Update on April 4, 2013
When I wrote this post in 2009, I was reacting to the sales messages and email requests I was receiving that were addressed to "Dear Sir or Madam." That greeting instantly told me that the writers were strangers who did not care enough about their communication with me to find out my name or my gender.
If you have landed on this page because you want to know whether it is acceptable to use "Dear Sir or Madam" as a greeting in a message to a stranger, when you cannot learn the person's name and gender, the answer is yes. It is acceptable. But do read the discussion below. You may decide to use other ways to greet your unknown reader.
In the unsolicited email I get, every day brings more messages that begin "Dear Sir or Madam." But these days there is no excuse for that greeting. Anyone who wants to write to me can easily learn whether I am a sir or a madam. They can also track down my name. If they really want to succeed with me, they can read this blog and my website to learn about my preferences, personality, and possible needs.
That's why I feel comfortable deleting every message that begins "Dear Sir or Madam" without a second thought for the writer or the message.
Does anyone read email that begins that way? Do you?
Covering letters should be used to give the recruiter a reason to read your CV, show why you want the job and highlight your suitability for the role.
So, don't just summarise your career history, but include details not in your CV to personalise your application. Your letter should also link your CV to the specific requirements of the job or the organisation.
Researching a company helps you tie in your strengths, achievements and background. But even when faced with limited company details (as in the example from a recruitment company below) the job description itself can give you enough information to tailor your letter.
This advertisement is for a graduate role, so the experience requirements are not as stringent as for more senior positions. However, it's clear that the organisation want a specific type of person with the right attitude.
This small yet highly successful Chocolate Events Company has an exciting opening for a bright, conscientious and highly organised bookings coordinator.
Responsible for managing the bookings process for events from start to finish, your duties will include responding to enquiries, writing proposals, confirming details, liaising with venues and handling post-event follow ups. It is vital that you have a superb client service ethic and the ability to build relationships with a diverse range of individuals ... you must be process-driven, methodical and pay strong attention to detail ... As a key member of a close-knit and dedicated team, you must be hard-working, flexible and have a can-do attitude ... As this role requires you to compose tailored client proposals, it is expected that your covering email will reflect a high level of written communication ability.
This is a superb opportunity for a proactive and enthusiastic team player who is keen to apply their experience within a small company where your contribution will be valued. Salary: £18,000-£22,000.
Below, I have drafted two potential responses to this vacancy.
Covering letter 1
I am writing to apply for the role of booking coordinator (Ref G1150) and have attached a copy of my CV for your consideration.
As you can see from my CV, I have already had extensive experience in a bookings role, and I am now looking for an opportunity to build on this.
I am currently working in a customer-facing retail role, where I earn £16,000.
Please do not hesitate to contact me if you would like any further information.
The verdict: Personality is important in a people business such as events, but there's nothing here that would entice the recruiter to look at the CV. It sounds too formal, and the applicant gives no reason for wanting the job, or what makes them a strong candidate.
Adding personality traits such as "I'm an exceptionally organised individual with a keen eye for detail," would risk making her letter sound bland unless context or examples were included. This letter may be brief and accurate, but it's also weak and formulaic. The recruiter will probably receive many letters exactly like this, and the candidate has wasted a opportunity to stand out.
Covering letter 2
I was excited to see the opportunity for a bookings coordinator in a Chocolate Events company. (Ref G1150)
I am currently working in a customer-facing retail role, where I earn just under the quoted salary. I enjoy this role, but miss the satisfaction of rolling up my sleeves and seeing a project through from start to finish.
Along with three fellow French undergraduates, I organised a series of wine-tasting events on campus. Liaising between importers, retailers and the university, I managed the bookings for the sommelier evenings. One importer described me as "a safe pair of hands" and was impressed with my professionalism and meticulous attention to detail. I was particularly proud that the events I co-ordinated were described as a "must-attend" in the French department.
Please contact me via email or on 020 3333 2222 if you would like to arrange an interview.
Thank you for your consideration.
The verdict: In comparison, this candidate's personality and enthusiasm stand out. The applicant briefly refers to relevant experience, but also gives a bigger picture of their personality and what they are like to work with. For example, they include testimonials to illustrate strengths and achievements, and explain their motivation for applying.
The applicant has identified key requirements, and tailored the letter around these: a can-do, hard-working attitude, attention to detail and ability to work in a team. Customising the letter also demonstrates their potential for writing tailored client proposals — one of the job duties.
Plus, this candidate has also handled the salary question well. Recruiters often ask for this information to make sure the candidate is roughly in the right salary range. By not being specific, they may have a stronger negotiating position than if they had stated their exact salary. But this applicant has also deflected attention away from money, and focused instead on why they want the role, which comes across as genuinely enthusiastic.