Letters of recommendation and positive input from references can significantly increase a candidate’s likelihood of getting hired.
Think about it. You’re on the fence about something. Suddenly, you get a letter from someone of good repute telling you to give that someone or something a chance. They go so far as to list specific reasons why.
How much more likely are you to follow their advice?
Letters of recommendation can be the difference between a candidate who gets the job and one who doesn’t, and should be as professional as any other business letter.
So, if you’ve been asked to write a letter for someone, whether for college admission, an internship, or a full-time career opportunity, you want to do it right.
Read on for instructions and advice on how to write a genuine and persuasive letter of recommendation, as well as to see examples of letters that work.
Tips for writing a letter of recommendation
Tell the hiring manager who you are.
Mention the new role.
Have specific reasons over generalizations.
It’s important you have a clear definition of what we’re talking about in letters of recommendation to help hiring managers make a fair assessment of a candidate. If done poorly, you could reduce your mentee or employee’s chances at getting a desired job.
So, let’s begin by answering the question, “What is a letter of recommendation?”
What is a letter of recommendation?
A recommendation letter can be most simply defined as a document wherein the writer describes and assesses a person’s abilities, experiences, and achievements under the writer’s tutelage. The writer should always be someone who has worked closely with the subject person, whether as a boss, mentor, or coach.
Letters of recommendation are one way to vouch for someone you know – to help them reach that next step in life. If someone is asking you to write them a letter of recommendation, but you don’t have good things to say about them, it’s best to decline their request. You should only write letters for those whose ability you can genuinely speak to.
How to write a letter of recommendation
A letter of recommendation, also known as a recommendation letter or a reference letter, should be customized according to an individual and their industry.
However, there are a few general best practices you can familiarize yourself with before picking up the pen.
Here are three generalized tips for writing a letter of recommendation.
1. Tell the hiring manager who you are.
The person reading your letter will want to know why your voice matters. Say the candidate is applying for an engineering role.
Are you an engineer at NASA who has personally mentored this candidate in aerospace engineering for the past year? (I’m from Houston, sorry.)
If yes, say so. Your credentials are valuable and show this candidate not only has this connection, but also made a positive impression in the professional sphere.
Your introduction should come at the beginning of the reference letter to establish credibility early. This convinces a hiring manager to pay attention.
Some opportunities might ask for a reference letter from a colleague or friend. In which case, career is not as important as the capacity to which you can speak to that person’s character.
Most letters, however, will be from employers or someone who has been in a position of authority over the candidate. That’s what we’re focusing on here.
2. Mention the new role.
When writing a letter of recommendation, it’s important you make it clear you understand the role you are recommending the candidate for.
This is important for a few reasons. For one, you’re able to speak to the candidates abilities within that line of work specifically or say why they’d be a fit for an industry change. This increases a hiring manager’s confidence that the candidate would actually be a good fit for the role to which they are applying.
For two, it customizes the letter, as opposed to generalizing. Hiring managers are reading about tens to hundreds of candidates for varying roles, and a generic letter of recommendation isn’t going to do your referee any favors.
If you’re unsure of the role or specifics the candidate is applying for, ask if they could share the job description so you can see a detailed list of requirements.
Ideally, the person you’re referring has given you all of this information up front so you don’t have to rack your brain trying to figure out how their past and future roles connect.
3. Have specific reasons over generalizations.
As we mentioned previously, general information is not helpful for someone trying to break into the job market or continue their career. Instead, a letter of recommendation should cite a few specific examples of ways the candidate has made a positive impact or impression in their previous role.
As your executive assistant, there may have been a time when that candidate was able to organize backup food for a 400-person event after the original caterer and staff got food poisoning. These are the kinds of anecdotes hiring managers will remember.
Including these examples shows you weren’t just a supervisor who had minimal contact with this referee. It shows the impact the referee had in their previous role and implies the impact they could have, should they be hired by the desired company.
For maximum persuasion, include a couple of examples, as opposed to just one.
Letter of recommendation template
Like I said earlier, recommendation or reference letters should be customized and personalized. That being said, every letter of recommendation should consist of the following characteristics (we’ve mentioned most of these already, but here they are in a concise list):
Your information: Be sure to say who you are and how you know the person you are recommending for the job. Don’t forget to include where you work and the title of your role.
Why you matter: This is related to where you work and the title of your role. By mentioning your experience, you are also communicating your credibility and authority. Hearing from the head of an organization will mean more than hearing from a junior manager.
Candidate’s information: Be sure you state the candidate you are referring at some point in the letter. Otherwise, all of the good things you could say about them are for naught!
Specific anecdotes: Remember that a reference letter with specifics is more powerful than a generic listing of personality traits. Be sure to include unique anecdotes throughout the letter so the company understands the capacity in which you have worked with the candidate.
Mention of past role: Again, be sure to communicate specifics. What was the candidate’s role under your jurisdiction? Hearing the job duties as described by a higher-up could make a candidate seem more credible and experienced in the eyes of a hiring manager.
Mention of new role: Be sure to mention the new role. It’s better to ensure the letter sounds customized. This way, the hiring managers are able to see you understand the role the candidate is being considered for.
