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Write Recommendation Letters for Success

By Stacie Heaps
Professional Writer and Editor



Recommendation letters, also known as reference letters or referral letters, are used to give information about you to a prospective boss, recommend you to an undergraduate or graduate program, nominate you for an award, position, or promotion, and so forth. A letter of recommendation is an easy, effective way by which your abilities and positive personal traits can be shared with others and from which decision-makers can evaluate your potential.

When Requesting Recommendation Letters

The benefits of requesting recommendation letters are numerous. For one thing, a letter of recommendation generally highlights your positive characteristics. It may include such things as your accomplishments while at school or in the workplace, and your strengths and capabilities as a student, employee, or co-worker. It may even include details about your personality and your relevant interests. Moreover, a letter of recommendation eliminates the need for the potential employer, academic evaluator, or judge to secure your references (a task that can at times be tedious and time-consuming). You do not want to be taken out of the running merely because someone was not able to verify your qualifications for the position.

Perhaps the best thing about sending a letter of recommendation is that writing it can often be more appealing to people than simply being included in a list of references because then they do not have to be put on the spot with an unexpected phone call from your prospective employer. When writing a letter, the recommender has time to carefully consider what he or she wishes to say about you and the best way to say it—and that may mean the difference between whether or not you get the job you want, get accepted to the school that you apply for, or receive the award for which you were nominated.

8 Recommendation Letters Tips to Remember

  • When requesting a recommendation letter, ask (preferably in person) someone who knows you fairly well and who you know will complete the task in time to meet your deadline.
  • Though it may seem obvious, ask someone who you are certain will give you a positive recommendation. If you are not sure how strong of a recommendation you might receive, just ask the person outright if she or he would feel comfortable writing a letter of recommendation for you. Be serious in your inquiry, and most people will give you an honest answer. Note: This is no time to try and be a mind reader—your future may be on the line!
  • Be courteous and give the potential writer adequate time to write a well-written, thoughtful letter and let him or her know your time constraints.
  • When requesting a recommendation letter, it is helpful to provide the writer with a copy of your current resume and cover letter. Your resume should list your accomplishments and your other relevant experience that make you an ideal candidate for the position, a description of the job or program you are interested in, and/or a current transcript or list of relevant courses you have taken in your high school, undergraduate, or graduate career. Remember, even if the person knows you fairly well, he or she will probably not be aware of all of your qualifications for the job or position. It may also be worthwhile to request an interview with the person so that you can talk about your experience and your reasons for wanting the position. You can also explain your goals, intended career path, course of study, and any other relevant information.
  • Though it is generally best to request letters of recommendation from someone in a professional setting, if you are applying for school or just entering the workforce and have little experience and few contacts, you can ask for character references from people who know you from school, church, or community organizations.
  • If the recommendation letter needs to be written using a certain format or be a certain length, include this information when making your request.
  • Always thank the recommender for being willing to write a letter for you. After the letter is sent, you might consider writing a short note expressing your thanks for the writer's willingness to help you achieve your scholastic or career goals.
  • In addition to requesting letters of recommendation as you near graduation, reference letters can be very important when changing careers or after you resign, have been laid off, or let go.

Note: If you resign or have been laid off, but left the company on good terms, a referral letter from a previous boss can show prospective employers that your position was not terminated because of any lack of performance on your part. Such a letter can explain the circumstances of your leaving and can illustrate the positive qualities you had as an employee.

When Writing Recommendation Letters

As mentioned above, writing recommendation letters can have several benefits, not only for the recipient (of course), but for the writer as well. Writing recommendation letters allows you to be able to reflect on what you would like to say about a person, and it often takes the place of a hurried (and sometimes awkward) phone call where you try to remember the qualifications and merits of the person a caller has asked you about. With a letter of reference you can include details about how you know the person (whether on a personal or professional level), his or her accomplishments or positive characteristics, and his or her career or educational goals or other relevant interests. Whether you know the individual personally or professionally, you can offer your opinion about whether or not she or he is qualified for the position being sought.

2 tips to remember:

  • Usually, do not agree to write a letter of recommendation for someone unless you know the person reasonably well and can honestly write a supportive letter. He or she will not benefit much from a vague or disinterested letter.
  • When you agree to write the letter, make sure that you know when the letter needs to be ready, how many versions of the letter the person would like, where the letters need to be mailed, and so forth.

Before you start:

  • Ask for materials that will give you a good idea of the person's qualifications, interests, and future plans and goals. A good place to start is by asking for a current resume and cover letter, a list of the person's accomplishments or experience, an academic transcript, writing samples, and/or as complete a description as possible of the position or program to which the person is applying.
  • It is often worthwhile to have a short interview with the person requesting the letter so that you can get a better idea of his or her accomplishments, background, interests, and other relevant information. An interview will generally enable you to write a more personalized letter and will allow you to discuss the purpose of the letter, his or her qualifications for the position, and the specific format or length of the letter, if applicable. During this interview you might also ask the applicant for a list of adjectives that he or she feels describes his or her personality, work habits, attitude, and so on. Finally, ask the person if there is anything else that he or she would like you to know or would like you to include in the letter.
  • Make a list of key words or phrases that pinpoint the person's skills or talents to help you write a detailed, convincing, concrete letter of recommendation. Ask yourself questions about the person's qualifications in a variety of areas, including his or her professional or academic merits or accomplishments (is he/she a leader, an analytical thinker?), personal qualities (gets along with co-workers/classmates, has a sense of humor or is fun to be with, a team player?), skills (communication skills, computer skills, foreign language proficiency?), weaknesses (what are they, how has the person worked to overcome them?), and potential (what is this person capable of achieving in the future?).
  • Gather and review all other relevant information you may have about the person you are recommending. It is easy to overlook some important accomplishment, so try to be as thorough as possible.

