How to Use To Whom It May Concern (Alternatives Included)
By Mike Simpson
Every letter needs a solid salutation. Why? Because it helps the reader figure out who you’re talking to. But what if you don’t know the name of the person you’re addressing? That’s where “to whom it may concern” comes in.
“To whom it may concern” is a generic salutation that can apply to nearly anyone, making it the default approach if you don’t have a contact’s name. But is it a good idea to use “to whom it may concern” in a cover letter? Well, that depends.
If you’re curious about using “to whom it may concern” in a letter, here’s what you need to know.
Starting a Letter
Before we dig into the nitty-gritty of using “to whom it may concern,” let’s pause for a quick second and talk about starting a letter in general. As a job seeker, there’s at least one kind of letter you’re going to be writing regularly: the cover letter.
Do you actually need a cover letter? Yes, yes, you do. While most hiring managers assert that customizing your resume is the most important thing you can do, nearly half also want to see a cover letter. That’s a big percentage.
Plus, 83 percent of recruiters say that a great cover letter can land you an interview even if your resume isn’t a spot-on match. Holy cow, right? That alone should put cover letters on your must-do list.
MIKE’S TIP: The only time you definitely shouldn’t send in a cover letter with your resume is if the job ad explicitly says not to. While a cover letter gives you a platform to showcase why you’re a great candidate, if you send one when the application instructions said don’t, then you didn’t follow the directions. That always works against you and may even cause your application to be disqualified immediately. So, always send a cover letter unless there are instructions that say not to. If the job ad says not to send one, don’t.
Whenever you write any kind of letter, you want to start strong. After all, you need to convince the reader to actually finish the entire thing. If you don’t capture their attention quickly, that may not happen.
In most cases – after you fill in some contact information at the top – the first thing you need in your letter is a salutation. Why? Because it’s polite and directly acknowledges the reader.
Without a greeting, you’re letter just hops into whatever you want to talk about. If you’re writing a cover letter, that means you’d diving into a one-sided discussion about yourself.
The salutation recognizes that there is a person there “listening” to what you’re sharing. It’s a light form of appreciation. Yes, it’s a small gesture, but it’s an important one.
To Whom It May Concern
Alright, let’s take a second to talk about the use of “to whom it may concern” as a letter opening through time. While its exact origin isn’t entirely clear, the phrase does have a long history.
One of the most noteworthy examples is from a document written by President Abraham Lincoln. In a July 18, 1864 letter, he began with “to whom it may concern.” So, the phrase is at least that old.
Generally, the salutation serves as a generic opener when you either aren’t speaking to a particular individual (as a person might do with an open letter to the public) or when you don’t know who the reader is. It’s a polite and incredibly formal way to address an unknown individual. “Dear whoever” just doesn’t have the same ring, does it?
Now, if good old Abe Lincoln used it, does that mean you should too? Well, in most cases, no, you shouldn’t. Really, it should be treated as a greeting of last resort, especially for cover letters. If you have any other reasonable alternative that feels even the slightest bit more personal, that’s probably the better choice.
Plus, it feels really old-school. It doesn’t seem like it fits in modern society. The same goes for “Dear sir or madam,” which equal parts generic and out of place.
Now, does that mean you can’t ever use “to whom it may concern” in your cover letter? No, it doesn’t. Instead, it should simply be the last option you explore after everything else falls through.
So, what should you use instead? Well, we’ll get to that in a minute.
It is important to note that there may be a few exceptions. If you’re writing a letter of recommendation that may be used in more than one way – such as for a job search and for college admissions – then “to whom it may concern” might be a better bet. That keeps the reader audience broad, allowing the letter to serve more than one purpose.
But cover letters only have a single reason for existing. As a result, it’s best to get more specific with your greeting.
Proper Usage of To Whom It May Concern
Alright, let’s say that, for whatever reason, “to whom it may concern” is all you’ve got. If that’s the case, then you need to make sure you use it the proper way.
There’s a pretty good chance that one question has been dancing through your mind: Do you capitalize to whom it may concern?
In most cases, when you’re starting a cover letter, you do want to capitalize the greeting. So, that would mean that the to whom it may concern capitalization should look like this:
To Whom It May Concern
Additionally, you’ll usually follow it with a colon instead of a comma. It’s the formal approach, which is the perfect choice in these circumstances. So, that gives you:
To Whom It May Concern:
Just remember that you should only use this approach to opening a cover letter if you really can’t figure out anything better. But if you’re really stuck with it, you now know how to use it right.
