trap. At most, you should choose two people to address, preferably one, and they should be the most senior members of the team. Otherwise, the address line will appear long and sloppy and will make you look like an inexperienced applicant.

Do follow specific cover letter submission instructions

Employers thin out applicant pools by inserting detailed job instructions in the middle of long posts. They do this to make sure the applicant is detail-oriented and takes the process seriously. With the advent of web-based job application portals like Indeed.com, it’s easier than ever to use one resume and a cover letter and spread them around to dozens of jobs without thought.

So look for specific address instructions. Some companies expect the same address convention, such as ‘To the HR Department,” to be duplicated on subject lines of emails, as well.

But do not send an email to ask which person you should address

Constructing job applications takes skill and effort. So when you read through a listing, understand that what you’re reading is exactly what they want you to know about the job at that time. If you can’t find the name of the person to address the cover letter on the job listing or on Google, don’t send an email to HR asking for one. It looks weak.

Do use common honorifics when possible

The cover letter is a serious document and people who read them expect to be treated as professionals. That’s why experts recommend applicants use traditional honorifics addressing academic or professional title-holders. Honorifics can be descriptive like Doctor, Professor, Coach, Reverend or Your Honor. And they can be used as prefixes through Dr., Prof., Hon. or Rev.

When abbreviating honorifics, though, make sure you know the company you are applying to uses either British English or American English as each has its own period rules.

But do not use mid-20th century formalities or 21st-century informalities

“To Whom it May Concern” is a common letter address convention that’s a thing of the past. And starting a cover letter with “Hello,” “Hi,” “Hey There,” or with the first name of the hiring officer is still seen as just way too informal. In other words, don’t use stuffy address conventions from the last century and avoid being too informally modern.

The goal is to appear professional and make readers move on to the rest of the letter as opposed to focusing too much on an icky, overly personal or antiquated greeting.

Do use the generic title of a department leader or boss

When you can’t find the full name of the person you are addressing or don’t know their honorifics, it’s fine to use a broad generic title. You can use human resources-specific ones like “To the Human Resources Department,” “To Hiring Officers” or “To the Hiring Manager,” or you can focus on the department you want to work in, like “Dear Marketing Team” or “To the Editorial Group.”

Do not use gender prefixes unless you are sure they are correct

You can’t assume you know the genderpronoun preference of any hiring officer. So avoid them in the cover letter address and throughout the cover letter body itself. Unless you’ve seen documents where the addressees specifically refer to themselves as Mr., Mrs. or Ms., skip it and use their full name. Examples could be something like “Dear Pat Tiegens,” or “To Mol Johnson,” to start.