You’ve found the job you want. You’ve got your resume all set up, now you just need to write that cover letter. Keep in mind that your cover letter is your first impression. And the first impression of your first impression is how you open up your letter!
You’ll want to make it as effective as possible by tailoring your salutation to its appropriate audience—without offending anyone or showing bias of any kind.
Rule 1: If you’re not writing to a particular committee or individual avoid the dreaded impersonal “To Whom It May Concern.” Also, steer clear of the generic “Dear Sir or Madam,” which is just hopelessly bland.
Use What You Know
If you know exactly who will be reading your letter, address it personally! Really. It’s okay. “Dear John Smith” will work. If you happen to know that your reader is a doctor or has a PhD, try “Dear Dr. Smith” instead. OR if you know the company culture to be on the informal side, and you’re sure it won’t backfire: “Dear John” might do.
If the “Dear” freaks you out, you can drop it entirely and just use the name, or you could try “Hello” instead. When in doubt, though, use “Dear.”
Do Your Research
If you don’t know the hiring manager or the person most likely to receive your letter, you could guess. Do a bit of Googling and at least find the head of the department you’re applying to. Even if you shoot for higher up than the person who eventually receives your letter, you’ll still get points for initiative.
If You Can’t Find a Name, Try a Title
The point is to be as specific as possible. If names are unavailable, you can always try “Dear Senior Analyst Search Committee” or “Research Assistant Hiring Manager” instead. For that matter, if you know you will be addressing a committee, a simple “Dear Search Committee” or “Dear Hiring Committee” will do nicely. Read through the job description for hints—often it will include the name of the committee or department explicitly.
When in doubt, err on the side of formal. And never gender a general salutation. “Ladies and gentlemen” could work. But often guessing on the position/manger/committee will net you more favorable results.
Remember, this is your first impression in a letter that serves as an overall first impression. Don’t blow it in the very first line.