How to Write a Letter of Recommendation

If you've been asked to write a letter of recommendation and need guidance, here's what you need to know to provide a properly structured letter.

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By Entrepreneur Staff • Jan 20, 2023

If you are in any leadership position, you will likely have to write a letter of recommendation for an employee, coworker, student or intern.

Being asked to write a letter of recommendation means the request is from someone who respects your word and trusts your judgment. To write the best letter possible, follow along for tips, tricks, templatesand more.

What is a letter of recommendation?

A letter of recommendation is a letter from a professional contact in your network — past or present — endorsing you for a job or position. Generally, reference letters are used during an application process for admissions or employment, but may be part of entry into a professional program or organization.

Letters of recommendation should speak to the candidate's personal qualities, like:

  • Integrity
  • Intellect
  • Leadership potential
  • Work ethic
  • Attitude

Related: Why Are Reference Letters Important for Getting a Job?

Types of letters of recommendation

You may write a letter of recommendation in a few different capacities. While your audience will be different, the sentiment is the same: as the letter writer, you want to spotlight the individual's strongest or most relevant characteristics.

Academic letters

When a current or former student asks you for a letter of recommendation, they might not have any work experience.

However, your role is to focus on their academic performance, character traits and any pertinent extracurricular activities. Tailor your writing to show why this student would be an excellent fit for the program.

Application scenarios for academic letters can include:

  • Undergraduate acceptance
  • Collegiate educational program (honors societies and advanced courses)
  • Post-graduate school (medical, law, graduate)
  • Scholarship or grant
  • Fellowship or internship

Professional letters

It is common for candidates to ask former employers or professional mentors for a letter of recommendation during a job search. A former employee moving to another position can still mean an amicable relationship and a no-hard-feelings parting of ways.

The most significant difference between an academic and a professional letter is the weight put on the two essential parts: the personal and the professional.

When writing a letter for a former student, it is acceptable to include more personal attributes and anecdotes as long as formal information is also included. However, a professional letter should largely avoid focusing too heavily on the personal.

Additionally, some positions may require candidates to provide both professional and personal references, where personal references speak more to the overall character of the applicant.

Related: 7 Ways to Boost Client Retention and Prepare for Inflation

Real estate referral letters

One type of letter of recommendation that might not immediately come to mind is a real estate referral letter. Sometimes landlords request a letter of recommendation for a prospective tenant.

This type of letter should speak to positive experiences with the candidate, including ones that speak to what would make them a good tenant.

Another example is during a bidding war; sellers sometimes care about who the new occupant will be. In this case, a letter of recommendation should explain why the candidate deserves the house, would treat the place well and what the new home would mean in their life.

Related: Getting the Best Testimonials From Clients to Use in Your Marketing

10 tips to write a good letter of recommendation

What you include in your letter of recommendation matters. Remember, you are playing a role in a decision that could change someone's future, so how you create your final product and what it includes matters.

1. Start with good information

When you are asked to complete a letter of recommendation, it's vital to have direction. While many letters are relatively standard, prompts often call for specific traits or examples about the candidate.

To write as accurately as possible, ask your subject to provide the following:

  • Job description or academic program description and requirements
  • Updated resume
  • Specific skills, achievements or qualifications they want to be highlighted
  • Any other helpful documentation like transcripts

Related: What's My Job, Again? The Fine Art of Crafting the Job Description

2. Be personable

The recipient of your letter should receive personal insight about the subject. To do this, you should provide the necessary details about your relationship with the subject and paint a picture of what the recipient might find valuable.

As you draft your letter, consider what the recipient might want to know about the person in question and speak to that. Writing with a positive attitude is also best practice, no matter the purpose of the letter.

3. Make it anecdotal

One of the best strategies to make a letter personable is to use anecdotal evidence. You can describe situations that highlight relevant character traits. You can also tell a short story that highlights the subject's personality.

Anecdotes capture the reader's attention much more than a generic list of personal qualities. Don't just mention the subject's quality; show how you've seen that quality in action.

Related: Why Storytelling Is a Skill that Every Entrepreneur Should Practice

4. Use facts

Anecdotal evidence is a great way to tell a story, but that story can also be boosted by concrete evidence. Concrete evidence includes quantitative examples of the subject's performance.

This can be grades, achieved merits, performance history or anything else you might have data for.

5. Highlight the positives

If someone asks you for a letter of recommendation, you likely have a positive relationship, which is essential to highlight in your writing.

You do not need to go overboard to the point of gushing; however, you should exhibit your genuine enthusiasm for the candidate and avoid negative comments. Superlative comments can be a powerful way to highlight your positive experience with the subject.

6. Use specific details

Details make all the difference. Your writing should show who your candidate is through rich and convincing details. You should not simply list a story or statistic and move on.

7. Stay formal, stay concise

Letters of recommendation are a delicate balance of showing professional affection and establishing authority. In addition, while using anecdotal and quantitative evidence, remember to keep it concise.