Writing the letter:

  • Once you have gathered your information together to write the letter, set aside one to two hours to write it. (Note: If you have been asked to write several versions of the letter for various companies or graduate programs, you do not necessarily need to take the time to write separate and distinct letters for each—you may be able to use similar formats and include much of the same information in each letter. The important thing is to tailor the letter to the person receiving it.)
  • Don't be too brief. A short letter is an indication that you do not know the person very well, that you were too busy to write a thorough, well-thought-out letter, or that you did not feel the person worthy of a longer, more detailed, more complimentary letter. On the other hand, don't ramble—make your letter concise and to the point.
  • Choose your words carefully and take your time. Here are a few adjectives that can be effective in describing the candidate: intelligent, hard working, self-motivated, responsible, proactive, dependable, assertive, charismatic, friendly, excellent communicator, flexible, creative, trustworthy, dedicated, confident, a team player.
  • Indicate how long you have known this person, and how well.
  • Be specific and use examples when describing the person's qualities. Show how this person stands out. What makes him or her special? Why should this person be chosen above all the other candidates? For example, "Jane Doe is a hard-working, dedicated student. She always completed her assignments on time, scored top marks on all of her tests, had excellent attendance, and was on time for class. She's the best student I've had in years." Include in your description such things as awards or promotions received, class ranking or accomplishments in extra-curricular activities, and the like.
  • Tailor the recommendation to the position. When asked to write more than one letter, don't just make copies of one generic letter—again, make the content match the position. Highlight the candidate's characteristics that match the job or graduate program requirements or goals.
  • Include information about the person that the recipients of the letter would be most interested in; try to put yourself in their shoes.
  • Tell things about the candidate that you know firsthand. Personal accounts are more convincing than hearsay.
  • State your own qualifications for assessing this person's merit. How closely did you work with him or her, what is your position, what is your schooling/training, what have you accomplished in your own field?
  • Remember to sign the letter before mailing it.
  • Keep both hard copies and electronic copies of every letter you send in clearly marked file folders. Alphabetize by first or last name, whichever you will remember most easily. Make sure you can find the again in case you need to write another letter or send another copy of one you have already written.

Typical Format for This Type of Letter

Although recommendation letters are written to a wide variety of people for a variety of reasons, most follow a standard format. When writing your referral letter, keep the following points in mind:

  • Use your own professional letterhead, if available.
  • Letters of recommendation are typically written within a professional context, so word processing is generally the preferred medium. However, depending on the audience of the letter, a neat, handwritten letter may indicate an added interest and even affection for the person. Caveat: In this electronic information age, some people may see a handwritten letter as hasty and sloppy, and some may view it as an indication that you are not serious about the person whom you are recommending.
  • The length of letters of recommendation can vary, but five or six paragraphs is usually the minimum. However, be clear and concise. This is almost always more effective than being flowery or long-winded. Avoid using jargon, and use language that is straightforward and to the point.

Introduction

  • Introduce yourself. Start your letter by explaining your relationship with the candidate and why you are writing the letter. For example, "I was John Doe's supervisor for three years at XYZ Corporation." Describe the type of experience you had with the candidate, the length of time of your association, and the time period (include dates) of your acquaintance. State your position and where you work, if applicable.
  • You may want to give your general overall impression of the candidate here, but don't get too specific yet. Leave the nuts and bolts for the body of your letter.

Body

  • The body of the letter should provide specific information about the candidate such as personal characteristics or traits, special abilities, strengths, or experience. You may also want to include future potential, career or educational goals, and so forth.
  • Be sure to qualify or amplify your descriptions with concrete examples and meaningful, relevant anecdotes.

Conclusion

  • State in your conclusion the ways in which you feel the candidate can contribute to the company, university, or other organization he or she is seeking to enter.
  • It is often helpful, particularly with longer letters, to restate your main points before you close.
  • Write a strong ending. Reiterate your belief that the candidate has the ability to successfully fill the position he or she is presently seeking.
  • Include your contact information. Indicate that you would be happy to answer any questions the recipient might have and provide further information if needed.

Summary

Recommendation letters can be the pivotal factor in getting the job or promotion that you want, being accepted to the school you hope to attend and/or program you wish to study, or even receiving the award you deserve. If you are the writer of a letter of recommendation, you can help someone else to move forward in their professional career. These letters can be very persuasive because they outline a person's capabilities, accomplishments, goals, and potential. For this reason, letters of referral are an essential part of any application process.

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