What about “to whom this may concern?” How do you use that? Typically, you don’t. “To whom this may concern” isn’t the traditionally accepted approach. If you use that, the hiring manager might just assume that you have no idea how to start a cover letter, and that’s no good.
Alternatives to To Whom It May Concern
Okay, we’ve said it a few times now, and it bears repeating once more; don’t use to whom it may concern in your cover letter unless that’s all you have available. But what should you use instead? Glad you asked.
First, you’re always better off using the hiring manager’s name if you can find it. This makes your cover letter feel more personal. So, whenever possible, go with “Dear [Mr./Mrs./Ms./Dr.] [First Name] [Last Name].” It really is the best choice.
What about “Mx. [First Name] [Last Name]?” Is that okay to use?
“Mx.” is a gender-neutral way of addressing a person, and it’s increasingly popular with people who consider themselves nonbinary. However, it’s best to only use this if you are 100 percent sure it’s the hiring manager’s preferred title.
Why? Because “Mx.” is still a bit rare in the business world. People who aren’t familiar with it may think that it’s a typo, and that won’t reflect well on you. Plus, there’s also a bit of controversy surrounding its use and, if the hiring manager has strong feelings about it, that could hurt your chances of getting the job.
So, unless you know that the hiring manager prefers “Mx.” it is better to go with something else. If the contact has a gender-neutral name and you can’t find out anything else about them, skip the title and use “Dear [First Name] [Last Name]” instead.
But what if you don’t have the name of a contact? Then, it’s time for a different approach.
You can try “Dear [Job Title/Role]” as an alternative. For example, “Dear Hiring Manager” or “Dear IT Department Manager” could work. It’s at least a bit more personal, as it’s clearly speaking to a particular individual.
Next, you could go with “Dear [Department].” Again, this is a bit less ideal, as it’s opening it up to a group instead of a specific person. Still, “Dear Marketing Department” is still better than “to whom it may concern” for a letter salutation.
If the workplace is more casual, you may even be swing “Greetings” as the entire salutation. It’s less formal and a bit warmer. However, it might not sit well with every hiring manager, so you may only want to use this one if you know the company is pretty darn relaxed.
Tips for Finding a Contact Person
By now, you know that using the contact’s name is the absolute best approach when you’re writing a cover letter. If you want to find it, start by reviewing the job ad.
In some cases, the contact person’s information is right there in black and white. In others, you may be able to figure it out based on other contact details. For example, if you’re told to send your resume to an email address, and that email is clearly based on a person’s name, you may have all you need to know. A lot of companies use employee first and last names to create their email addresses, so this may be all you need.
Other companies use certain details from a person’s name, like first initials and full last names, or partial first and last names. At times, this enough information for you to figure the rest out. You can use resources like the company website or LinkedIn to find a match based on what you do know.
But if any clues about the person’s name aren’t in the job ad, how do you find it?
In this case, a great place to begin is the company website. If you can find staff bios or an overview of the company’s organizational structure, you may be able to suss out who is overseeing the role. This is especially true if the job ad includes the job title of who you would be reporting to, as there may be only one employee with that title in a suitable department.
If that doesn’t work, head on over to LinkedIn. You can head to the company’s page to look for a staff list or may be able to figure out who your contact would be by doing a search.
Contacting members of your network may also be a good idea. If you know someone who works at the company today, they may be able to clue you in by providing you the hiring manager’s name.
Finally, you could try to reach out to the company and simply ask them. Let them know that you are preparing to apply for a job and want to know who you need to address your cover letter to. Now, they may decline to give you that information, but it doesn’t hurt to try.
If none of those approaches work, then it’s time to use one of the “to whom it may concern” alternatives we listed above. If you at least know the job title or department, that could be enough. Plus, you can always go with the classic “Dear Hiring Manager,” as that will usually strike the right chord.
Putting It All Together
Ultimately, there is a time and place for “to whom it may concern” in a letter, just not usually in a cover letter. Try all of the alternatives above before you default to a generic greeting. That way, you’re cover letter is more likely to make a great impression, increasing the odds that you’ll get called in for an interview.
Co-Founder and CEO of TheInterviewGuys.com. Mike is a job interview and career expert and the head writer at TheInterviewGuys.com.
His advice and insights have been shared and featured by publications such as Forbes, Entrepreneur, CNBC and more as well as educational institutions such as the University of Michigan, Penn State, Northeastern and others.
Learn more about The Interview Guys on our About Us page.