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I'm emailing a graduate STEM admissions department in the UK, and don't know the modern preferred way to begin the email.

Many authors suggest "Dear Sir/Madam," but of course this implies a problematic gender binary. A common, gender-neutral option, "To whom it may concern" is often criticized as too formal or impersonal.

There is enough advice on this topic to suggest that the recipient will (for reasons that are beyond me) actually care about whether an inherently impersonal email has an opening line at all.

What's a modern, etiquette-conscious applicant to do?

(Feel free to answer for other countries besides the UK too.)

  • 18
    Just don’t go with ‘Yo, dudes’... – Jon Custer Apr 2 at 21:49
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    @JonCuster, or even 'Yo, dudes and dudettes'. Unless you happen to be THE dude. – Buffy Apr 2 at 22:06
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    @TSF "Yo, dudes" maybe, "I date dudes" not so much. Best avoided in any but the most casual settings. – Bryan Krause Apr 2 at 23:01
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    I recommend going with the gender-neutral version of dudes: doods – GrayLiterature Apr 3 at 3:41
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is a "boat programming" question that has nothing specific to Academia. Maybe it could be asked on English Language & Usage? – Federico Poloni Apr 3 at 7:04
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I would suggest something along the lines of:

Dear Admissions Committee,

or

Dear Department of (STEM),

etc. You can usually find what a particular department/program/etc is called from their website. Avoid addressing the "Department of Chemical Engineering" as the "Engineering Department"; it would be most polite to use their own phrasing because it shows you've paid some attention and aren't sending out a copy-pasted letter to everyone.

For another example, I just randomly looked at a particular department, the "Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology" at the University of Cambridge; for their "MBE" program they have a "contact" page that says to "please send an email to the MBE Office": in that case I'd simply address the email:

Dear MBE Office,

For any of the above, you can also omit the "Dear".

In a comment, @DanRomik suggests modifying the salutations to refer to particular groups of people (like "committee" does) rather than abstract departments: examples include: “Dear MBE program administrators”, “Dear MBE office team”. I think that's perfectly fine, too, if you find that more logical.

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    Addressing a department or office seems illogical, as those words refer to abstract concepts rather groups of people. “Committee” is better. Another useful word to use is “team”. In general, in situations when I must address an organizational unit, I usually add one or those words explicitly referring to a group of people associated with the unit. E.g., “Dear MBE program administrators”, “Dear MBE office team”, etc. – Dan Romik Apr 2 at 22:43
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    @DanRomik Added your comment to my answer as an addendum. I think that it's not particularly illogical to address to a department (and it would not be unusual to get an email signed " - MBE Office"), but indeed it may humanize the address a bit more to add on 'team' or similar, so it's a good suggestion. – Bryan Krause Apr 2 at 22:53
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    I've looked quite hard for a better answer to this question over the years, and never come up with a better solution than this. – Ian Sudbery Apr 3 at 12:41
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    Personally I like this approach for writing to internal email addresses that don’t belong to a team I know . E.G Hi help desk, – dothyphendot Apr 3 at 13:10
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    I followed this answer's advice, and received a response signed "Department of [X]". It seemed to be fine. – ASDFQWERTY Apr 8 at 23:04
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One that is traditional is

To Whom it may concern:

That has been around for decades, at least, and is generally used when the recipient is unknown or may be more than one person.

In my opinion, actually, anything with "Dear..." is a bit trite if you don't actually know the person.

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    That is already considered and rejected by the OP – James K Apr 3 at 6:55
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    @JamesK, my interpretation of "often criticized" is that it isn't the same as "considered and rejected". It is traditional and often used - even today. But I doubt that many people have ever loved it as a solution. – Buffy Apr 3 at 10:58
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    I agree with this answer. I feel OP is wrong to discard it. Personally, I've always (since the 1990s) used "To whom it may concern" in formal communication, and a simple "Hi <name>" in informal communication. – Aaron F Apr 3 at 11:24
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    I would also use this option in the OP's situation. It seems strange to consider it as "too impersonal" for a situation in which you literally do not know what person you are writing to! – Rococo Aug 14 at 18:44
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A useful option, although I guess some people would consider it a step less formal than 'Dear Sir/Madam', is

Good morning,

or

Good afternoon,

as appropriate to the time you're sending the email.

