If you've been asked to write a letter of recommendation, it's because you've been able to build a positive and professional relationship with someone who values your opinion. However, even the most articulate and well-intentioned person can struggle with putting their thoughts into words when it comes to writing a letter of recommendation. Whether you're writing a letter for a former employee, a colleague, or a student, it's important to know what to include and how to present your thoughts in a clear and concise manner.
Let’s dive into the key components of a strong letter of recommendation and some tips for making your letter stand out.
What is a letter of recommendation?
A professional letter of recommendation is a document that a job seeker uses to stand out from the crowd when trying to find a job. Anyone who has a professional association with another person can write a letter of recommendation, including teachers, supervisors, volunteer coordinators, coaches, and mentors. A letter of recommendation is different to a reference, in that a reference is usually given over the phone as a casual part of a conversation.
If you have the ability to attest to a person's skills, abilities, and accomplishments in a professional or academic setting, then you can write a letter of recommendation. In the end, you’re attempting to help the recipient to make an informed decision about the person's candidacy for a job, academic program, scholarship, or other opportunity.
Should you always say “yes” to someone asking for a letter of recommendation?
It’s a great honor to write a recommendation letter for someone. You’re in a position to help propel their career journey forward to new and great places. However, sometimes, the correct answer to “Will you write a letter of recommendation?” should be “No.” You should only agree to write a letter if you’re confident that you can provide a positive and meaningful recommendation.
Of course, you don’t want to come across as heartless and cruel. As there are several reasons to decline to write a letter of recommendation for someone:
You may not know the person well enough
You may know them, but haven’t worked with them, so you can’t attest to their skills or achievements
If you’ve worked with them and know there are skills or knowledge they lack, then you can’t talk about how great they are at a particular thing
If you’ve seen them act in a less-than-professional manner, it’s probably a good idea to deny the request for a letter of recommendation, as character is just as important as skills
You may simply not have the time to commit to writing a well-crafted letter; it’s better for the requester to have no letter than it is to have a poorly written letter
Not only does a letter of recommendation reflect on the person you’re writing it for, but it reflects on you, too. You should only agree to write a letter for someone if you can guarantee a high-quality document that lauds the requester as someone who should be selected for a position.
How to write a recommendation letter
Writing a letter of recommendation is a simple and effective way to support your star employee and to help them to achieve their professional goals. In fact, it’s so simple that there are only six steps or details that should be included in a letter of recommendation:
An introduction: Begin by introducing yourself and stating your relationship to the person for whom you are writing the letter. Include your job title and how long you’ve known the person.
The why: Explain the purpose of the letter, why you’re writing it, and the specific opportunity for which the person is applying. This will help you to tailor your letter to the recipient's needs.
Skills: Provide specific examples of the person's skills, accomplishments, and qualifications that relate to the opportunity. Use concrete examples and statistics whenever possible and try to be as detailed as you can.
Company culture: Every person reading your letter will want to know that the individual you’re recommending will fit within their team dynamics. Discuss the person's character and work ethic. This can include their attitude, dependability, leadership qualities, and other traits that are relevant to the opportunity.
Call to action: Offer your contact information so that the reader can reach out to you if they have additional questions. You can choose how they contact you by including your email address or phone number.
Sign it: As with any letter, it must be signed. Your signature on the document helps to authenticate it.
One of the most important tips in writing a letter of recommendation is to be honest and specific. Making generalizations or including irrelevant information will not help the person for whom you’re writing the letter. Focus on the individual's strengths and achievements as they relate to the job they want to get, use the active voice, and keep it positive and enthusiastic.
Letter of recommendation template
If you’re the type of person who needs a visual guideline for writing a letter of recommendation for someone, you can use this template:
Your letterhead with company name, address, phone number, and email.
LETTER OF RECOMMENDATION:
Dear Hiring Manager (or To Whom It May Concern),
It is my pleasure to recommend [NAME] for [POSITION]. As [HIS/HER] manager for the last six years, I was astounded at [NAME]’s ability to leverage [SOFT SKILL] and expertise with [TECHNICAL SKILL] to attain [ACHIEVEMENT].
[NAME]’s knowledge of [SUBJECT MATTER] has been instrumental in resolving [CHALLENGE]. [HIS/HER] commitment to excellence is second to none. It was consistently obvious that [NAME] enjoyed challenges and always found a way to navigate obstacles to bring projects to a successful conclusion.
While it is hard to lose someone as valued as [NAME], I know [HE/SHE] has great things coming [HIS/HER] way, making [HIM/HER] a value to any organization. Please feel free to contact me at [PHONE/EMAIL] should you have questions or desire further clarification on the benefits of having [NAME] on your team.
Some expert writing tips for your letter of recommendation
When someone asks you to write a letter of recommendation, take a moment to do a little research into what that person needs the letter to do for them. Everything that person does to secure a new role needs to be tailored to the position being sought. Ask what opportunity the letter will be used for and get a copy of the individual’s resume. You may know what the requester has done for you and your team, but some insight into his or her career background will give you more substance.
Use concrete examples to demonstrate the person's skills and accomplishments and to provide details that illustrate achievements and potential. Emphasize the person's strengths and unique qualities that make them a strong candidate for the opportunity they are pursuing.
Customize the letter to the opportunity
When you find out what the letter of recommendation will be used for, use those details. Tailoring the letter using specific qualifications and experiences ensures that what the individual presents is relevant. This will help him or her to achieve the goal. In alignment with customizing the letter, be sure to submit it in the manner that is instructed by the receiver. If it’s for a job opportunity, follow the directions in the job description. Likewise, if the letter of recommendation is for an educational program, follow the program instructions.
Proofread the letter
This may seem like a no-brainer but, considering the impact the letter can have on the person’s future, proofreading it is a must. On top of having the letter reflect positively on the person requesting it, you also want it to shine a positive light in your direction. It will, after all, have your name and company on it. If the letter has errors that go uncorrected, that could raise questions about your capacity to offer sound judgment on the qualifications of the person for whom you write the letter.
The letter of recommendation you write should provide specific examples of the person's skills and accomplishments. It’s also a good place to address any questions or concerns the recipient may have about the person's qualifications. A well-written letter of recommendation can be a valuable asset for a job seeker or student, as it can help them to stand out from other applicants and provide additional evidence of their qualifications and potential for success.
Marsha Hebert, Professional Resume Writer
Marsha is a resume writer with a strong background in marketing and writing. After completing a Business Marketing degree, she discovered that she could combine her passion for writing with a natural talent for marketing. For more than 10 years, Marsha has helped companies and individuals market themselves. Read more advice from Marsha on ZipJob's blog.