Six Most Common Cover Letter Questions -- Answered!

Selena Dehne, JIST Publishing

cover letterTime and time again, studies indicate that cover letters are read in less than 60 seconds. That's all the time it takes for most recruiters and employers to decide whether or not you're a candidate worth interviewing.

To progress beyond this point, you have to be savvy about what's in your cover letter and how you present it. But how do you do that?

Wendy Enelow and Louise Kursmark, co-authors of "Cover Letter Magic" and two of the nation's most reputable career coaches, offer the tips you need to write a cover letter that generates great results. Below are some of the most common questions they hear from clients, as well as their responses to them.

Q. How long should my cover letter be?

A. Generally, cover letters should be one page in length. This is true for approximately 90 percent of all cover letters.

There may be instances, however, when one page is not enough. If you believe that the information you are including in your letter is essential information that is not communicated in your résumé, go ahead and prepare a two-page letter. But be sure that everything you've included is vital to favorably presenting yourself to a company or recruiter.

Two-page letters are most frequently used by the following types of job seekers: career changers, industry changers, senior executives, scientists and technologists, people seeking government jobs and people seeking university and academic appointments.

Q. Should I include salary information in my cover letter?

A. It depends. We are of two minds. We offer dual recommendations in two situations but agree with one another on the other two situations. See which rationale seems right to you.

If you are responding to an advertisement that has requested your salary history or salary requirements:

  • Supply the information. If you do not provide this information when requested, certain companies and recruiters will not look at your materials.
  • Don't supply the information. Repeated surveys show that nearly 100 percent of readers said they will look at your résumé and call you for an interview even if your salary information is not included. Why give them ammunition to screen you out?

If a personal contact or source you've uncovered during your search has requested your résumé and salary information:

  • Supply the information. To do otherwise would seem unresponsive and impolite.
  • Consider addressing the issue without providing numbers that can be detrimental in a future salary negotiation. Say something such as, "I'd be glad to discuss salary when we meet, once I learn more about the position and you have the chance to assess my fit for your needs."

When contacting companies either as a cold call or in response to an ad where salary information has not been requested:

  • Do not supply the information. It is much better to have this conversation in person rather than on paper. Always try to defer any discussion of salary until you have been offered the position.

When writing "cold" to recruiters:

  • Always offer salary information. It helps them determine your "proper fit" within a hiring organization. A recruiter will not work with you without knowing whether you match the requirements (including salary) for the specific position she is attempting to fill.

Q. Should I follow up a faxed or e-mailed résumé?

A. We recommend that you do not mail a hard copy if you have already transmitted your information electronically. Electronic communication is now a totally acceptable method of communication in virtually any business, industry and market sector. The only time you should follow up with hard copy is when it has been requested.

Q. What if I don't know the addressee's name?

A. It's a personal choice. Take a look at the following possible salutations:

  • Dear Sir/Madam. All-purpose and inoffensive, although it might be perceived as stodgy and old-fashioned.
  • To Whom It May Concern. Another standard; has the downside of being impersonal and old-fashioned.
  • Dear Hiring Executive (or Hiring Committee). Formal, but appropriate.
  • Dear Human Resources (or Human Resources Representative). Acceptable only if you're writing to a "blind ad" that lists only a P.O. box and you cannot call to get a specific individual's name.
  • Dear Hiring Authority. Acceptable only if, despite your best efforts, you have been unable to uncover the name of the non-HR person to whom you're sending your résumé.
  • Good Morning (or Good Day). A bit more up-to-date, but it reminds us of junk-mail greetings that try (unsuccessfully) to be personal.
  • Re: Job Title You're Applying For (leaving off a specific salutation). A useful method for replying to want ads, when you truly don't know to whom you are sending your résumé. We think it's preferable to the "Dear Human Resources" greeting.
  • No Salutation (begin your letter immediately after the inside address). Again, perfectly acceptable for want-ad replies. Might be considered an improvement over old-fashioned, nonspecific greetings.

Q. What if I'm unsure of the addressee's gender?

A. Simple answer: Dear R. Smith (assuming that "R. Smith" is the contact name listed in the ad). But do make an effort to find out the person's gender so you can address your letter to "Dear Mr." or "Dear Ms."

Q. Do I need to mention why I'm in the job market?

A. It depends. There's certainly no requirement that you do so, but if your reason is particularly legitimate (such as a plant closing or a management change due to the successful initial public offering you were instrumental in negotiating), you might send a positive message by mentioning this information. In any event, be prepared for the question, "Why are you leaving your current job?" or "Why are you looking?" to come up early in your search. Practice a concise, positive and believable response. Never badmouth your company, boss or co-workers.

Selena Dehne is a career writer for JIST Publishing who shares the latest occupational, career and job search information available with job seekers and career changers. She is also the author of JIST's Job Search and Career Blog ( Follow her on Twitter at

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