Why “To Whom It May Concern” May Be Killing Your Cover Letter

Whether you write it in the body of an email, attach it along with your resume or upload it to an automated online application, your cover letter still matters. A personalized, well-planned letter can give you an edge over other candidates. A shoddy, haphazard note can do just the opposite.

That’s why beginning your outreach with, “To whom it may concern,” is such a bad idea. At best, it sends the message that you are unwilling or unable to do basic research into the company you profess a desire to join. At worst it demonstrates the job-seekers kiss of death—laziness.

It sounds harsh, and it’s certainly easy to see how “To whom it may concern” happens. Many job postings do not list a human contact and unless you’ve heard about the job through a networking connection (still the number one way to get a job, by the way) you are often filling out an online form or firing off your information blindly to “jobs-at-whatever.com.” It’s almost as if they don’t want you to know the actual person doing the hiring.

Instead of thinking of this as an annoyance, try to think of it as an opportunity to shine by putting your tenacity and research skills on display. The internet is a magical place and you should be taking full advantage. Often hiring managers post openings on multiple sites in slightly different formats. Check them all. Some may not list a contact, but other postings might at least include some information about the person who posted the job. That’s a good place to start.

Next, take a dive into the target company’s website. Check out the “careers” section and be sure to browse the staff bios and the company blog for relevant names and positions.

While you’re browsing, don’t neglect your own social networks. Check LinkedIn (if you’re not on LinkedIn, you really should be) to see if anyone you know has connections with your target company. They may be able to give you a name or point you to someone who can. From a networking perspective, you should make a habit of taking this step even if you already have a contact at your target company. You may find that someone you know has a direct personal connection with the actual person doing the hiring, which can give you a real edge.

If you’re still coming up empty, try ditching the technology and picking up the phone. Trust me, no one thinks it’s weird when a job candidate calls to find out who’s doing the hiring. Quite the contrary.

Lastly, remember that virtually any name is better than no name at all. Even if you end up addressing the cover letter to the head of HR, it beats the impersonal “To whom it may concern,” by a mile. Your prospective employer will know you put in some extra work, and that just might make the difference in a competitive job hunt.