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How to Write the Perfect Recommendation Letter?

Last updated by Dipen Dadhaniya on Apr 01, 2024 at 01:09 PM | Reading time: 18 minutes

A recommendation letter, or a reference letter, is a third-party document endorsing the skills (hard and soft) and personality traits of the applicant. It is an assurance of the skills that the applicant has mentioned in the resume, by a third person who has had past experiences/ associations (professional/ academic) with the applicant. This letter adds immense value to an applicant’s job application and cover letter.

For eg: A reference letter can be written by a teacher/coach or a supervisor/manager to endorse a student or an employee (former or current).

A reference letter is typically addressed to hiring managers, employers, or admission officers. It is written to support  the qualifications, skills, and behavioral traits mentioned in resumes and cover letters.

Recommendation letters are important endorsements that can open the way for exciting opportunities. In this article, we’ll look at the different types of recommendation letters, with examples.

Here's what this article will cover:

  1. Types of Recommendation and Reference Letters
  2. Who are Letters of Recommendation written for?
  3. How to request a recommendation letter?
  4. Characteristics of a strong recommendation
  5. Points to consider before accepting a reference request
  6. Writing the Recommendation Letter: The Real Part [Examples included]
  7. Tips for Writing a Recommendation Letter
  8. How to Format a Letter of Recommendation? [Best Practices and Format Guide]

Types of Recommendation and Reference Letters

Type 1: Employment recommendation letters

Career references are not only important but in certain organizations/industries, they’re mandatory too. These letters are usually to be submitted at the time of the interview. Some places ask for up to 3 references – typically those from a direct supervisor or an employer. If you are seeking a letter for yourself, get at least one current supervisor to write one for you. You can take the other two from previous associations.

Type 2: Academic recommendation letter

Academic reference letters are usually written by principals, deans, and teachers who have been directly associated with a student. This letter is required by universities and institutes offering higher education, at the time of admission. Besides academic qualifications, extra-curricular activities are also endorsed through these letters. References by mentors and employers (internship) are also considered.

Type 3: Personal or character letter of recommendation

In addition to either of the above, you may require a character reference too. You may require furnishing one at your place of employment or to a landlord in case you are moving houses. A character reference is just what the name suggests – you endorse a person’s qualities and character. This letter should therefore only highlight the behavioral traits and not technical knowledge. Character references by associates, former employers, landlords, etc., are often considered valuable.

Who are Letters of Recommendation written for?

Almost everybody could use a good reference letter, but in some cases,  it’s a mandatory document that must be submitted. Let's look at some popular examples where recommendation letters are mandatory.

  • Students applying for higher education

Irrespective of the program you are applying to, you’d typically need to furnish a reference letter, maybe even up to three, at the time of submitting your application. Take this very seriously as it can help you stand out in the crowd and even let your institute/university consider your application. Your reference letter will carry details about your attitude, your ability to interact with teachers and fellow students, and your future professional plans.

  • Students applying for jobs after college

As a fresh-out-of-college job aspirant, you’d not be expected to furnish past work experience. However, your potential employer would still be interested to know how you are as a person; what sort of student you are,  if your personality traits would blend with their organization’s culture, or if you’d  be a good team player.

  • People moving jobs

Not just novices, even people with valid professional experience (may) need letters of recommendation while  changing jobs. From relevant experience in team management and  leadership qualities to delivery and other areas, a LOR can present it all.

  • Character references in case of moving houses/ all of the above

Other than the professional LORs, you may require furnishing character references in case you are moving to a new housing society, a different landlord within the same housing society, or as a recommendation to your institute of higher education.

So, based on the case, you are either an applicant (you require a LOR for yourself) or an endorser (you are approached to write a LOR).

How to request a recommendation letter?

Before you set out to seek a reference letter for yourself, there are a few aspects you need to ensure. Unless you are still closely associated with the professional you are seeking an endorsement from, chances are he/she may have moved to some other organization/ city, etc. In that case, he/she may not instantly remember the instances to jot down in the letter.

In case you are a student your coach or educator may be writing similar recommendations for many students in a go. To ensure that your letter stands out with specific personal instances you need to help the endorser recall some points.

In either case, here’s how you can request a customized reference letter:

  • Give a brief introduction about yourself. Mention your association with the professional/ educator by stating the place of association, period of association, and any other reference point of value.
  • Give an overview of why you need the LOR.
  • Narrate a personal story, which can help the person recall specifics about the association (highlight your skill or trait that worked in your favour).
  • Share your contact information so that the endorser can get back to you in case he/she requires further information.
  • Share a timeline for the LOR. Mention a specific date by which you’ll need to have the document. In case, the person is not available to deliver it by that time, he/she can explicitly mention that to you.
  • Acknowledge receipt of the LOR and thank him/her for providing you with the same. Yes, you’ll need to take out the time to do this.

Characteristics of a strong recommendation

Everything said and done, a reference letter is all about what the person endorsing the applicant has to say about the latter. However, as an applicant, it’s your onus too to get a well-drafted letter that highlights your positives as per the requirement (job description/academic institute).  You might have questions like - what information should you share with the person writing your recommendation letter? Or, how can you improve the quality of the reference by providing relevant information?

