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Q: For the first time in several years I have made the decision to look for a new job that will provide an opportunity to learn new skills. While composing my first cover letter, I soon realized "Dear Sir" is no longer an appropriate assumption, leaving me at a loss concerning the proper salutation for a cover letter. Every person I ask gives me different advice, most of which sounds silly and trite. Can you help?

A: You are wise to recognize the changes in recent years. It certainly is not appropriate to assume that the person responsible for receiving cover letters is a male.Most experts agree that when responding to an ad which includes only an address, the best salutations are "Dear Sir or Madam" or "To Whom It May Concern." More appropriately, however, you may create an edge for yourself by calling the company and asking for a specific name to whom you can address your cover letter.

But most experts agree you are wiser to submit your information addressed exactly as instructed in the ad, if such information is included, since this indicates your ability to follow instructions. Avoid anything which might be perceived as trying to be "catchy." For example, "Dear P.O. Box 331" or "Dear Accounting Position."

Keep in mind that most hiring officials wouldn't ignore an entire resume because of an inappropriate salutation, but most of them read hundreds of resumes and do recognize when an inappropriate salutation is selected.

Q: When sending a resume to indicate interest in a job vacancy, is it important to include a cover letter? If so, what is its purpose and what information should be included?

A: An informative cover letter should be included with every resume submitted. Interviewers often are conducting multiple searches simultaneously and the cover letter should provide information concerning the specific position in which you are interested and why.

The resume should give facts about your experience and qualifications while the cover letter allows you to personalize your skills in a way so the reader will understand why you would be an asset to the organization. A cover letter should never be more than one page and should contain brief paragraphs giving the following information:

- The purpose of your letter (including the specific position in which you are interested, how you heard about the opening and why you are applying).

- A brief summary addressing areas of expertise clearly applicable to the position and company to which you are responding.

- A short statement about the company or its product/service to let the recipient know you understand and care about the company's needs.

- A closing sentence demonstrating how the company's needs can be met by someone with your skills and experience.

Ask someone with a critical eye to read your cover letter looking for signs of confidence but not arrogance. Research the company thoroughly to be sure statements about its "needs" are real and not just assumptions on your part. The cover letter is your opportunity to whet the appetite of the interviewer. Coupling a cover letter with a well-done, eye-appealing resume can make the difference between a personal interview or placement in the file cabinet.

- For more information on cover letters and resumes, check the "careers" section of your favorite bookstore. Two personal favorites: "Career Map: Deciding What You Want, Getting it and keeping it!, by Neil Yeager; publisher, John Wiley & Son, Inc., and "How to Win the Job You Really Want," by Janice Weinberg, publisher Henry Holt & Company.