If you’ve been asked to write someone a letter of recommendation, you’re probably wondering where to start.
What should it say? Should you be honest or only talk about the candidate’s amazing attributes? Should you include personal stories and anecdotes, or write it strictly professionally?
All these questions and more will be addressed in this guide to writing a great letter of recommendation (or a letter of reference). Keep reading to find out how to craft the perfect letter of recommendation!
What is a letter of recommendation?
A letter of recommendation is written to testify to a person’s skills, achievements, and character. Sometimes a recommendation letter is known as a reference letter or a letter of reference. It is a formal document, and should be typed and written in either Arial or Times New Roman 12-point font with appropriate margins and formatting.
What are letters of recommendation for?
Letters of recommendation are used in a diverse range of situations and scenarios. Here are some of the most common reasons someone might ask for a letter of recommendation:
- Required on a job application to submit
- Required before a job offer can be accepted
- For an academic course
- For academic funding or scholarships
- For landlords needing tenant references
A Guide to Writing a Great Letter of Recommendation
Before you begin writing your letter of recommendation, there are a few things to get in order.
First, you need to know who the letter of recommendation is for and identify if you’re comfortable recommending this person.
Second, you need to know what the recommendation is for–a job, tenancy, an academic recommendation, etc.
Third, you must understand who will be reading this letter of recommendation and craft the letter to focus on the traits and qualities they will be interested in.
Finally, you need to consider why you’re recommending this person. What is special or noteworthy about them?
1. Who asked you to write the letter of recommendation?
It’s probably the most important consideration of whether or not you should write a letter of recommendation for someone and how you should go about it.
Who is the request from? Can you legitimately refer or recommend them in a formal document? Do you feel pushed into it or obligated to write the letter for this person? Can you be positive and honest in your recommendation of them?
Any letter of recommendation you write should be:
- About someone you know reasonably well
- A meaningful, useful reference
- Positive and honest
If you don’t know someone very well, it’s almost impossible to write a meaningful recommendation that will be useful to the hiring party or academic institution requiring the letters. And if you can’t be positive and honest in your letter (i.e., you have to lie to make the candidate sound better), it’s better to elect not to write one at all.
3. Who is the letter of recommendation going to?
Is this recommendation going to someone’s prospective university, boss, or landlord? Keep the reason and receiver in mind as you write the letter. You will focus on different qualities a person has when writing to a landlord vs. a potential boss.
Use the appropriate voice in your letter to convey to the receiver that you’re excited to recommend this person and truthfully believe they deserve the role or position you’re recommending them for.
4. Why are you recommending this person?
What does this person do that’s outstanding and above-average? Something you need to consider before writing a letter of recommendation is the validity of your reference. Do you really want to recommend this candidate for the role, or are you feeling obligated and pushed into it?
A letter that comes across as vague or neutral shows the receiver that you’re not genuinely excited about the candidate. That can make them reconsider that person for the position. It’s better to politely decline to write a letter for someone than to write a vague and useless letter.
There are more tips below on declining to write a recommendation or reference letter.
Common Issues with Recommendation Letters
Recommendation letters are touchy subjects for many. It’s difficult to ask someone you respect to write a letter that essentially brags about you, especially if you’re unsure that they have many positive things to say.
If you’ve been tasked with writing a recommendation letter and aren’t sure what to do next, check out these common issues people have when writing them.
What to Avoid in a Letter of Recommendation
Writing a recommendation letter that helps the candidate stand out means you must avoid the following things:
- Focusing only on professional or academic skills and not character traits
- Repeating boring data throughout the letter
- ‘Lukewarm’ word choice, like “above average” and “satisfactory”
- Lack of specific examples of candidate strengths
How to Decline to Write a Letter of Recommendation
Declining to write a letter for someone can be tough to do. Not only will the person be disappointed, but they may also be hurt or feel desperate if they’ve got no one else to write a letter for them. But there are tried-and-true ways to decline to write a recommendation letter.
These examples perfectly illustrate how to decline writing a letter of recommendation:
“…Just ask me if I have the time to write the letter and if I would feel comfortable writing a supportive and positive recommendation letter for you. I would rather decline writing you a recommendation letter than to write you a vague or irrelevant one.”
“I’m very busy with [anything–year end reports, XY merger, etc.] and won’t be able to write you a proper letter of recommendation at this time, but I do wish you the best in your endeavors!”
“You’ve been a good worker, but I’m afraid I just don’t know enough about you outside of work to write an honest recommendation. I don’t want to write you a letter that won’t do you justice. Thank you for thinking of me and I wish you luck in getting an excellent letter of reference!”