Letter of Recommendation Guide
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Three types of letters

Letters of recommendation differ based on who writes them and for what purpose.  There are three basic types.

  From Usual purpose
Employment recommendation Employer Getting a job
Academic recommendation Teacher, professor Getting into college or graduate school, receiving a scholarship or fellowship
Character reference Friend, relative Getting a job, winning an award, child adoption, court hearing, etc.

These distinctions are not carved in stone.  Professors often write letters aimed at helping students secure employment.  Employers often write letters to help current or former employees gain admission to academic programs.

Employment recommendation

Whether you are laid off or leave your job on your own accord a letter of recommendation from your employer can be a valuable tool for finding a new job.  Such a letter is often preferable to listing your supervisor and his or her phone number on your resume.  A reference letter

  • Provides an organized analysis of your attributes and abilities
  • Is a "fresh when written" appraisal not clouded by time
  • Creates an unchanging assessment 
  • Saves future employers the effort of interviewing your former supervisor
  • Saves your former supervisor the time and trouble of being interviewed

Importantly, obtaining a written letter also gives you insight into how your former employer perceives you-- on balance either favorably or unfavorably.  With this information in hand you can spotlight a good reference or downplay a poor one.

Academic recommendation

Letters of recommendation are required for acceptance to the vast majority of both undergraduate and graduate degree programs.  Often applicants must provide three or more letters.

While requirements differ by institution, program and concentration, generally speaking successful academic recommendations should

  • Provide testimony to your aptitude, curiosity and industriousness
  • Demonstrate your maturity and seriousness of purpose
  • Speak to your leadership ability
  • Paint you as "well rounded"
  • Compliment your character
  • Include other pertinent information about you-- things not readily apparent from admission test scores or transcripts

Character reference

Character reference letters are a special category of recommendation because they are usually written by friends, neighbors or relatives.  These letters meet a variety of non-employment and non-academic related needs.  Everything from gaining memberships and winning awards to child custody and adoptions.  Character reference letters can also be useful in job seeking.  For sample character letters and more information on this kind of recommendation click here.

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Requesting a letter of recommendation

You not only need the letter, you need it to be as effective as possible.  So it's important to plan your request.

Whom to ask

Given a choice about whom to ask, ask someone who

  • Is comfortable writing a letter for you
  • Can write well and write easily
  • Has experience writing letters of recommendation
  • Is familiar with your work
  • Knows you well enough to be able to include personal anecdotes in the letter
  • Has the highest and/or most relevant job title

These guidelines apply to both supervisors and teachers.  Keep in mind that if you've been working in Payroll but want a new career in Marketing, a letter from the Sales Manager of your old company will carry more weight than one from the Accounting Manager.  Also, the higher up the writer the more clout the letter will carry.  For example, a letter of recommendation from a full professor is more valuable than one from an assistant professor.

When to ask

Situations vary, but the more time you can allow for receiving your letter the better.  As a general rule request your letter at least a month or two in advance.

How to ask

Always be forthright when requesting a letter of recommendation.  Explain exactly why the letter is needed and its importance to you.  In addition

  • Lead up to the request if possible.  Get a sense of the writer's comfort level before actually making the request
  • Never put the writer on the spot
  • Always offer to provide information that makes the writing task easier (biographical data, employment or attendance timelines, etc.)
  • As a practical matter, if writing the letter will clearly be a favor make sure the writer knows you understand that 
  • If the subject is broached by the writer, offer to compose the letter yourself for the writer to sign

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Writing a letter of recommendation

Don't write a letter unless...

Never agree to write a letter of recommendation unless you 

  • Have the time to write it
  • Know the individual well enough to discuss him or her in a tangible way
  • Honestly feel comfortable writing the letter

It is easier and better for all involved to politely say no when any of these conditions are not met.

No need to reinvent the wheel

While it's true that the more personalized a letter of recommendation is the more effective it will probably be.  And it's true that writing a letter, any letter, involves a certain amount of creativity.  It's also true that in terms of their underlying dynamics, what they cover and how they are organized-- letters of recommendation are almost always the same.  In other words, good recommendation letters are highly formulaic.  So, approaching your letter from this context will not only make your writing easier-- it will make your recommendation more useful.

Additionally, if you are unfamiliar with the conventions of business letter writing, be sure to review the suggestions shown here.

Put yourself in the reader's shoes

The reader of your letter will most likely have read hundreds of recommendations before, and will have only limited time to devote to it.  

The business reader will have the applicant's resume.  The academic reader will have the applicant's transcript and his or her standardized test scores.  Additionally, both types of readers will have the opportunity to interview their respective candidate.  What they need from you are four things.

  • A sense that your credentials are meaningful and therefore what you say in your letter is worth listening to
  • A sense that you know the candidate well enough to form sound judgments
  • A sense of whether or not you are vouching for the candidate
  • Insights into the candidate's personal dimensions.  Insights that cannot be gleaned from a resume or transcript, and often not from an interview.

