How to Write a Letter of Recommendation

A businessman being handed a piece of paper
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Writing a letter of recommendation 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.

What to Include

When writing a recommendation, it is important to craft an original letter that is unique 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—as 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.

You may also want to speak with the person you're recommending about their needs. Do they need a letter that highlights their work ethic? Would they prefer a letter that addresses aspects of their potential in a particular area?

You don't want to say anything untrue, but knowing the desired point of focus can inspire the content of the letter.

Employer Recommendation 

The sample letter below shows what might be included in a career reference or employment recommendation. It includes a short introduction highlighting the employee's strengths, a couple of relevant examples in the two main paragraphs, and a simple closing.

You'll notice that the recommender provides specific information on the subject and focuses heavily on her strengths. These include solid interpersonal skills, teamwork skills, and strong leadership capability.

The recommender also includes specific examples of achievements (such as an increase in profits.) Examples are important and add legitimacy to the recommendation.

Also, notice that this letter is similar to a cover letter you might send along with your own resume. The format mimics a traditional cover letter and many of the keywords used to describe valuable job skills are included.

Try to address the letter to the specific person who will be reading it if at all possible. You want the letter to be personal.

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 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.
Sincerely,
Sharon Feeney, Marketing Manager ABC Productions

What to Avoid

Just as important when writing a letter of recommendation is knowing what not to include. Consider writing a first draft, taking a break, then coming back to the letter for editing. See if you spot any of these common pitfalls.

Do not mention 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.

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 either. 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. 

Style

Trying to use a 12-point font if the letter will be printed out to make it easy to read. If you must reduce the size to keep the letter to one page, don't go below 10 points.

Use basic typefaces as well, such as Times New Roman, Arial, Helvetica, Calibri, or Garamond.

Use single space, with a space between paragraphs.