The answers to the above are here:

  1. Share your resume and cover letter with the endorser

To maintain consistency in terms of the message, your skills, and the technicalities (font size, style, etc.) in the letter,  ensure that your endorser gets a copy of your resume and cover letter. Ask the person to go through these documents before he/she begins to write the letter of recommendation.

  1. Create a personal statement, essentially, if you’re a student

If you are seeking admission to an institute of higher learning, make sure to create a personal statement before you seek a recommendation. A statement is a document highlighting your technical as well as soft skills. Include your past experiences too, such as an internship/ summer job.

  1. Reveal the important details of the company/ institute you are applying to

This bit is very important. This will lay the tone for the recommendation. The name of the company/ institute, the position you are applying to, and other important details can act as reference points for the person writing the recommendation letter.

  1. Share the job description/ information about the program you are applying to

In addition to the company details, share the job description also. This will help the endorser to focus on specific skills and traits that are relevant to the position. Highlighting one or two relevant skills is enough on a reference letter.

Knowledge about the program can help the endorser in customizing the letter. For eg: If you are applying for a management course – a letter mentioning traits such as your analytical skills or technical skills can make a positive impact.

  1. Mention personal strengths or characteristics you’d like them to focus on

Aside from the above, if you possess specific soft skills like time management, communication skills, negotiation, etc., ensure that you let the endorser know about them. Also make a note of certain instances reiterating these skills so that they can be included in the letter. While preparing yourself for an interview, remember to revisit your LOR. Expect a few interview questions based on the endorsement.

  1. Make a note of specific achievements you’d like to have on the reference

Other than the skills, your accomplishments matter. Share the specific, relevant ones with the endorser and get them included in the letter too.

Points to consider before accepting a reference request

Imagine you are the endorser now and tasked with the responsibility of creating a powerful letter of recommendation for a former employee, a subordinate, a junior team member, or a student. How do you accept the request or deny it? Are you sure you can write a recommendation letter for a student? Are you qualified to give career advice?

Ask yourself the below questions to finalize:

  • How well do you know the applicant?
  • Have you closely worked with or directly observed the applicant?
  • Are you aware of his/her relevant strengths and skills?
  • Do you have specific examples of the individual’s work?
  • Can you provide positive feedback about the individual?
  • Can you commit to writing the reference and sticking to the timeline as shared?
  • Will you be able to furnish additional details (will you be available, do you have further knowledge) should the reader get back to you?

Writing the Recommendation Letter: The Real Part [Examples included]

  • Use a polite and personable salutation

Before you start a letter of recommendation, you need to do a bit of homework. Prior to actually sitting down to write a reference letter, find out whom to address the letter to. It’s always the best practice to use a personable salutation. For eg: Use ‘Dear Mr/Ms <last-name>’. If you aren’t sure about the name, stick to ‘To Whom It May Concern’. No one feels offended and the letter begins on a polite note.</last-name>

  • Clarify the essentials in the introduction

Use the first paragraph to introduce yourself, your association with the applicant (relationship as well as the number of years you have been associated), and why you are qualified to write the letter.  You can also include the prospective position and the company’s name. For eg: “It is a pleasure to recommend Mr <name of="" candidate=""> for the position of <name of="" position=""> in your organization <name of="" organization="">. I am <your name="">, working as <your position=""> in <name of="" organization=""> and have <years of="" association="" with="" candidate=""> experience of directly supervising/managing/employing <name of="" candidate="">.”</name></years></name></your></your></name></name></name>

  • State the facts in an appreciative tone by mentioning the applicant’s professional/academic skills

Use the next paragraph to appreciate the candidate’s skills. Pick relevant examples (reflecting the job description) and testify how the applicant is the best fit to fill the shoes. For eg: If you are endorsing the applicant for a leadership role, you may write:
“Mr <name of="" applicant=""> has over <years of="" experience=""> in managing <number and="" subordinates’="" positions=""> and has demonstrated creativity, empathy, and commitment during the stint. He has an outstanding knowledge of <project management="" delivery="" cycle="" excel="" skills=""> and applies the same to get the job done. He is <a valuable="" contributor="" and="" a="" strong="" leader="" of="" the="" team="">.” All relevant</a></project></number></years></name> technical skills should be mentioned here.

  • Add further details and emphasize the applicant’s best personal abilities (soft skills)

Add to the first paragraph by highlighting a few more relevant traits that emphasize the soft skills/behaviour. For eg: “Mr A’s ability to <quickly strategize="" suggest="" changes="" as="" per="" new="" business="" plans="" implement="" fixes="" client’s="" recommendations=""> has had a winning effect on the organization. As a leader, these <the qualities=""> have enabled him/ her to <rise to="" the="" position="" of=""> and the organization has witnessed <outcomes of="" the="" efforts="">.”</outcomes></rise></the></quickly>

  • Explain why the applicant is leaving your organization

Write a sentence or two to state why the applicant is leaving the organization. This will help the potential hiring manager to understand that the parting has been amicable and that it (quitting) wasn’t a hasty choice but a thoughtful decision.

