Sometimes, a former colleague pops up in your inbox to ask you for a favor. This time, it’s a letter of recommendation. If you loved working with this coworker, you’d jump at the opportunity to help them out.
There’s only one problem: you’ve never written a letter like that before. You don’t even know where to begin — it’s time to learn how to write a letter of recommendation.
Writing an effective letter of recommendation takes time, thoughtfulness, and insight into the person’s background and character.
If you’re willing to write a letter for this person, you’re likely overflowing with praise for them. But how do you balance your high regard with professionalism? This article discusses what a letter of recommendation is and how to write an effective one. It also includes valuable examples to get you started.
What’s a letter of recommendation?
A letter of recommendation highlights a person’s skills, knowledge, and experience to bolster an application. Someone who knows a candidate writes one of these letters to vouch for them, expressing why they’re the best person for the opportunity.
A professional letter of recommendation is usually addressed to a hiring manager, admissions committee, or potential employer. You might also need to write one for someone applying for any of the following:
A new home or apartment
Scholarships, grants, or awards
A new job
Graduate or professional school programs
As the letter writer, your communication skills are tested since you’re responsible for painting a positive picture of this person. Someone you once managed might be changing careers; they need you to highlight their transferable skills.
Your letter could include positive comments about how they have strong public speaking skills and experience juggling multiple deadlines simultaneously.
Research has shown that people referred for a job are 4x more likely to be offered it than those without a referral. While a recommendation isn’t necessarily an internal referral, these letters show that someone credible vouches for the letter’s subject to have this position. A good letter of recommendation can make or break an application.
Letter of recommendation versus letter of reference
Let’s not confuse a letter of recommendation for a reference letter. While a letter of recommendation focuses on skills, knowledge, and experience, a reference letter describes a person’s character. It’s when you describe their work ethic and personal qualities. Both letters require specific examples and details, but they address different aspects of a person.
A reference letter:
Used for generic reasons
Doesn’t have to be for professional reasons
Provides an overview of a person’s character and qualities
A letter of recommendation:
Used for specific positions or opportunities
Includes details and examples
Written by someone in an authoritative position, like a former manager or professor
Format of a letter of recommendation
You could be a little rusty when it comes to formatting a letter — or maybe this is completely new to you. One CBS poll found that 37% of Americans said it’s been over five years since they’ve written a personal letter, and 15% had never done it at all. Don’t fret if you relate. It’s never too late to learn a new skill.
Writing a letter of recommendation requires you to flex your organizational skills. If that’s something you struggle with, you might benefit from a letter of recommendation template. We’ve got you covered.
Here are five sections you should include in your letter:
Greetings: Keep this section short and sweet. This is where you address the recipient of the letter. Make sure you know how to spell their name and title properly, or write a general greeting like “To whom it may concern” or “Dear [University Name] admission committee.”
Introduction: In your introduction, explain who you are, your relationship to the candidate, and why you recommend them for the opportunity. Consider briefly explaining why you’re writing this letter and hint at what you’ll discuss further down.
Body of the letter: This section contains the most important information. It’ll include an overview of the person’s past experiences, skills, and industry knowledge. Make sure to share short personal anecdotes with details that illustrate their abilities.
For instance, you might describe the person’s communication skills by using an example of when they were part of a large research project you worked on together and had to communicate effectively with team members.
Closing statement: A good letter needs a solid closing statement. It’s your chance to summarize your points and highlight why you’re giving this person a strong recommendation. Be succinct and thorough, but avoid repeating details.
Your signature: It’s time to finish your letter. Add your signature and contact information at the very end to signal it’s over.
Tips for writing a letter of recommendation
Understanding how to structure your letter will help organize the writing process. Make sure you’re thoughtful with your words and pay attention to the details.
Here are five tips to consider when writing a letter of recommendation:
Collect all the necessary information before you begin writing
Keep a positive voice, but avoid clichés
Tailor your tone to the situation
Focus on highlighting the most important details
Proofread your letter several times
Letter of recommendation examples
The things you include in a letter for someone hoping to gain admission into graduate school differ from someone trying to secure a job offer. Each letter follows the same format, but the details are different.