The recipient of your letter is likely an admissions officer or hiring manager who reads countless documents like this one. Capture their attention, get your point across and respect their time.

Finally, ensure you use a professional font to complete the formal aesthetic.

Professional fonts include:

  • Times New Roman
  • Arial
  • Cambria
  • Georgia

Related: How To Craft the Perfect Professional Letter

8. Impress the impact

When someone decides to enter into the job application process, it's a big deal. Whether it's someone's first job or the promotion of a lifetime, your voice in the process matters. Impress the impact this opportunity could have on the subject.

Could it pave the way for the rest of their career? Could it put them on the right academic trajectory? Does it align with their overall aspirations?

9. Follow the guidelines

While this might seem like a no-brainer, the guidelines matter. If there is a word count, due date or specific submission form, stick to the instructions to ensure everything goes smoothly.

10. Say no if you need to

While it might be difficult to turn someone down, if you don't think you'll be able to give your all to a letter of recommendation, you should not write one.

Two reasons not to write a letter of recommendation are:

  • You're unable to, in good conscience, write a positive recommendation.
  • You're unable to dedicate the necessary effort to the task within the specific time constraints.

Related: Why Setting Boundaries Is the Secret to Preserving Energy and Focusing on What Matters

5 mistakes to avoid in a letter of recommendation

When writing a letter of recommendation, there are certain dos and don'ts. Now that you've seen the dos, it's time to cover what not to do when drafting your letter.

1. Don't generalize

Again, your letter should show, not tell. To achieve this, avoid general language with vague statements about the subject. Broad descriptions do not help the candidate. Stick to the specific anecdotes and evidence that paint a picture of who they are.

2. Avoid the basics

When describing the candidate, avoid talking about basic, bare minimum skills. Showing that the subject can adhere to basic expectations does not do anything to set them apart from the crowd.

Basic expectations include:

  • Punctual to events and with assignments
  • Respectful
  • Organized
  • Compliant
  • Professional
  • Hard-working

3. Try not to be too one-sided

A letter of recommendation should describe the candidate as a whole — their personal character and professional attributes. This means that you'll need to speak to your relationship and their performance. Failing to illustrate one side or the other makes for a flat, incomplete letter.

4. Refrain from being critical

Your letter is meant to highlight the candidate, so it should not include cheeky compliments or subtle critiques. Unless the instructions specifically ask for weaknesses or potential growth areas, you should avoid mentioning any negatives.

Related: 5 Steps to Providing Constructive Criticism

5. Don't forget to let them know who you are

You should introduce yourself and your relationship with the candidate at the beginning of your letter. This can give the recipient a better idea of who you are and why you are qualified to submit the letter. Establishing this introduction is vital to building the credibility of your letter.

What to include in a letter of recommendation

A letter of recommendation should include three parts: an opening, a body and a closing. However, within those components are subgroups of what content to include.

The components that every letter of recommendation should include are:

  • Official letterhead: From your school or business
  • Date: Entire month, day and year
  • Your name: First and last (and any credentials you hold)
  • Contact information:Phone number or email
  • Salutation: If possible, address the recipient by name
  • Introduce yourself: Your position and your relationship to the candidate
  • The recommendation: Describe the applicant, anecdotes and qualifications
  • Closing statement: Restate why you recommend the candidate
  • Sign off: Send a thank you and include a signature

Letter of recommendation template

You've been briefed on what to include in an effective letter of recommendation and the proper format. Take a look below for a flexible template you can tweak for each type of letter.

Date

Your Name

Phone Number/Email Address

Dear [appropriate title],

My name is [your name], and I am writing to offer my sincere recommendation of [candidate name] to [name of company/institution].

Over the past [amount of time you've known the candidate], I have gotten to know [candidate name] as his/her/their [your position].

In this capacity, I have had the opportunity to observe and interact with [candidate name]. I can say with confidence he/she/they make an excellent fit for [company/institution name] because of his/her/their [specific attributes].

[Dedicate one or two paragraphs illustrating specific examples of the candidate's character and performance. Remember to include a combination of anecdotal and quantitative evidence to form an entire picture of the candidate.]

It is my pleasure to recommend [candidate name] to your program, as I know his/her/their [one or two positive attributes] would contribute significantly to your community/company/institution.

Thank you for your time,

[your name and credentials]

How you can write a great recommendation letter

Being asked to write a letter of recommendation will likely happen at some point. It is crucial to have a positive relationship with the candidate and enough experience with them to write a letter of substance.

Remember, when writing letters of recommendation, a strong recommendation includes:

  • Non-cliché candidate attributes
  • Anecdotal evidence
  • Quantitative evidence

Potential employers or future education institutions choose the candidate they think will be the best fit for them.

To do that, they must have a complete picture of the candidate. When asked to write a letter of recommendation, ensure you have the time to dedicate to the letter-writing process.

Explore the rest of Entrepreneur.com for more information on the job application process and other professional writing tips and tricks.

Entrepreneur Staff

Entrepreneur Staff

Editor

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