  • Be original and honest

Sure, a reference letter is a formality in certain cases. Even if someone’s career may not be entirely dependent on the letter, it can definitely  make an impact. So, be original in thought, and creatively write the letter.  Personalize it to the best of your ability and highlight relevant skills and traits in a positive manner. State the facts in a way to influence the reader. Try not to make your letter appear like one among many - make it stand out.

  • Choose your words suitably – avoid negative words and phrases

Preferably, use an active voice to write the letter. Additionally, pay attention to your choice of words. While it’s better to avoid flowery language, staying away from using negative words is also advisable For eg:

Avoid: Though Mr. A was dependable in terms of compiling reports, his Excel skills needed re-training.

Rather: Mr. A is a quick learner and applied his newly-acquired Excel skills to compile error-free reports between <mention a="" time="" period="">.</mention>

To honestly state the facts, stick to skills that the applicant actually possesses. If something needs a cover-up or you’re unsure about a specific skill, avoid it completely.  

  • Appreciative phrases and words result in positive outcomes

When your tone is  positive in the letter, the reader will definitely be encouraged to approve the applicant. A powerful and positive write-up can give the hiring manager the confidence to trust the applicant’s skills. Use phrases such as ‘highly recommend’, ‘outstanding performance’, ‘problem solver’, ‘empathetic’, etc., to describe the applicant.

  • Politely sign-off and don’t miss to share your contact details

The signing off is as important as the introduction itself. You have already provided all the information that needed sharing; but, remember to offer further assistance (if required by the reader). Include your contact details including phone number and email address.

Tips for Writing a Recommendation Letter

Tip1: Use an active voice while writing the letter

This will keep the message clear and your sentences short. Besides, it will also keep the length of the letter in check. Passive voice takes too many words to convey a message; even a few words can send  across a message adequately when written in the Active voice.

Tip2: One size doesn’t fit all

Do not use a ready-made format to write recommendation letters for different people. You may follow a set structure; however, remember to customize it appropriately to include notable  qualifications,  particularly  noteworthy experiences during your association, and so on.

Tip3: Request for some pointers to include in the letter

It is always a good idea to ask for some pointers to be mentioned in the letter. Request the person you are endorsing to make a note of certain instances/ qualities that he/she would like you to mention. Verify the instances yourself and ensure they are included. Remain honest; a recommendation letter that’s biased or (overly) glorifies the candidate does no good in the long run and spoils your reputation too.

Tip 4: Quantify the qualities/ outcomes

If possible/ relevant, remember to quantify the outcomes. Eg: Between 2018 and 2019, Mr. A helped our team to achieve the XYZ position in delivery/ client handling in the whole organization. Or, Mr. A’s smart negotiation skills helped the organization to reduce third-party hiring costs by 5%.

Tip 5: Focus also on the soft skills the person possesses

Aside  from the hard/ technical skills, mention a few soft skills too. Soft skills such as empathy, teamwork and collaboration, time management, interpersonal skills, etc. are greatly valued. At times, LORs are also used as reference points while framing interview questions.

Tip 6: Proofread once you have completed

This is super-important, as it adds value to the letter and ultimately benefits the person you are endorsing. So, before you send the letter, remember to edit it fully. A shabbily written letter replete with grammatical errors or inconsistencies will leave a poor taste. If you aren’t too sure about the flow and grammar, get someone to proofread it for you. But, before you get it edited, remember to cover-up the identity of the person you have endorsed (in the letter). It will maintain his/her privacy.

Tip 7: Encourage the reader to reach out to you

In the end, before you sign off, remember to encourage the reader to reach out to you should he/she require further information. This is a wonderful gesture that will imply that there might be additional information you’d like to share regarding the applicant’s skills/qualities/achievements.

How to Format a Letter of Recommendation? [Best Practices and Format Guide]

  • Keep the letter to a single page

Sure, you must highlight the accomplishments and quantify the outcomes. But check the length of your letter too. Keeping it to a single page is desirable. Keep the message clear and concise, reduce the time needed to read it, and enable the content to stand out.

  • Pay attention to the Font type

Avoid fancy fonts no matter how tempted you may be to make the letter flowery. Irrespective of the reference letter type, it’s best to stick to a professional font such as Times New Roman, Calibri, or Arial. To maintain consistency, check the font type on the resume; chances are that both will be collectively viewed.

  • Stick to the standard Font size

10 – 12 is the ideal font size for most official purposes. Not only does this facilitate reading; it also maintains the length of the letter.

  • Mind the margins

To ensure that the document carries plenty of white spaces, keep a 1” margin on all sides. There should be space between paragraphs not exceeding three at the most.

  • Align the text

As a safer option, left-align the text. Official letters are best viewed that way.

This should help you to write a good letter of recommendation for a friend, a college student, or for a former employee. So, get set to let your creativity flow.

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Dipen Dadhaniya

Engineering Manager at Interview Kickstart

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