These four items form the underlying dynamics of recommendation letters.  Include all four in your letter, make them easily discernable, and you will have accomplished your task.

The underlying dynamics of recommendations

Each of the four underlying dynamics plays a role in determining the ultimate value of a recommendation, but only one requires much writing.

Dynamic Comment How communicated
Writer's credibility What is writer's expertise?  How important is writer?  How relevant is writer's background to his or her recommendation? On letterhead and/or signature title
Writer's relationship to individual Is writer individual's supervisor, professor, co-worker?  How long has writer been in a position to judge individual's talent and performance? In second sentence in opening paragraph of letter (see letter format section below)
Writer's overall opinion of individual Is the writer strongly positive about individual, lukewarm, or something else? Made clear in first sentence of opening paragraph and  reiterated in closing (see section below on communicating your overall opinion of the individual)
How individual rates on personal dimensions
Business examples
Ambitious?
Responsible?
Problem solver?
Extroverted?
Cooperative?
Can stand the heat?
Good character?
Academic examples
Love of field?
Ambitious?
Serious about studies?
Can stand the rigor?
Leadership potential?
Well rounded?
Good character?
Addressed in the body of the letter.  Covering these or other similar dimensions makes up the bulk of the letter (see letter format section below).

Letter of recommendation format

As a rule letters of recommendation are organized into three sections.  They usually contain between five and nine paragraphs.  Total word count can range from 200 to 600.

Section Length Content
Opening 1 paragraph of a couple sentences Sentence 1-- State the purpose of the letter, namely that you're writing a recommendation concerning the individual

Sentence 2-- Explain how you know the individual.  State from where and for how long you've known him or her.  Be very clear about the working relationship involved.  That is, explain whether he or she was your subordinate, co-worker, student, etc.

Body 2 to 6 paragraphs of 2 to 4 sentences each Paragraph 2-- Ease into the specifics contained in the rest of the body. Use this paragraph to characterize the individual in general terms.

Paragraphs 3 thru 6-- Address personal dimensions such as those listed above that you feel are pertinent and for which you have direct knowledge.  Include anecdotes to back-up your assessments.  Cover 1 or 2 dimensions per paragraph.

Final paragraph of body section-- If relevant, explain why the individual is seeking a new assignment.  For example, if he or she was laid off mention why.

Closing 1 or 2 paragraphs of a couple sentences

Express your level of confidence in the individual.  Explain the extent to which you believe he or she is suited to the job or program sought. 

Rec letter length

Longer is not necessarily better.  The reader, either the personnel professional or the admissions officer, is not likely to hang on every word.  More probably, he or she will be doing a quick take on each of the four dynamics outlined earlier.  What is important is that letter length in and of itself affects the reader's perceptions.

Dynamic Comment Expected length
Writer's credibility The more important the writer's title the less time the writer can devote Shorter letter
Writer's relationship to individual The closer the writer is to the individual the more likely the writer will include anecdotes Longer letter
Writer's overall opinion of individual Communicated in opening and reinforced in closing Does not influence letter length
How individual rates on personal dimensions The more the individual stands out on a particular dimension the more apt that dimension will be covered at length. One or more longer paragraphs

Communicating your overall opinion of the individual

When you combine the likelihood that the reader will not be devoting much time to reading with the truism that first impressions are not only potent but hard to overcome, it's becomes clear that communicating your overall opinion of the individual should be done very early in your letter.

In fact, recommendation letter writers almost always communicate most if not all of their true opinion when they open their letters.  The trouble is it is often unconscious.  So, it's important to understand the message you send when you open and to make sure it matches the tone of the rest of your letter.

Example opening words Opinion of individual
This letter is in reference to Very low
This serves as a letter of reference for Fairly low
I am pleased to write this letter of recommendation for Average
I am pleased to recommend Fairly high
It is a genuine pleasure and honor for me to recommend Very high

Writing your own letter

Since writing a letter of recommendation can easily consume 1 to 2 hours, it is not unusual for a busy manager or professor to hand all or part of the writing task back to the individual making a request.  If you find yourself composing your own recommendation keep in mind

  • You have two audiences, the signer and the recipient.  While you must satisfy both, the signer is more important.  So try to write from his or her perspective.
  • Follow the letter of recommendation format outlined above.
  • Address several personal dimensions.  Obviously you want to emphasize your strongest points, but be aware that too much attention to one or two things is often perceived as a lack of breadth.
  • Be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses.  Don't let overcompensation for weaknesses drive what you say.
  • Unless asked to do otherwise, only deliver a complete, polished version of the letter-- one theoretically ready for signing.  If the signer nevertheless wishes to add or delete something, accept his or her changes gracefully.

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