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Writing a Letter of Recommendation

Last updated 29th Nov 2022
Being asked to write a letter of recommendation is an honor. Everyone feels good inside when they help someone in need; so when asked to write a letter for a coworker or colleague, it's only natural to agree. Unfortunately, it's easier to say "yes" than it is to put the note together. In this article, we're going to explain how to go about writing a letter of recommendation. As part of that explanation, we'll first talk about when it is, and when it's not, appropriate to write a letter. We'll also run through the types of information that makes for a great letter, and the information that is best left off. Finally, we'll run through the standard structure for the document as well as provide an example.

Letters of Recommendation

Also referred to as reference letters, character, and employment reference, a letter of recommendation is a document that makes supportive statements for a job candidate. Ideally, the letter should provide a factual evaluation of the candidate's knowledge, skills, and capabilities. The overall objective is to help the job candidate find employment. Anyone that's asked to write a letter by a colleague or coworker should take this responsibility very seriously. Essentially, someone is asking for assistance with their personal finances. Finding a job quickly could mean the difference between losing a home to foreclosure and rebuilding the family's rainy day fund.

Agreeing to Write a Letter

Unfortunately, some people find themselves in the situation where they're not comfortable saying "yes" to this opportunity. This brings up several important points to consider before agreeing or declining:
  • If it's impossible to make a deadline or firm commitment, then don't agree to write a letter.
  • If the work habits of the person asking are unknown or seem vague, then don't agree to write a letter.
  • If the individual's work habits or on-the-job performance are not where they need to be, then don't agree to write a letter.
People intuitively know right away if they're comfortable, willing, and able to help. It's an awesome responsibility, and a well-written note will take time.

Elements of a Good Letter

By now, the recruiter or hiring manager will have read job applications, cover letters, and resumes. An effective letter of recommendation needs to be personal, relevant, factual, and brief:
  • Personal: The letter can be made personal by including information about the writer's relationship to the job seeker.
  • Relevant: It can be made relevant by asking the job applicant about the types of jobs they're seeking, and including related work observations.
  • Factual: The document can be made to appear more factual by including a job title, an actual signature, as well as specific observations or achievements of the individual.
  • Brief: Finally, the letter can be made as brief as possible by following a prescribed format as the example below demonstrates.

Example Outline

The outline for putting together a letter of recommendation is going to follow the "tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them" approach. This is accomplished in a very professional / business-like manner. The contents of the letter will include:
Formal Greeting
Suggestions for the greeting include:
  • To Whom It May Concern:
  • Dear Sir or Madam:
First Paragraph
The first sentence will include a recommendation statement, while the remainder of the first paragraph will be dedicated to explaining how the writer has come to know the individual, how long they've known the individual, and the work relationship. For example, the first paragraph might take the following form: It gives me great pleasure to write this letter of recommendation for John Smith. I have worked side-by-side with John for the last seven years in the finance department at 3M Corporation. For three years, John served as a financial analyst and was a direct report to me. John was later promoted to the Manager - Project Finances position, where we worked together as peers.
Second and Third Paragraphs
The second and possibly third paragraphs need to include specific examples of the behaviors, knowledge, and results observed when working together with the job applicant. It's important to be as factual and precise as possible since this approach will add credibility to the letter. An example of the second and third paragraphs would be: As a direct report, John was a successful, easy to manage associate, and he always gave that extra effort to meet deadlines. John demonstrated superior analytical capabilities and soon became an expert in the area of corporate finance. John demonstrated his leadership capabilities when a fellow manager became ill and he was asked to temporarily step into that role. John was permanently promoted after his team successfully developed a new quarterly closing process that reduced the number of days required to close the company books from four days to two, saving the organization over $500,000 annually. As a member of the company's Global Strategies and Finance Committee, John played a key role in leading a group of fifty associates through a process that would standardize project finance practices across the enterprise.
Closing Paragraph
A letter of recommendation should close out the same way it started; with a statement of sincere endorsement. If appropriate, offer to answer questions the reader might have concerning the job applicant. An example of a good closing paragraph would take the following form: While I'll certainly miss the working relationship I had with John through the years, I'm confident he will be able to make an immediate as well as positive impact on your organization. If you have any questions or concerns about John's capabilities, experience, or credentials don't hesitate to call me at the number below.
It's important to provide a "wet" signature on the letter if at all possible. The signature would include a business sign-off as well as name and contact information. An example of the signature section would be as follows: Sincerely, Tom A. Workerbee Manager - Project Finances, 3M Corporation Office: 800-555-1212 Extension 1234

Downloadable Example

As promised, we're providing a sample of a letter of recommendation that can be downloaded for free. We've taken the above elements and formatted the example: Letter of Recommendation. After a letter has been composed, remember to use the same practices that apply to a resume, including proofreading the document. It's an awesome responsibility to help a former colleague or coworker find a job, so it's important to help them make a good first impression with a flawless letter.

About the Author - Writing a Letter of Recommendation

Moneyzine Editor

Moneyzine Editor