Being asked to write a letter of recommendation is an honor, because it means that person values your opinion and believes that you are knowledgeable and influential enough to influence their chances of getting a job or a spot at a university.
But if you’ve never written one before, you might be wondering where to start. There’s something at stake for the person requesting the letter, so if you want to help them, you naturally want to write a powerful letter.
Check out our tips with everything you need to know about writing the perfect recommendation letter so your words can have maximum impact.
Who Writes a Letter of Recommendation?
A letter of recommendation should be provided by someone who knows the candidate well and can attest to their work ethic, character, or other qualities that are relevant to the position being sought.
In general, the person writing a letter of recommendation should know the candidate in some sort of professional context (i.e., not a family member or close friend writing about how great the candidate is).
Here are some examples of individuals who might be asked to write letters of recommendation:
- Former or current employers
- Leaders of clubs/organizations
- Former clients
- Former colleagues
Why Is a Letter of Recommendation Important?
Whether a person is applying to a university, for a new job, or for a grant, letters of recommendation are an important part of the application process because they provide insight to the candidate’s qualifications and personality.
A letter of recommendation can reveal things the the candidate might not even realize about themselves. In this way, it gives employers or universities a more complete profile of the candidate, which helps them to make decisions.
How Do You Write a Professional Letter of Recommendation?
Follow these steps to write a letter of recommendation that stands out and can support the candidate through their application process.
1. Think carefully before you say yes.
You’re not obligated to write a reference letter just because someone asks. Only agree to write one if you feel comfortable and if you know that you’ll be able to produce a letter by the deadline requested.
You might wish to decline a request if you don’t know the person well or haven’t worked with them long enough, if you can’t honestly recommend them based on their job performance, or if you simply don’t have time to write one.
If you need to turn down a request for a recommendation letter, tell the person right away. Be gracious, but don’t feel guilty about saying no.
You can say something as simple as, “I feel that I don’t know you well enough,” or, “I don’t think I’m the best person to write you a recommendation,” then perhaps suggest another person they could ask.
2. Follow a business letter format.
Always follow a professional business letter format (even if your “letter” is really an email).
This doesn’t mean that your letter needs to sound like it’s coming from the Dean of Harvard, but maintain a formal tone throughout the letter to keep it professional and make a strong impression.
Start with a brief intro ( a few sentences) about who you are and how you know the candidate, then spend the next paragraph of two talking about the candidate and their strengths, before wrapping it up with your contact information.
3. Ask for a job description.
Ask the candidate if they can provide a job description for the position they’re applying for. By understanding the requirements for the job, you can be sure to focus on the candidate’s relevant qualities in your letter.
Even if you’re asked to write a more general recommendation letter (which might be sent as part of several applications), you can still ask the candidate what kinds of jobs they plan on applying for, or what fields they plan on studying.
Your letter will be much more effective at helping the candidate’s chances if it’s tailored to their desired industry or position.
4. Explain your relationship.
Be sure to briefly explain the following:
- Your (professional) relationship with the candidate
- How long you’ve known them
- Under what circumstances you’ve worked together
The recipient of your letter will want to understand how far your relationship extends and if you can attest to the candidate’s character, personality, work performance, or all of the above.
5. Focus on their best traits.
Choose one or two of the candidate’s best traits to focus on in your letter. This will allow you time and space to delve deeper with support and evidence of those traits, rather than making a laundry list of qualities that are explained superficially.
(For instance, if you claim that the candidate is a true “team player,” mention the time they stayed late to help a new hire learn the ropes.)
Again, make sure the traits you’re highlighting are relevant to the position and illustrate why the candidate is the best person for the job.
6. Stay positive and write with conviction.
If you’ve agreed to write a letter of recommendation to support a candidate in getting a job, this one should be a no-brainer: say only positive things about the candidate, and write with conviction.
Make sure it’s clear that you are completely confident in the candidate’s abilities. Strong statements like “I recommend this candidate without reservation” or “I am certain that [candidate’s name] would be an excellent fit for this position” are a lot more powerful than “I think” or “I believe” statements.
7. Provide your contact information.
Always provide your contact information (name, phone number, email address), along with an invitation to contact you should the recipient have any questions or concerns.
The person receiving the letter might wish to verify that you do in fact exist and that you wrote the letter, or that claims made by the candidate in other parts of their application are true.
8. Submit your letter.
Ask the candidate how you should submit the letter (for example, do they need a simple email, a PDF, or a physical letter mailed in?).
Make sure you understand and meet the deadline for submission. (You should ask the candidate about deadlines before agreeing to write the letter, so you can be sure to deliver on time.)
What Should Be Written in a Letter of Recommendation?
A letter of recommendation should include certain elements, and will generally follow the structure outlined below.
Start your letter with “Dear [Recipient’s Name]:” (note that in formal letters, a colon, not a comma, should follow the salutation).
Ask the candidate for the name of the intended recipient. If they can’t provide a name, or if your letter is going to a large organization, go ahead and use “To Whom it May Concern.”
Explain your relationship to the candidate and how long you’ve known them. This paragraph should establish why you are qualified to serve as a witness to the person’s work or character.
The second paragraph should contain specific traits, along with examples or supporting evidence that back up those claims.
If necessary, add another short paragraph to include these details and really convey the candidate’s qualifications.
Briefly summarize why you believe the candidate is a perfect match, and make it clear that you highly recommend them without reservations.
Extend an invitation for the recipient to contact you should they have any questions or concerns, and include your contact information (phone number and email).
Use “sincerely” or another professional sign-off to conclude your letter, followed by your name and job title on the next two lines.
How Long Should a Recommendation Letter Be?
Typically, a solid letter of recommendation should be at least 3 paragraphs, but not more than 5, unless really necessary to discuss the candidate’s experiences.
Anything shorter suggests that you don’t really know the candidate well enough to write more about them, but writing more than 5 paragraphs (or one page, typed) risks losing the reader’s attention or boring them.
Choose powerful words (think quality over quantity), as well as action words that convey what the candidate does/has done, rather than describing them with a thousand adjectives.
Letter of Recommendation Sample
Below is a letter of recommendation sample that you can use as a guide when formatting your letter. You can also download the letter of recommendation sample as a PDF.
Dear Ms. Smart:
I am writing to you regarding Kimberly James, who has applied for the position of International Admissions Officer at your university. Kimberly has worked in my department as a transfer admissions counselor since graduating with honors from the University of Connecticut five years ago. We hired her immediately after graduation in part due to her outstanding performance as an intern the previous summer.
Kimberly has been a fantastic addition to my team. She assimilated easily into our department, quickly and thoroughly learning all of our admission guidelines, how to connect with applicants, and how to spot the most promising transfer students. Her enthusiasm for her work and her superb communication skills made her an instant asset to the team. Her positive attitude and ability to connect with others have made her particularly popular among our international transfer applicants, as well as her colleagues.
I highly recommend Kimberly without reservation for the position of International Admissions Officer. She has a tremendous amount of potential and would be an outstanding addition to your staff.
If you have further questions or would like to speak with me personally, please feel free to contact me.
A well-written letter of recommendation can give job candidates and college applicants the extra support they need to seal the deal.
It’s an honor to be asked for a letter of recommendation, and if you choose to accept the request, learning how to write a solid recommendation will definitely come in handy.
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