For a more specific example, examine the following template. This template should not be copy/pasted, but rather serve to inspire the unique letter you intend to write.
If you’re a teacher or mentor, it’s possible you are asked to write such letters multiple times a year. It is my hope that a template makes your job a little easier, while still allowing you to vouch for your students and pupils in unique ways.
Template for letter of recommendation:
Dear Mr./Mrs./Ms. [Name],
It is with great pleasure that I recommend [Referee Name] to work as [job title] with [Potential Company title].
I am [Reference Name] and I have worked at [Your Company] as [Your Title] for [length of time]. I have significant experience working with [Name], having supervised [him/her] at [present Company] for [length of time].
Working with [Referee Name] was a pleasure, as our team benefited from [his/her] creativity and critical thinking skills. [Referee Name] brought tremendous value to our team with [his/her] punctuality, organization, and willingness to work until the job was done.
[Referee name] brought with [him/her] a wealth of knowledge on [relevant topic] and has used that knowledge to help us achieve [name specific goals]. For example, [list a specific example wherein referee displayed the use of the aforementioned knowledge or skill].
[Referee name] was consistently an asset to our organization. [He/She] brought new ideas to every meeting and provided a fresh perspective when our team was stuck in our habits. [He/She] also worked well the rest of the team and fostered positive relations throughout the company.
I cannot say enough positive things about [referee name]. Without hesitation, I recommend [him/her] for as [potential position name] at [company]. I can recommend [referee name] not only according to [his/her] work ethic, but also [his/her] exceptional character.
Should you care to discuss this referral further, I encourage you to contact me at [contact information]. I am happy to address any additional questions regarding this candidate.
Letter of recommendation tips
If this is your first time writing a reference letter, or if you’ve written 100 letters and are looking for a refresher, allow me to offer you some general tips. These tips are good for someone who’s stuck with writer’s block or simply wants a fresher way to craft.
(Elongated explanations can be found below the graphic.)
Brainstorm prior to writing: When you actually sit down to write, it’s easy to get caught up in the details and formatting of the letter and forget what matters most: the candidate.
Before you start writing, take a few minutes to brainstorm what you know about this employee or mentee. What projects have you seen them work on? What anecdotes do you remember about your time together that could portray character and work ethic?
Writing these down ahead of time gets your brain juices flowing so you can more easily speak about the candidate.
Ask the candidate for talking points and job description: While the candidate should not dictate the letter for you (reference letters should be unaffected by the candidate’s desires), you can ask them for help figuring out what to write.
One easy way is to ask the candidate to send you the description of their new role. By understanding the new job’s requirements, it will be easier to speak to that candidate’s abilities.
You could also sit down with your employee or friend and ask them a little about what the tone of the letter should be. What is most important to communicate in the letter? Again, the letter should be your words and sentiment, but it helps to have some guidance from the person who understands the role.
Have a more skilled or experienced writer help you out: It’s possible you have a lot of experience working with a candidate, but just aren’t a natural writer. If this is the case, consider having a friend or colleague help you with wording and sentence structure.
For example, you could draft a skeleton of the letter and have your wordsmith colleague edit it and make improvements. But make sure to read the finished result before sending it in to the new hiring manager. While it’s okay to have help when writing a reference letter, you should always know and approve of the content.
Use an editing solution: An editing solution is especially helpful for those of you who have been asked to write a multitude of reference letters. High school and college teachers often fit this category.
Editing solutions quickly pinpoint where you’ve made an error and allow you to correct it in seconds. Think of how effectively this could reduce the time you spend editing comma placements and spelling errors.
Have the candidate provide the envelope: Sending letters is time-consuming, having to search for envelopes, stamps, and addresses. With the candidate providing an addressed and stamped envelope, it will save you this time and trouble.
You’re doing the candidate a favor, and it’s alright to request certain things that will make it easier for you. (If the hiring manager has requested the letter to be sent in digitally, however, this is not an important aspect.)
Address the employer: Just as a candidate would address the employer by name in a cover letter, you should address the employer by name in a letter of reference.
This personalizes the letter and makes it feel more like one professional is writing to another. If you don’t have the name of the hiring manager, ask the candidate for this information. If they don’t have it, it’s okay to address the letter to, “To whom it may concern.”
Format the letter in business letter format: As a business letter, you should write this in business letter format. Find out more on that in our content for how to write business letters.
Provide contact information: It’s possible that the company or manager you’re addressing will want to contact you with questions or to get further information.
Providing your contact information will show you’re available to further helping this candidate get the job. It also makes the letter more credible, as you’re now a person they can contact, as opposed to an anonymous name on a paper.
If you’ve had someone ask you to write a letter of recommendation, I hope you took it as a compliment! It means they respect you and value the impact you could have on their career.
It also means you’re part of the professional community, so you’re likely looking for ways to constantly improve.
Learn more about business communications by reading:
Grace Pinegar is a lifelong storyteller with an extensive background in various forms such as acting, journalism, improv, research, and content marketing. She was raised in Texas, educated in Missouri, worked in Chicago, and is now a proud New Yorker. (she/her/hers)