A Guide to Writing Recommendation Letters

How to write a recommendation letter: explain your relationship to the applicant, evaluate the applicant's skills and qualifications, include specific examples that illustrate the applicant's strengths, summarize why you would recommend the applicant

ThoughtCo / Hilary Allison

A recommendation letter is a type of letter that provides a written reference and recommendation for inclusion. If you write a recommendation letter for someone else, you are essentially "vouching" for that person and saying that you believe in him or her in some way.

Components of a Recommendation Letter

Every recommendation letter should include three key components:

  • A paragraph or sentence that explains how you know this person and the duration of your relationship with them.
  • An evaluation of the person and their skills/accomplishments. If possible offer specific examples that illustrate the person’s strengths and qualifications. These examples should be brief but detailed.
  • A summary that explains why you would recommend this person and to what degree you would recommend them.​

Who Needs a Recommendation Letter?

Recommendation letters are generally used by students applying to undergraduate and graduate schools and scholarship or fellowship programs, and by people in the workforce who are applying for jobs. For example:

  • Individuals who are applying to business school or an MBA program typically needs to two three recommendations that explain why they are a good candidate for business school. The recommendation might explain why they have leadership potential or how they have succeeded in past academic or business pursuits. 
  • Some scholarship programs require applicants to submit recommendations to support their scholarship application. This is most common in merit-based programs that award scholarships based on academic merit, volunteer experience, etc. 
  • A job seeker may also need a written professional reference or recommendation that explains or supports the reasons why the job seeker is a good candidate for a particular position or company. These letters tend to focus on professional qualifications. 

Before You Write a Recommendation Letter

At some point in your life, you may need to write a recommendation letter for a former employee, co-worker, student, or someone else that you know well. Writing a recommendation letter for another person is a large responsibility and should be taken very seriously. Before you agree to the task, make sure you have a clear understanding of what the letter will be used for and who will be reading it. This will make it easier for you to write for your audience.

You should also make sure that you know what kind of information is being expected from you. For example, someone might need a letter highlighting their leadership experience, but if you don't know anything about that person's leadership capability or potential, you're going to have a hard time coming up with something to say. Or if they need a letter about their work ethic and you submit something about their ability to work well in teams, the letter won't be very helpful.

If you feel that you can not properly convey the necessary information, because you're busy or don't write well, offer to sign a letter that has been drafted by the person who is requesting the reference. This is a very common practice and often works well for both parties. However, before you sign something written by someone else, make sure that the letter honestly reflects your true opinion. You should also keep a copy of the final letter for your records.

What to Include in a Recommendation Letter

The content of the recommendation letter that you write will depend upon the needs of the person who is requesting the letter, but there are some common topics that are typically addressed in recommendation letters for job and education program applicants:

  • Potential (such as leadership potential)
  • Skills/Abilities/Strengths 
  • Dependability
  • Consistence
  • Persistence
  • Motivation
  • Character
  • Contributions (to class or community)
  • Accomplishments​

Sample Recommendation Letters

You should never copy content from another recommendation letter; the letter that you write should be fresh and original. However, looking at a few sample recommendation letters is a good way to get inspiration for the letter that you are writing. Sample letters can help you to better understand the components of a letter and the types of things that typical recommenders focus on when writing a recommendation for a job seeker, college applicant, or graduate school candidate. 

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Your Citation
Schweitzer, Karen. "A Guide to Writing Recommendation Letters." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/guide-to-writing-recommendation-letters-466071. Schweitzer, Karen. (2021, February 16). A Guide to Writing Recommendation Letters. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/guide-to-writing-recommendation-letters-466071 Schweitzer, Karen. "A Guide to Writing Recommendation Letters." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/guide-to-writing-recommendation-letters-466071 (accessed March 29, 2023).