Your contact details are placed at the top of the cover letter, on either the right or the left side. If you have trouble adhering to the space limit, omit your name from the contact details section; you will anyway be signing your name in the ending salutation.
Many mistakes occur here as the British and American notations differ. While the month is placed first and is followed by the date in the US version, the British notation gives the date first and the month afterwards. You should insert a comma between day and year in the American notation, but the British version requires no comma.
American and Canadian notations:
Month/Day/Year (March 15, 2014)
Day/Month/Year (15 March 2014)
It is common nowadays to indicate the date using only numbers—e.g. 05/10/2013—but it gives rise to misunderstandings. In the British notation, this would be 5 October 2013, but in the US, it would represent 10 May 2013. To avoid such misunderstandings, it is recommended to combine numbers and words in your notation.
Short and sweet
- Date in the US: March 15, 2014
- Date in the UK: 15 March 2014
The address of the recipient follows next. The recipient’s details must be stated in full, including the full name of the contact person. All the accessories of the company name and the designation of the contact person must be provided.
The greeting depends on the information available. If you know the name of the contact person, his/her name and surname must be included in the greeting. The salutation ‘Mr(.)’ is used for a man, while ‘Ms(.)’ is used for a woman. Use ‘Mrs(.)’ only if you know for a fact that the woman contact person is married. Otherwise, stick with the formal ‘Ms(.)’. Note that an academic title also belongs in the formal salutation and must be provided in the greeting accordingly.
Dear Mr(.) XY,
Dear Ms(.) XY,
Dear Prof. XY,
The dot after ‘Mr’/‘Ms’ depends on the style of English being used. In a UK application, there is no dot after the salutation and it just says ‘Mr XY’. If you are applying in the US, however, a point follows the salutation and you write ‘Mr. XY’.
In case no contact person is mentioned, look for a suitable contact or HR manager—e.g. via online research. The best option is to inquire directly at the company for the name, title and designation of the required contact person.
Note also that a personal greeting is preferred to an impersonal salutation. Use the impersonal salutation only if you absolutely cannot find a suitable contact person.
In the latter case, the following alternative greetings are possible:
Dear Hiring Manager(,)
Dear Recruiting Team(,)
Dear Sir or Madam(,)
The salutation, ‘To whom it may concern’, is not recommended. It sounds impersonal and gives the impression that you sent a standard letter to multiple companies at one go. The reader should feel that he/she has been addressed personally. Your letter must give the impression that you are applying to only this company because the position here is exactly what you seek.
Once again, comma use depends on the style of English being followed. A comma or punctuation mark after the salutation is usually absent in the British cover letter, but present in the American one.
Short and sweet
- Ascertain the name of the contact person if this is unavailable. It is best to call the company and inquire.
- In British English, the title is written without a dot (‘Ms XY‘); in American English, it is written with a dot (‘Mr. XY’).
- In the UK application, no comma follows the salutation; in the American application, a comma is placed after the greeting.
The subject differs in the American and British cover letters. If you apply in the US, the subject is left out. In the UK, however, it is common to write a subject in bold letters.
In the British English application, the subject provides a reference to, for example, a phone call, a personal conversation or a newspaper advertisement.
You’ve found the perfect job and finally sat down to write that cover letter (good for you!), but immediately you’ve run into a roadblock. How do you even start the darn thing? Should you use Mr. or Ms.? Do you include a first name? And what if you’ve searched high and low, but can’t find the hiring manager’s name?
Don’t fret! Follow these rules for cover letter salutation salvation.
Rule #1: Use a Formal Full Name Salutation
Unless you know for sure that the culture of the company is more casual, use the hiring manager’s first and last name, including a “Mr.” or “Ms.” (e.g., Mr. Jack Smith).
Most letters I see still use the “Dear” greeting, though I’ve seen a growing trend of people dropping it and starting with “Hello” or just the name. Either way works. The most important part is having the actual name. Never use “To Whom it May Concern” or “Dear or Sir or Madam”—nothing could be more generic (not to mention archaic). Your cover letter could be the first opportunity you have to make an impression on the hiring manager, so make sure you show that you did your company research.
One note of caution, if you can’t decipher whether to use “Mr.” or “Ms.” based on the name and a little Google stalking (and you don’t have an easy way out with a “Dr.”), just drop the title.
Rule #2: If You Don’t Know the Hiring Manager, Guess
Sometimes, even after hours of online searching (try these tips), you still might not be able to definitively figure out who exactly the hiring manager for the position you’re applying for is—and that’s OK.
If you can only find a list of the executives of the company and you’re not completely confident who the hiring manager is, use the head of the department for the position you’re applying for. In the end, no one will fault you for addressing the letter higher up than necessary. This approach is definitely better than not using a name in your cover letter, because it still shows the time and effort you took to find out who the department head is.
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Rule #3: Be as Specific as Possible
So, you’ve done your due diligence and after an exhaustive search—nothing. You just can’t find a single name to address your cover letter to. If that’s the case, don’t worry. The company is likely privately held with no reason to share who its employees are—and, more importantly, is aware of this.
If this is the case and you don’t have a name to use, try to still be as specific as possible in your greeting. Consider using “Senior Analyst Hiring Manager” or “Research Manager Search Committee”—something that shows that you’ve written this letter with a particular audience in mind.
Ultimately, you want your cover letter to convey your interest in the position. To start off on the right note, get the salutation right by being as specific as possible—ideally with the name of the hiring manager. Of course, that can’t always happen, but as long as the effort is clearly made, you’ll be starting your cover letter in the right place.