You may find that getting the first few words down is the hardest, and that’s understandable. But once you start your introduction, the rest of the letter will follow suit.
Here are three examples of how to start letters of recommendation for different scenarios, plus a few things to keep in mind for the rest of the letter:
1. Recommendation letter for a job
It’s my pleasure to recommend [Person’s name] for the Data Scientist role at X Company. I was [Person’s name] supervisor from 2011-2021 and valued their deep knowledge of software programs, time management skills, and prior experience.
Above all, their innovative problem-solving techniques helped our team excel on projects. I’ve watched their skills grow immensely and think they’d be an ideal candidate for the job.
Next, share detailed examples of the person’s problem-solving techniques and expand on how much they’ve grown throughout the years. Finish the letter by telling this employer how lucky their company would be to have this candidate based on your examples and their skills.
2. Recommendation letter for graduate school
I highly recommend [Person’s name] for admission to the [program] at X University. I am a psychology professor at Y University and had the pleasure of teaching [Person’s name] in [course code] during their bachelor’s degree in nutrition.
[Person’s name] stood out from the other students because of their ability to research topics with exceptional depth and use feedback to strengthen their knowledge on how best to present nutritional studies. They thrive in collaborative environments because of their superb teamwork skills and communicate effectively with peers and colleagues.
Consider finishing the letter by expanding on the candidate’s research topics and explaining some of the reasons why they have good teamwork and communication skills. It will help to know more about the program they’re applying to and which strengths to emphasize.
Each admissions committee will have different criteria, so tailor your examples to reflect the skills they’ll need to succeed.
3. Recommendation letter for a scholarship
I highly recommend choosing [Person’s name] for your annual marketing scholarship. I’m a former coworker of [Person’s name] from 2015-2022 and saw firsthand how skilled they execute marketing strategies and intuitively understand data to predict future trends.
[Person’s name] started as an intern and has since secured a full-time paid position. In their time at X Company, they demonstrated exceptional leadership skills and a high level of professionalism, which is why they’d be an ideal candidate for your scholarship. They would represent your scholarship and their school with dignity and integrity.
The body of your letter should include references to specific projects the person worked on and how they’ve become a great leader in the workplace to show the selection committee why they best meet the scholarship’s criteria.
How to write a letter of recommendation for a friend
If a friend has asked you to write them a personal letter of recommendation, it won’t be as professional in tone as a letter a former employee or manager requests. It will act more like a reference letter by leaning on their character while highlighting strengths and accomplishments.
Here are a few things to consider when writing a letter of recommendation for a friend:
Ask for details: It would be tough to provide specific examples without details about what you’re recommending them for. Asking your friend for details on where they’re applying will help you structure your letter and pack it with the most valuable information.
Explain your relationship: This doesn’t have to be long but describe how you know the person. Explain if you have a professional working relationship or if you’ve known each other since childhood. This gives you credibility as a letter writer.
Share your contact information: Include ways for people to contact you for a potential follow-up. Consider using your work email address or LinkedIn profile.
You could encounter a situation where you don’t want to write a letter of recommendation for a friend. Whatever your reason is, don’t feel pressured to write a letter. Learning how to say “no” helps you solidify your boundaries and honor your values.
Learning how to write a letter of recommendation tests your organizational and communication skills. You need to be precise and articulate with your praise — and that’s not easy, especially if you’ve never written a letter of recommendation before.
These letters are for various purposes, like landing a job, getting into a school, or signing a lease agreement. No matter the purpose, these letters should meet the same guidelines. You’ll always benefit from being detailed, asking the person questions for greater clarity about the application, and including all necessary sections.
Remember that writing a letter of recommendation requires your authentic self. You have to be honest with your recommendation and reasons for offering it. After you’ve written it, be proud of yourself. You’ve taken the time to do something kind for someone else, and kindness never goes out of style.