Starting a cover letter can be the hardest part.

Uncertain how to start a cover letter? You're not the only one. And yet, the way you address this important part of your application is of the utmost importance.

Research shows that there is just a 17 per cent chance that your cover letter will be read at all. Because of this, you have to get it right from the start. Here, we break down everything you need to know about addressing your cover letter, from what information you need to the mistakes that could get your application binned.

Who should you address your cover letter to?

When determining how to address your cover letter, the biggest question to ask yourself is who will be reading it.

The answer? The HR manager. 

By the time an application makes it into the hands of an HR manager, it's likely already passed the desk of the recruiter or HR contact. As the HR manager only receives the shortlist of applications, they have more time to spend actually reading each one, which is why it's more likely that the HR manager will read your cover letter as opposed to the recruiter or less involved HR worker. 

Since the HR manager is the person who will be reading your cover letter, they are the person you should address it to.

There really is no better first impression to your application than to address your cover letter directly to the person who is doing the hiring. It shows you've done your research, have high attention to detail and are prepared to go the extra mile.

So, how do you address a cover letter? You will want to keep it professional by using the HR manager's full name and adding a formal salutation. 

How do you find out the name of the HR manager?

In this wonderful digital age in which we live, there are several ways to learn the name of the HR manager. Get ready to put on your sleuth hat and start investigating.

The job description

The best place to start is the job listing. Scroll to the bottom and look for the section for applying. Some job ads will mention the name and email address of the HR manager in this section. For example: 'Please send your CV and cover letter to Jane Doe at jane@company.com.'

If the advertisement doesn't mention a name and the email address is generic, the next place to look is within the description itself. Often, a job listing will mention who the role reports to. For example: 'You will report directly to the marketing manager.' Once you have the job title of the HR manager, you're halfway there. 

The company website

If you haven't had any luck finding a name via the job description, the next point of call is the company's website. Smaller companies will often have a 'Meet the Team' page which will give you the name and job title of each staff member. Alternatively, look for an 'About' page, a company directory or a contact page that might give you an insight to the company structure, relevant job titles or HR manager's name. 

Head to LinkedIn 

When in doubt, LinkedIn is your best friend. Log into your account and search for the company to find their page. Once on the company page, click on 'See all employees' and scroll down the list to find the name of the relevant department manager, HR manager or an HR contact. 

Call the company

If you want to be 100 per cent certain, there is no harm in calling the company and asking the receptionist. Simply mention that you are putting together your application for the vacant position and would like to address it to the correct person. Nine times out of 10, they will be able to assist. 

The wrong ways to address a cover letter

You know you should address your cover letter to the HR manager. Now, what kind of language should you use to do so? Here are some approaches you should avoid because they lack professionalism.

'Hey' or 'Hi'

You're not texting your mate. When you're addressing a cover letter, the last thing you want to do is get overly familiar with them. Greetings such as 'Hey', 'Hi' and even 'Hello' are strikingly casual. You should only use them when you know someone or are in a social environment. 

Needless to say, your cover letter is neither the time nor the place for these greetings. When you start a letter this way, it's unlikely that the employer or recruiter will read the whole thing. Your lack of professionalism and awareness is likely to lose you the opportunity before you've even received it.

'Dear Team'

When you address a cover letter this way, it means you are speaking to the entire team you are hoping to join. But the whole team will not be the ones who decide whether or not to hire you.

In actuality, you're writing to one or two individuals ‒ the people who have hiring power within the company. Addressing the entire team comes off as an attempt to cover all your bases without putting in the work to research.

'To Whom it may concern'

You may have been taught this one in school, but that doesn't mean it's right. The working world has come a long way, and it's time we started to update the lingo we use to match that. For instance, if you're applying for a modern role, such as one in a marketing or a digital field, this greeting won't align with their culture.

'Dear Sir or Madam' 

You may not know the gender of the HR manager, but that doesn't mean this opening will cut it. (Plus, you are ignoring the fact that the person you are writing to could be non-binary and use they/them pronouns.) This greeting is many people's 'go-to' when they are addressing a cover letter, but much like 'To Whom it may concern', this one is overly formal and outdated. 

What do you do if you just can't find a name?

Sometimes, no matter how much you research, you just can't figure out exactly who you should be addressing your cover letter to. So, other than avoiding the bad addresses listed above, how should you go about it?

To start, it's always better to aim higher up the food chain than lower. If you're able to find a list of executives, address your cover letter to the head of the appropriate department. 

Alternatively, opt for the most appropriate job title. For example: 'Dear Marketing Manager' or 'Dear Office Manager', depending on the department the position would fall under.

Making the best impression

Your cover letter is the part of your application where you can offer more detail to an HR manager and show why you're the best fit for the job. If you start it off on the wrong foot, you may discourage an employer from reading the rest of your letter and truly considering you as a candidate. But with research and professionalism, you can make a strong impression.

To match your cover letter, you need an impressive CV. See if yours makes the grade by getting a free CV critique.

This article was updated in October 2020. It contains work written by Charlotte Grainger.

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