How To Write A Convincing Letter Of Recommendation

If you’ve ever been asked to write a letter of recommendation for a coworker, a former employee, or even a friend, you already know just how much of a challenge it can be—even if you genuinely have nothing but good things to say about that person.

Of course, it’s flattering to be trusted with such an important task. But reference letters are particularly tricky to write when someone is counting on you to do them justice in the eyes of a hiring manager. You want your message to be professional, thoughtful, and embellished with personal details that help your friend or former colleague stand out from the crowd. But you need to be concise about it, because the reality is that your reference letter is just one of many that a hiring team may be sifting through. (No pressure or anything!)

On top of all that, you also need to factor in your own time commitment. Strong letters of recommendation require a considerable amount of time and energy to write, so the thought of blocking off time in your already busy schedule to draft a reference letter might seem like a daunting task in and of itself.

All that to say, there are a lot of reasons why writing a letter of recommendation can be nerve-wracking— but that doesn’t mean it always has to be. Here’s what you need to know before, during, and after drafting a reference letter, plus a few tips to help guide you along the way:

Collect the background information you need

Before you even begin writing, make sure you know what purpose your letter of recommendation will be serving. Whether the goal is to help the “recommendee” land a new job, apply for an academic program, or something else entirely, knowing their intentions from the get-go makes a difference in how you’ll frame your letter.

Ask the person you’re writing the letter of recommendation for to supply you with the following:

  • Who to address the letter to: contact information, job title, etc.
  • An up-to-date resume
  • A description of the position or program they’re applying for
  • Specific information, work history, or personal characteristics they’d like you to highlight
  • A deadline for the letter to be sent
  • Submission guidelines, if applicable

While you’re waiting to compose that letter of recommendation, review these tips on how not to write a work email.

Letter of recommendation format: what to include

Once you’re ready to actually start writing, it’s easiest to follow this standard formula:

Section 1: a brief introduction and statement of recommendation

In general, it’s a good idea to open your letter by introducing yourself and establishing how you know the recommendee. Get straight to the point here—just a sentence or two works perfectly.

Example: My name is [Name], and it is my pleasure to strongly recommend [Name] for [position] at [Company]. [Name] and I worked closely together at [Company] for [length of time].

Section 2: reasons why you feel this person is qualified for the position

Next, you’ll want to bring up some of the recommendee’s specific strengths. Try to come up with at least two or three that relate to the position they’re applying for. For example, if they’re seeking a management role, start by talking about their leadership skills or experience with managing other team members.

Example: During our time together, [Name] was/has been an invaluable asset to our team. Not only is [Name] incredibly hardworking and organized, but [he/she/they have/has] continually volunteered to train new hires on our company’s best practices in [subject area/procedure]. In addition, [his/her/their] consistently positive attitude always helps the team stay motivated despite any challenges we may face throughout the day.

Section 3: a personal anecdote or details/support to back your claim

To strengthen your recommendation even further, be sure to sprinkle in personal details or elaborate on a specific time that you remember this person going above and beyond. If you can quantify this with specific metrics, percentages, or numbers, even better.

Example: In particular, [Name]’s knowledge of [subject area] played a huge role in helping our team accomplish [specific achievement or goal] this past year. [Elaborate and include personal details.]

Section 4: a brief closing statement with your contact information

It’s always helpful to provide a way for the hiring team to contact you if they have any further questions, and it also further proves to the hiring manager or recruiter that your recommendation is genuine.

Example: I wholeheartedly believe that [Name] would make a fantastic addition to your staff. Should you have any questions or need any further information, please feel free to contact me at [phone number] or [email]. 

Helpful tips for writing a letter of recommendation

  1. Think carefully before saying yes. As a general rule of thumb, you should only agree to write a reference letter if you would genuinely recommend the person that’s asking without reservation. If that’s not the case, it’s totally acceptable to politely decline their request.
  2. Let the job description be your guide. If you’re having trouble coming up with what to write, try to sift through the job description and make mental notes of where the person’s qualifications and the job requirements match up. This will give you a general outline of the most important points to touch on, then you can simply fill in the blanks with your own personal details and anecdotes from there.
  3. Follow the submission guidelines closely. You don’t want to negatively impact your recommendee’s application status, so be sure to follow any directions that are provided to you. For example, if the company or organization requires you to format the letter in a specific way, be sure to plan for that in advance and structure your letter accordingly.

What to do after writing a letter of recommendation

Once you’ve drafted your letter of recommendation, be sure to proofread it for spelling, grammatical errors, and typos—you didn’t write it in a rush, so you don’t want it to come off that way.

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After submitting it according to the company’s submission guidelines, you typically don’t need to do anything else, but it is always nice to give the person you wrote the letter for peace of mind by letting them know you’ve submitted it. Additionally, if you included your email or phone number, be sure to be available if the hiring team does contact you with any further questions.

After that, all that’s left to do is celebrate when the recommendee (hopefully!) lands the job of their dreams, thanks in part to your glowing recommendation.

Refine that résumé with these useful tips to ensure you're a shoe-in for that coveted job.

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