What Should Be Included in a Recommendation Letter?

Key Components

Woman reading letter
(Ray Kachatorian/Getty Images)

Before we get into what should be included in a recommendation letter, let's explore different types of recommendation letters and take a look at who writes them, who reads them, and why they're important. 

Definition

A recommendation letter is a type of letter that describes the qualifications, achievements, character, or capabilities of an individual. Recommendation letters are also known as:

  • Letters of recommendation
  • Reference letters
  • Job references
  • Academic references
  • Character references
  • Letters of reference

Who Writes Them

People who write recommendation letters typically do so at the request of an individual who is applying for a job or a space in an academic program (like a college of business school degree program). Recommendation letters may also be written as character evidence for legal trials or other situations requiring investigation or assessment of a person's character.

Who Reads Them

People who read recommendation letters do so in hopes of learning more about the individual in question. For example, an employer may ask for a recommendation to learn more about a job applicant's work ethic, social aptitude, past work responsibilities, and professional skills or achievements. Business school admissions committees, on the other hand, may read business school recommendations to assess a program applicant's leadership potential, academic capability, work experience, or creative abilities.

What Should Be Included

There are three things that should be included in every recommendation letter:

  1. A paragraph or sentence explaining how you know the person you are writing about and the nature of your relationship with them.
  2. An honest evaluation of the person's characteristics, skills, capabilities, ethics, or accomplishments, preferably with specific examples.
  1. A statement or summary that explains why you would recommend the person you are writing about.

#1 Nature of The Relationship

The relationship of the letter writer and the person being recommended is important. Remember, the letter is meant to be an evaluation, so if the writer is not familiar with the person that they are writing about, they can't offer an honest or thorough evaluation. At the same time, the recommender shouldn't be too close or familiar with the person being recommended. For example, mothers should not write job or academic recommendations for their children because mothers are essentially obligated to say nice things about their children.

A simple sentence describing the relationship is a good way to start the letter. Let's look at a few examples:

  • I have worked as Jan's direct supervisor for the last five years.
  • Eddie was in my AP English class last year.
  • I was Jamal's debate coach for three years.
  • I met Amy three years ago at the community food bank where we both volunteer. 

#2 The Evaluation/Assessment

The bulk of the recommendation letter should be an evaluation or assessment of the person you are recommending. The exact focus will depend on the purpose of the letter. For example, if you are writing about someone's leadership experience, you should focus on their role as a leader, their leadership capability, and their achievements as a leader.

If, on the other hand, you are writing about someone's academic potential, you might want to offer examples of that person's academic achievements or examples that demonstrate their potential and passion for learning.

The person who needs the recommendation can help direct content by explaining exactly what they need the recommendation for and what aspect of themselves or their experience should be evaluated. If you are the letter writer, make sure this purpose is clear to you before you begin writing the letter. If you are the person who needs a recommendation, consider writing up a short, bulleted list that explains why you need the recommendation and the subject of the assessment.

#3 The Summary

The end of a recommendation letter should summarize the reason why this particular individual is being recommended for a specific job or academic program.

Keep the statement simple and direct. Rely on the earlier content in the letter and identify or summarize the reason why the individual is a good fit.