Cover letter etiquette: What should your cover letter say?
Some see cover letters as an insignificant part of the job search. Stand out by paying extra attention to yours.
You found a great job on Monster—fantastic. Time to apply! While job seekers often spend countless hours developing their resumes, they tend to treat their cover letters as an afterthought. Don't make this critical mistake; the cover letter can help your resume get noticed.
Think of the cover letter as your resume's cheerleading section. To make the best impression, follow these etiquette rules:
Say no to the cover letter cop-out
The first rule of cover letter etiquette is to send a cover letter—always. It doesn't matter if the hiring manager didn't ask for it or you're too busy to write one. It's proper business etiquette to accompany a resume with a cover letter, and it gives you the opportunity to help sell yourself for the position.
Busy hiring managers don't have time to wade through letters that could pass for dissertations. Get to the point as expeditiously as possible, and break any paragraphs seven lines or longer into short, easily digestible ones.
When sending an email cover letter, brevity is even more important. The nature of email calls for concise communication, in part because it's harder to read on screen than on paper. However, don't fall prey to the one-line cover letter that some job seekers try to pass off. It goes something like this: "Please see attached resume, and thank you for your time and consideration." You should be able to write a convincing cover letter in a few brief paragraphs.
Keep it professional but friendly
While a resume is generally a formal document, cover letters give you a chance to reveal your personality. Not only do you want to show that you're a good fit for the position, but you also want the reader to like you. Appropriate use of humor, combined with a friendly and professional tone, can help endear you to the hiring manager.
Whenever possible, address your letter to a specific person. If a job posting doesn't include a person's name, do some research to find out who the correct person is. Try calling the employer (but do respect ads that state "no phone calls"), and ask a receptionist for the hiring manager's name. Keep the salutation professional by using "Dear Mr. Jones," not "Dear Jim."
Focus on the employer's needs
If every other sentence of your letter begins with "I" or "my," you need to change the focus. Research the employer and find out what types of problems managers there are facing, qualities they look for in employees and their future goals. Then use your letter to prove that you are the answer to their problems. The most compelling letters demonstrate what you can do for the employer, not what the employer can do for you.
Your cover letter will stand out if you employ some creativity. For example, you could include a brief summary of your toughest sale or most challenging project.
You could incorporate excerpts of performance reviews to highlight your record of success. Or, you could create two columns in your letter to demonstrate precisely how you meet the employer's requirements:
- Your ad specifies: Five years' experience in IT.
- And I deliver: Six years of superior-rated performance in network design and administration.
Cover letters should be free of errors, so thoroughly proofread them before sending. If proofreading is not your strong suit, get help from someone with meticulous proofreading skills. If you're customizing a cover letter that you use for many positions, remove any placeholders; this will prevent embarrassing errors such as "I would be delighted to be your next ." And one last tip: Whatever you do, spell the hiring manager's name correctly.
Following cover letter etiquette can take time, but the reward is worth it: more calls for interviews and a greater chance of securing a new position.
How to Address a Cover Letter
Addressing a cover letter can be tricky if you are responding to a job listing and either don’t have a contact person’s name or don't know the hiring manager's gender.
First of all, take the time to try and find out the name and gender of the contact person. Some employers will think poorly of an applicant who does not take the time to find out the hiring manager’s name.
However, if you do some research and are still not sure to whom you are addressing your letter, it's better to be safe and use a generic greeting or none at all.
It's acceptable to start a letter without a greeting.
Read below for advice on how to address a cover letter, and example salutations.
Options for Addressing a Cover Letter
When you're not sure to whom to address your cover letters, you have a few options.
The first is to find out the name of the person you are contacting. If the name is not included on the job listing, you might look up the title of the employer or hiring manager on the company website. If there is a contact number, you might also call and ask an administrative assistant for the name of the hiring manager.
If you cannot discover the name of the contact person at the company, you can either leave off the salutation from your cover letter and start with the first paragraph of your letter, or use a general salutation.
Tips for Using a General Salutation
There a variety of general cover letter salutations you can use to address your letter.
These general cover letter salutations do not require you to know the name of the hiring manager.
In a survey of more than 2,000 companies, Saddleback College found that employers preferred the following greetings:
- Dear Hiring Manager (40%)
- To Whom It May Concern (27%)
- Dear Sir/Madam (17%)
- Dear Human Resources Director (6%)
How to Address a Cover Letter for a Non Gender-Specific Name
If you do have a name but aren't sure of the person's gender, one option is to include both the first name and the last name in your salutation, without any sort of title that reveals gender:
- Dear Sydney Doe
- Dear Taylor Smith
With these types of gender-ambiguous names, LinkedIn can be a helpful resource. Since many people include a photo with their profile, a simple search of the person's name and company within LinkedIn could potentially turn up the contact's photograph.
Again, you can also check the company website or call the company’s administrative assistant to get more information as well.
What Title to Use
Even if you know the name and gender of the person to whom you are writing, think carefully about what title you will use in your salutation. For example, if the person is a doctor or holds a Ph.D., you might want to address your letter to “Dr. Lastname” rather than “Ms. Lastname” or “Mr. Lastname.” Other titles might be “Prof.,” “Rev.,” or “Sgt.,” among others.
Also, when you address a letter to a female employer, use the title “Ms.” unless you know for certain that she prefers another title (such as Miss or Mrs.).
“Ms.” is a general title that does not denote marital status, so it works for any female employer.
How to Format a Salutation
Once you have chosen a salutation, follow it with a colon or comma, a space, and then start the first paragraph of your letter. For example:
Dear Hiring Manager:
First paragraph of letter.
Spell Check Names
Finally, before sending your cover letter, make absolutely sure that you have spelled the hiring manager’s name correctly. That is the kind of small error that can cost you a job interview.
Cover Letter Examples
Here are examples of cover letters addressed to a hiring manager, cover letters with a contact person, and more samples to review.
How to Write a Cover Letter
This guide to writing cover letters has information on what to include in your cover letter, how to write a cover letter, cover letter format, targeted cover letters, and cover letter samples.