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    This reads as warm and fuzzy. I would love to get an email that began with "Good morning". – Clumsy cat Apr 3 at 9:04
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Avoid salutations entirely. There's no need in most emails. They waste both the sender's and receiver's time.

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    As far as I can tell, in my region it is still expected to have a salutation when writing emails, posting in forums (exept S. Exchange), meeting people etc, especially if you write/post/meet the first time! Could you please write your locale where it would not be strange to have no salutation? – user111388 Apr 3 at 9:21
  • @user111388 US and Europe, for example. Of course, my advice isn't universal, some emails require salutations – user2768 Apr 3 at 9:29
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    @uaer2768: Interesting! I know the Germany-Austria-France-Italy region and my feeling is that people there would not be okay with a general rule that most emails don't require salutations. I would guess that most people would say that OP's email definitely requires one. – user111388 Apr 3 at 9:36
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    I don't think this answer deserves the downvotes. Much of the formalities used in letters, like a name an address at the top, and a sign-off (and possibly one or more post-scripta beneath that) have been long obsoleted by emails, which show you exactly who and whom sent and received the communication. – Aaron F Apr 3 at 11:32
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    I agree there's not a strict need for repeated salutations in an email chain, but I don't think I've ever received an conversation-initiating email that didn't start with some form of greeting. – Nuclear Hoagie Apr 3 at 12:42
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When I was taught how to write formal letters in the 80s/90s, the answer to how you deal with the unknown gender of the recipient is "Don't".

We were taught that formal letters always start "Dear Sir" if you don't know who will be receiving it. Not "Dear Sir/Madam", not "To whom it may concern", not "Hello". Always "Dear Sir". Our teachers acknowledged that this was not correct if the person receiving the letter was female (non-binary wasn't on anyone's radar then) but taught us that it was the standard convention because English does not have a way of making the greeting for letters non-gender-specific. Whilst the person receiving the letter could well be female (or non-binary, sure), they would also know that this was the convention and would not be offended by it.

Many people still follow this convention. I'm only 45, so it's not like it's your grandfather talking about "when I was a boy"! With that in mind, it would not be unreasonable to simply start your letter "Dear Sir". (Unless you know the name of the person, of course.)

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    I think this is one of those conventions that would fly if everyone subscribed to it, but for British academia in 2020 definitely would not pass without causing offence. – dbmag9 Apr 3 at 8:16
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    "Dear Sir" is not used any longer in the UK, with very few exceptions (there always are), though I can't think of one right now. The 80/90ies are now 30/40 years away and things have changed. Don't do this. – Marianne013 Apr 3 at 8:16
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    I feel like the spirit of the question is precisely to avoid such a thing. Why use Sir instead of Madam or whatever else? – user347489 Apr 3 at 8:51
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    @Graham even that page, which is a guide to rather dated formal conventions, says "'Dear Sir' is technically the correct form". Technically "he" can be used in a gender-neutral sense and it historically has been. That doesn't mean it's anything other than a stupidly bad idea to do so in modern writing. I'm a few years younger than you, and dimly recall the convention, but it wouldn't be my first thought on reading a letter addressed to "Dear Sir" from someone who didn't know my gender. Most companies have ducked the issue by using "Dear Customer" or similar – Chris H Apr 3 at 10:03
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    You suggest that this option "doesn't deal with the unknown gender of the recipient", but that's entirely untrue - you just assume they're a man. To me, this seems a bit like addressing every letter "Dear Steve" - maybe the recipient's name is Steve, and if it's not, they can figure it out. I don't see why you'd regularly use a salutation that you know will be inapplicable roughly half the time. – Nuclear Hoagie Apr 3 at 13:10

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