How to Write a Letter of Recommendation

An businessman receiving a letter of recommendation
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How do you begin writing a letter of recommendation? It's a common question because this is a big responsibility that could determine the future of an employee, student, colleague, or someone else you know. Letters of recommendation follow a typical format and layout, so it is useful to understand what to include, things to avoid, and how to get started. Whether you're requesting a letter or writing one, a few helpful tips will make the process much easier.

Why You Might Need a Letter of Recommendation

There are several reasons why you might need a letter of recommendation. For instance, many business schools ask students to supply a letter of recommendation from a former employer or direct supervisor as part of the admissions process. You may also need the recommendation to serve as a career reference when applying for a new job or to impress potential clients. In some cases, a letter of recommendation can also serve as a character reference if you are trying to rent an apartment, get membership in a professional organization, or if you are in some sort of legal trouble. 

Writing a Recommendation for an Employee

When writing a recommendation, it is important to craft an original letter that is tailored to the person you're recommending. You should never copy text directly from a sample letter—this is equivalent to copying a resume from the internet—it makes both you and the subject of your recommendation look bad.

To make your recommendation original and effective, try including specific examples of the subject's achievements or strengths as an academic, employee, or leader. Keep your comments concise and to the point. Your letter should be less than one page, so edit it down to a couple of examples that you think will be the most helpful in the circumstance.

You may also want to speak with the person you're recommending about their needs. Do they need a letter that highlights work ethic? Would they prefer a letter that addresses aspects of their potential in a particular area? You don't want to say anything that is untrue, but knowing the desired point of focus can provide good inspiration for the content of the letter.

Example of an Employer Recommendation 

This sample letter from an employer shows what might be included in a career reference or employment recommendation. It includes a short introduction which highlights the employee's strengths, a couple of relevant examples in the two main paragraphs, and a simple closing that clearly states the recommendation. 

You'll also notice how the letter writer provided specific information on the subject and focused heavily on her strengths. These include solid interpersonal skills, teamwork skills, and strong leadership capability. The letter writer also included specific examples of achievements (such as an increase in profits). Examples are important and help to add legitimacy to the recommendation. 

One thing you'll notice is that this is very similar to a cover letter you might send along with your own resume. The format mimics a traditional cover letter and many of those key words used to describe valuable job skills are included. If you have experience with that type of letter, bring those skills into this one.

To Whom It May Concern:
This letter is my personal recommendation for Cathy Douglas. Until just recently, I was Cathy's immediate supervisor for several years. I found her to be consistently pleasant, tackling all assignments with dedication and a smile. Her interpersonal skills are exemplary and appreciated by everyone who works with her.
Besides being a joy to work with, Cathy is a take-charge person who is able to present creative ideas and communicate the benefits. She has successfully developed several marketing plans for our company that have resulted in increased annual revenue. During her tenure, we saw an increase in profits that exceeded $800,000. The new revenue was a direct result of the sales and marketing plans designed and implemented by Cathy. The additional revenue that she earned helped us to reinvest in the company and expand our operations into other markets.
Though she was an asset to our marketing efforts, Cathy was also extraordinarily helpful in other areas of the company. In addition to writing effective training modules for sales representatives, Cathy assumed a leadership role in sales meetings, inspiring and motivating other employees. She has also served as a project manager for several key projects and helped to implement our expanded operations. She has proven, on several occasions, that she can be trusted to deliver a completed project on schedule and within budget.
I highly recommend Cathy for employment. She is a team player and would make a great asset to any organization.
Sharon Feeney, Marketing Manager ABC Productions

Things to Avoid in a Recommendation

Just as important as the points you want to include, there are also a few things you should try to avoid while writing a recommendation. Consider writing a first draft, take a break, then come back to the letter for editing. See if you spot any of these common pitfalls.

Do not include personal relationships. This is particularly true if you employed a family member or friend. Keep the relationship out of the letter and focus instead on their professional qualities. 

Avoid uncorrected errors. Everyone makes mistakes, but an employee's error that was not corrected doesn't really lend itself to a recommendation for future opportunities. 

Keep the "dirty laundry" to yourself. If you cannot honestly recommend an employee because of past grievances, it's best to decline the request to write a letter.

Try not to embellish the truth. The person reading your letter is trusting your professional opinion. Think about the honesty you would expect in a letter and edit out anything that may be overindulgent.

Leave out personal information. Unless it has to do with someone's performance at work, it's not important.