For a lot of people fresh out of college, joining the workforce is a months-long process that involves sending out as many applications to as many jobs as possible. Unless, of course, you’re one of the privileged few with a family member who can immediately give you a job.
But if you’re one of those hard-working, salt-of-the-earth types who grind for everything they’ve ever earned, you’re going to have to go through the job process the hard way, and your first step is going to be sending an application letter. It’s very simple, but a lot of people make a mistake on the first line of their application when they address their prospective company as:
To Whom It May Concern
Technically, ‘to whom it may concern’ isn’t wrong: it’s something we’re taught early on in composition classes, and it’s honestly a very neutral greeting that applies to most correspondences.
But in the business world, it’s not the most impressive, and when it comes to making first impressions via an application, you need to be impressive.
Should I Use “To Whom It May Concern” On My Application Letters?
As much as possible, no. You shouldn’t use “to whom it may concern” on an application if you’re applying for a position at a company.
It’s not that it’s unprofessional; it’s just bland, unimpressive, and in my opinion, lazy. Of course, if you feel the need to ignore good advice and use ‘to whom it may concern’ anyway, at least learn how to use it properly.
The thing about job applications is that the hiring manager will only know you through two things: your CV and your cover letter. Your CV will show them what your skills are, but your cover letter will show them who you are. While it’s not good to come across as bragging or full of hot air, your goal is still to impress the person reading the cover letter.
Remember: you’re not the only one applying for this position, neither are you the only one with an impressive CV. If you want to stand out from the crowd, you’re going to have to be unique and different from everyone else.
Perhaps the best alternative to ‘to whom it may concern’ is to address your cover letter to the hiring manager themselves, or the head of HR, or the person that referred you to the position in the first place.
Doing this shows the recruiter that you do your research and that you pay attention to detail. These kinds of specifics tell the company you’re applying to that you’re serious about the role, and that you’re an exceptional employee that has research skills that can be of value to them.
Can I Use “Dear Sir or Madam” Instead of “To Whom It May Concern”?
The problem with ‘to whom it may concern’ is that it’s bland, uninteresting, and generic. Using “Dear Sir/Madam” is just as bland and generic and should also be avoided if you want to stand out from the rest of the applicants.
In the modern world, being precise about the gender of the person you’re addressing also shows that you’re sensitive about political correctness, which goes a long way in the corporate world because it shows effective marketing communication skills.
Again, do your research about the company and address your cover letter to the person in charge, and you can avoid misgendering faux pas.
Alternative Salutations to “To Whom It May Concern”
The best way to show that you’ve put effort into your application form and that you didn’t just send a template message, do your research about the company. Specifically, do research about who you’re sending the message to.
Dear [Mr./Ms./Mrs./Miss] [Last Name],
Being specific about who you’re addressing in your cover letter is the best way to show potential employers that you’re serious about your application, that you hold their company in high regard, and that you’re willing to go the extra mile for them to notice you. Think of it as portraying a positive brand image for yourself: you’re selling yourself to this company and you need to stand out from all the other brands out there.
Take note, however, that if you’re going to address a specific person directly, you need to know the proper title to address them with. In general, any person with the title “Dr.” should be referred to as such. If the person you’re addressing is a woman, it’s acceptable to use the title “Ms.” if you’re not sure whether or not she’s married. However, if you know she’s married, use the title “Mrs.”.
Of course, pay attention to how that person wants to be addressed. If the company’s job posting says “address all letters to Ms. Jane Doe”, then follow the format.
However, if the person being referred to has a gender-neutral name, it can be tricky. In the 21st century, the gender-neutral title “Mx.” has started gaining traction for non-binary people. However, this is still pretty rare, so make sure the person you’re addressing prefers this or not.
If you’re unsure, you can opt with “To [person being addressed]”, or, if you prefer to be a little friendlier, you can use “Dear [person being addressed]”. This way, you avoid misgendered titles, not to mention you’re able to address third-sex and non-binary people in the most neutral way possible.
For foreign names, find out where the person is from and follow their naming conventions. In countries like Japan, Taiwan, and even Hungary, last names come first. However, if you’re unsure, address them by their full name.
In this day and age, there’s no excuse in not knowing the people who work for a particular company, especially with websites like LinkedIn where a person’s professional profile is posted, including how they prefer to be addressed, not to mention their position in the company you’re applying to.
When Can I Use “To Whom It May Concern”?
Let us be clear: “To Whom It May Concern” is an acceptable salutation for most letters. Yes, even job application letters. However, it’s best to avoid it if you want to make yourself more impressive than the other applicants out there.
Letters of complaint, however, often do well with a “to whom it may concern” greeting, as this allows you to be formal and cordial, but still portray an air of seriousness to your letter.