How to Write a Letter of Recommendation
Updated 26 February 2021
A letter of a recommendation is written by a previous employer detailing the qualities and skills a job candidate can bring to a new position.
Letters of recommendation, otherwise known as reference letters, confirm as accurate the information provided to the potential new employer in the applicant’s resume and cover letter. Typically they also offer words of support for their application.
Letters of recommendation are essentially a vote of confidence for the candidate and are a simple way of ensuring that communication between the potential and previous employer is easy and fuss-free.
A manager, co-worker, supervisor or teacher might be asked to write a letter of recommendation for someone they have worked with.
A good recommendation letter is written by someone who is familiar with the candidate and able to talk positively about the ways in which the candidate has benefitted the workplace. They will also be in a position where their authority and experience will be of relevance to the new employer.
It is the norm nowadays for businesses to request recommendation letters during the job application process, so getting it right has never been more important.
What You Should Consider Before Saying Yes
When writing a letter of recommendation, you should ensure that you are comfortable writing positively about the candidate and have the proper time to devote to writing it.
If you feel as though you don’t know the person well enough to write competently about their skills and qualities, or you don’t believe that their skills and qualities merit praise, then writing a letter of recommendation on their behalf is probably not in your – or their – best interest.
Contributing a vague letter that could be about anyone, or one that is written in haste, could be detrimental to the employee’s application and is arguably worse than providing no letter at all.
Information You Will Need Before Getting Started
There are a number of things you can do to ensure that you are on the right track when writing a letter of recommendation.
When you are first approached to write it, you should ensure that you have a copy of the job description. Making yourself aware of what the employer is looking for in a new employee will allow you to appropriately place emphasis on the relevant qualities.
Use examples of what your former employee has done while working with you to give evidence of these chacracteristics. Using keywords straight from the job listing within your letter is a good tactic when writing a letter of recommendation.
It is even better to use figures and statistics to add value to your examples. For example, if they were responsible for a particular project that brought in a certain percentage of business, or improved profits by a particular percentage.
If possible, discuss the letter with the candidate and find out as much as possible about the company that they are hoping to join and the factors that they’d like you to highlight within your letter. This will help you put together a letter of recommendation that will work in their favour. If it’s been a few years since you have worked with them, ask them for a copy of their resume.
Sometimes, applicants may have drafted their own letter that they would like you to sign – this is fine, but whatever is written must reflect your true thoughts. If this is the case, you should keep a copy of the letter for your records, just in case the employer calls with questions about it.
What to Include and What to Avoid
Your letter of recommendation should be considered a supporting document to the applicant's resume and cover letter, and should complement everything they are saying. Ultimately, your recommendation should leave the employer confident in their decision to hire the applicant. Using particular vocabulary such as ‘without reservation’ or else specifying that you ‘would work with them again’ are useful ploys.
At some point in your letter, you should address their skills and strengths, their dependability, their consistency and their motivation.
If it is relevant to the application and you know them on a more personal level, you should also take the time to discuss their character and any contributions they have made to the company on a more personal level – perhaps they participated in a fundraiser, or went above and beyond the call of duty in some way.
If they have any company-based accomplishments, such as an award, or if they have beaten targets, then mention this.
You should also share your contact information with the employer; they might have further questions to ask you about things that you have – or haven’t – included in your letter. As such, add your phone number or your email address at the end of your letter.
At the same time, you should be careful about what information you do include, as there are things to avoid if you can:
- Do not speak negatively about the candidate – If you feel as though you cannot make a positive recommendation, then you are within your rights to turn down the request to write the letter.
- Do not lie – Your reputation is at stake here too; if you endorse someone who you actually don’t think will perform well in the position they are applying for, then this could come back to haunt you in the future.
- Don’t exaggerate accomplishments – Making someone sound beyond perfect will not benefit them in the long run and will be easy to spot. Overexaggerating can diminish the overall effectiveness of your letter and may be detrimental.
How to Format Your Recommendation Letter
A good structure to follow when writing the perfect letter of recommendation is as follows, based on three parts:
- A short paragraph that describes the nature of your relationship with the applicant and how long you have known them. Here you can describe their role in the company and how closely you worked with them. Also, mention why you are a good person to write the recommendation letter.
- A second paragraph highlighting the applicant’s skills and their accomplishments while they were working for you. You should provide specific examples of how they have used their skills to accomplish a task or a project. Keep the examples brief but detailed.
- Finally, end the letter with a summary, explaining exactly why you would recommend this applicant and to what degree – words like ‘wholeheartedly’ come in handy here.
With regards to the length of the letter, keep it short – one side of A4 is usually enough to effectively voice your thoughts on an applicant.
Write your letter in a formal way, introducing yourself and addressing the recipient by name, or as ‘To Whom It May Concern’ if you haven’t been given information on who they are specifically. End with a suitable closing such as ‘Yours sincerely/faithfully’ or ‘Kind regards’, and ensure you include your contact information.
The recommendation letter format is not critical, but sticking to a traditional format is recommended if you want to make sure you have included everything.
Recommendation Letter Example
Whilst all letters of recommendation should be unique and tailored, understanding how the letter is structured will be beneficial to you as the writer. An example is as follows:
[Your title within the company]
[Address, city, and zip code]
[Salutation: To Whom It May Concern, Dear Mr X, Dear Dr Y, etc.]
My name is David Williams and I am the managing director of Williams and Co. I was asked by John Smith to write a letter of recommendation and I am very happy to do so. As the managing director of my company, I had the pleasure of taking on John when he graduated from college. Incredibly motivated, bright and willing to learn, John was the ideal candidate for the role he later went on to excel in.
In the three years that I worked with John, I was impressed by his resilience, his initiative and his willingness to stay on top of the latest information in the field.
John has exceptional sales skills, which he uses proactively to acquire new clients, and I could always rely on him to meet deadlines and hit targets. John was part of a team that increased our profit margin by 15% over a six-month period, an achievement for which he was highly commended.
While John’s ability to work independently was appreciated, he was also renowned as an excellent team player and was very easy to get along with. John would be an asset to your team.
With all of this in mind, I am more than happy to recommend John and do so confidently. I believe that John would make a valuable contribution to your team and would fit in well.
If you would like to speak to me further about my experience working with John, please get in touch with me by email at email@example.com or else call me on 111-222-4444.
Williams and Co.
To summarize, a letter of recommendation should follow a particular format and include useful information. You should only agree to write the letter if you know the applicant very well and are able to talk positively about their work.
You should make it perfectly clear how you know the applicant, what relationship you have with them and how long you have worked together.
You should support your letter with examples of their particular skill set, focusing on those skills mentioned in the job advertisement. Ensure that everything you say is relevant to the position they are applying for.
Include your information at the end of the letter and welcome the reader to contact you if they have any additional questions. Your willingness to discuss the candidate is key.
Your letter should be short enough that it will be read thoroughly, but long enough that you have included all the necessary information, to give the applicant the best chance of being called for interview or offered the job.