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Cover letter basics – Dear whomever it may concern

Having promised another article on Cover Letter Basics, I thought I’d just scroll down the letter.

Before I do so, I’d like to make an appeal that you keep the layout of the letter simple. “Contemporary Elegant” as one colleague once described it. Stick to a single plain font. Don’t pretend that you are a stationery designer. Don’t copy your daughter’s “Nelly the Elephant” stationery pattern. These days, few people have their own letterhead, though perhaps now would be a good time to invest?

Scrolling down, I will assume that the letter is dated – with a real date and not ‘as postmark’. Perhaps we’d better dwell there for a moment… When one is applying for a position, especially one of the rare variety that actually exists and is advertised, then the date that you put on the letter should be the one on which you post it. It’s a bit of a giveaway that you have a standard cover letter if you send it with a date from earlier in your job hunt. Likewise, sending a letter with ‘date as postmark’, might seem incredibly efficient to you, but looks idiotic to the recipient and indicates someone who has a manufacturing plant approach to finding a position.

The date goes below the recipient’s address. If your letter is VERY short, then you may include a couple of blank lines and have the date immediately underneath, but personally I think it looks a lot neater if you right justify the date in which case it can be on the line below the block which is handy for slightly longer letters. Here’s an example:

Now we come to the bit that contributes to a LOT of CVs being binned before they are even read…

If you are responding to an advertisement, then you will have the name of the person doing the recruiting. If there isn’t one, and you can’t deduce it from the advertisement, then call the organisation and ask.

If they adamantly refuse to tell you, then ask yourself whether you want to work there. If you still do, then you have to write to the organisation which is, after all, treated as a person in the eyes of the law. Letter writing convention is that such an entity is male and plural. So we introduce our letter as “Dear Sirs”. NOT “Dear Sir/Madam” NOT “Dear Messrs” NOT “Dear Mr/Mrs/Ms”.

Before you do so, though, double-check that you can’t deduce the name and gender of the person who is going to be performing the first screening of applications. The position that prompted these articles was advertised in a specialist magazine. The advert clearly said;”Apply in writing to Jane Embleton.” Now, unless Jane’s parents were fans of Johnny Cash, we know that Jane is a SHE. So you have two options: “Dear Jane” or “Dear Ms Embleton”. Personally, I don’t have a problem with the more familiar, “Dear Jane” – it does, at least, establish the tone of your future conversation.

If there’s no name given, and yet email applications are to go to then we write to “Dear Jane” or “Dear Ms Embleton” – and don’t you dare assume that it is a PA! If you really want to be nosey, you can always ring the switchboard and ask what Jane Embleton’s position is.

If there’s evidence that your recipient has some other title, then find out how to address them. Getting a name wrong is worse than ignoring what you know. If in doubt, look them up online, ring their PA, call the press office, or consult a library. Thus, a person who has a PhD gets addressed “Dear Dr..” Bishops, priests, surgeons, knights and Dames, military officers and a quite a few besides all have a formal way of styling them. This isn’t rocket science – it’s basic etiquette – and if you have some strong egalitarian streak, then this is probably not the time to try to make a point!

Knowing what you are going to call someone also determines how you will sign off. The rules are incredibly simple. Unless you are a peer or the Sovereign, if you begin a letter with the person’s name, then you finish it with “Yours sincerely”. If you begin it with “Dear Sirs” then you finish it with “Yours faithfully.”

Oh, and back to that senior executive job in the City. Out of 50 applications, nearly a third ignored the explicitly stated name and wrote “Dear Sir/Madam”. A dozen wrote “Dear Madam” – one (with French leanings) even used “Madame”. Six wrote “Dear Jane Embleton” – which is NEVER going to be right. Four used “Dear Mrs Embleton” when they had no idea what her marital status was. Two generously awarded her a PhD. So, out of the 50, only 10 actually used the correct mode of address.

Again, I would say that this isn’t going to get someone dismissed from the list instantly, however only last week a US colleague told me that the assumption about marital status hits such a button for her that she simply won’t look any further.

Best wishes
Graham Wilson

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