Find perfect job: check. Write perfect cover letter: check. Now, the only thing standing between you and your dream job is that short but oh-so-important line at the beginning of your cover letter: the salutation.

How to address a cover letter can be tricky, especially if you do not have the hiring manager’s name or know his or her gender. Should you use “Mr.” or “Ms.”? Do you include the first name? What about “To Whom It May Concern”? The wrong cover letter salutation can offend the hiring manager before he or she’s even had the chance to learn about your qualifications.

Don’t sink you candidacy by addressing a cover letter the wrong way. Follow these three rules to avoid putting your foot in your mouth:

#1: Never, ever start with “To Whom It May Concern”.

Let’s face it: if you’re starting with “To Whom It May Concern”, you’re not as concerned as you should be about this job! This generic greeting is a huge red flag that you simply don’t care enough to take the time and find out the proper person to address your letter. And don’t rely on “Dear Department Head” as a default, either. The department head may not be the hiring manager, and assuming otherwise could inadvertently offend the letter’s actual recipient. If you’ve searched high and low and simply cannot find the hiring manager’s name, it’s better to use “Dear Hiring Manager” than “To Whom It May Concern” or the archaic “Dear Sir/Madam”.

#2: Use the formal full name salutation.

If you are able to determine the hiring manager’s name, use the entire name with a formal salutation such as “Dear Ms. Elizabeth Smith” or “Dear Mr. John Jones”. As a word of caution, take a few minutes to browse the hiring manager’s bio and confirm that “Mr.” or “Ms.” is the correct title rather than “Dr.”. Unless you know for sure that the company’s culture is extremely casual (and would strongly frown on the use of “Mr.” or “Ms.”), opt to be as professional as possible up front. You can be more informal once you’ve established a rapport with the hiring manager following the interview.

#3: Don’t guess on gender.

When it comes to determining gender, names like “Elizabeth Smith” or “John Jones” are pretty straightforward. But what about gender ambiguous first names like “Taylor Smith” or “Jordan Jones”? Addressing a cover letter to “Mr. Jordan Jones” when Jordan is actually a female is a huge misstep. If you can’t find the hiring manager’s bio on the company website, check LinkedIn. A professional headshot on LinkedIn should quickly clear up this confusion.

If you are currently searching for a job, how do you typically address your cover letters? If you’re a hiring manager, what’s the most unfortunate cover letter salutation you’ve ever received? I welcome your feedback below.

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