By Mike Simpson
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The best way to discuss your letter of recommendation is clearly by beginning with a little role playing (wink wink).
Imagine you’re at a huge party. The room is filled with people you’ve never met and you’re standing awkwardly off to the side, unsure of what to do. You want to interact but you don’t know a single person there.
Sure, you could go up and start introducing yourself to people but that’s always tough.
You keep looking around, trying to find somebody – anybody – you know. Then, out of the corner of your eye you spot a familiar face! Whew, you’re saved!
You rush over to your friend and suddenly that strange feeling of being totally alone in a crowd is gone.
“Boy am I glad to see you,” you tell your friend.
“Are you here alone?” they ask.
You nod and look around the room, again taking in the crowd of total strangers. Let’s be honest…it’s a little intimidating. “You’re the only person I know here.”
“Well that’s not good. Come on, I’ll introduce you to the gang!”
Your friend takes you by the arm and pulls you into the crowd. They not only introduce you by name to everyone, but also go so far as to even brag a bit about knowing you, sharing short stories about funny and smart you are as well as how hard working you are and how proud they are to know you.
Within minutes you’ve met everyone and suddenly you’ve gone from being an awkward outsider to an insider with a whole new slew of people to hang out with.
Being in the job market and going to interviews with hiring managers is a little bit like going to that party where you don’t know anyone. It’s tough to walk into a room and suddenly find yourself having to interact with total strangers.
Wouldn’t it be nice if you had a friend who could help you out?
No, we don’t mean you should start using the buddy system for all your interviews, but it is possible for an interviewer to have a good heads up as to who you are and what some of your best qualities are.
So just what do you call this amazing pre-introduction?
A letter of recommendation.
Having a well written recommendation letter can do more to help you get a job than almost any other piece of paper in your job hunting arsenal.
A letter of recommendation (sometimes also called a reference letter) is a document where the writer (also called the referee) breaks down the potential job seeker’s skills, qualities, and abilities based on the job for which they’re applying and relates personal anecdotes and examples to help give the reader an inside look at their personality and work ethic.
To go back to our earlier party scenario, that letter of recommendation is acting like your friend and introducing you to potential employers. Not only is it giving your name, but also highlighting some of your best qualities that might not be revealed should a hiring manager just be looking at your resume.
For this blog, we’re going to break down reference letters into two parts: what to do if you’re writing one and what to do if you’re asking for one to be written for you.
How to Write a Letter of Recommendation
No matter what stage of your career you’re in, knowing how to write a solid recommendation letter can only help you. Not only may you be asked to write one for a coworker or peer, but knowing what goes into one will only make asking for your own letter later on easier and more effective.
Let’s start with how to respond if you’re asked to write one.
Hopefully the person asking you to write one is a solid candidate for whatever position they’re applying for. In that case writing a letter should be fairly straight forward and simple. (We’ll have a template at the end of this post for you to build off of.)
But what if the person asking you for a letter isn’t someone you feel comfortable writing one for?
Maybe they’re not right for the position they’re applying for.
Maybe they don’t have the skills in place yet for the job.
Maybe it’s someone you don’t know well enough to really recommend for anything.
Then again, maybe it’s someone you just don’t like and writing them a glowing letter feels like lying.
There are a million reasons you might not want to write a letter for someone. So how do you say no gracefully?
How To Decline a Request to Write a Recommendation Letter
First off, keep in mind that a letter of recommendation is more than just a piece of paper that says nice things about someone. It’s also a written document that you, as the writer, are staking your reputation on.
By writing one, you’re vouching for someone and putting your reputation as a professional and brand on the dotted line, as well as the company’s reputation and brand.
Whoa! Suddenly that letter became a whole lot more heavy, didn’t it?!
First thing first, check your employer/employee handbook. Many employers actually have a pretty firm policy in place that forbids employees from writing letters of recommendation.
Of course, even if your company doesn’t explicitly forbid it, you can refuse to write them on the grounds that you don’t do it for anyone due to potential liability issues.
It’s also perfectly acceptable (and always preferred) to be honest with whoever is asking, especially if you’re asked to write one for someone you don’t know well or don’t feel comfortable writing one for.
Without going too far into detail (and certainly without being intentionally mean or devastating) a simple “I’m sorry, I’m flattered you’ve asked me but I don’t feel comfortable writing one for you because I don’t feel we’ve worked together long enough/closely enough to truly speak to your talents and abilities,” (or a variation of that same theme.)
If you know your letter, no matter how hard you try, is not going to be positive, don’t waste your time or the time of the person requesting the letter by trying to write one. And whatever you do, don’t lie in the letter. Saying no is so much easier and so much more professional than sending out a letter padded with fluff, half-truths, and/or full out lies.
Again, remember, it’s not just a letter, it’s your reputation.
But what if you say yes? How do you write a good letter of recommendation for someone you’re truly interested in helping?
If You Agree to Write a Letter of Recommendation
Let’s start with the basics.
At their core, letters of recommendation are essentially just personalized praise for someone.
You’re highlighting a person’s qualifications and skills and giving a potential employer more information about who they are beyond just what their resume might tell someone.
Start your letter out with a bit of genuine praise and enthusiasm for the individual. Make sure whoever is reading the letter knows instantly that the person you are writing about is someone you genuinely believe in.
Don’t be ridiculous about your praise…and be sincere.
Make sure you also indicate how you know the person and for how long.
When it comes time to talk about the person you’re recommending, blanket statements are a great way to start out but don’t forget to also go into specifics, especially as it relates to the position they’re applying for or the job they’re going for.
Try to relate a personal story about how you observed/witnessed/noticed the individual using their skills/knowledge/abilities in a positive way.
Leave room for growth as well.
Make sure you’re not putting the person you’re writing about so high on a pedestal that it comes off as disingenuous or false. Say where they’ve improved and/or grown and that they’re continuing to learn and grow as they continue in their career.
Close your letter with a positive statement relating to the person you’re writing about and their ability to take on this new role/job. Again, keep it realistic and brief.
Proper Letter of Recommendation Format
Now that we’ve gone over the basics, let’s look at format.
It’s first and foremost a letter, so sticking to the same rules we’ve gone over countless times for other forms of correspondence (cover letters, resignation letters, letters of interest, etc.) still stand.
Keep it professional. Keep it focused. Keep it to one page.
Legibility is “Rule Number 1” when writing any sort of letter, so make sure you stick to fonts that are easy to read.
Sans Serifs fonts are fonts which are are known for being “easy of the eyes” which basically means that a hiring manager reading it won’t have any issues trying to figure out what they’re looking at or run into any kind of eye strain or other difficulties.
The Sans Serifs fonts that we consistently recommend are Arial, Verdana, Trebuchet MS, Century Gothic, Gill Sans MT, Lucida Sans and Tahoma as well as our favorite, Helvetica. Helvetica works well because it is the perfect combination of both clarity and style.
You also want to be very careful when you are deciding what font size you are going to use. The strategy of making everything tiny so you can fit it all onto one page won’t make a great impression with the hiring manager who reads your colleague’s letter of recommendation.
Try to stay between 10.5 and 12 points. Any smaller and it’s hard to read.
Okay, let’s pull this all together and see how an example letter might look. Ready? Here we go:
Letter of Recommendation Sample
Look, we get that trying to write a letter like this for the first time can be an intimidating task, so below we’ve provided you with a great sample letter of recommendation that you can easily model your letter after:
[Your City, State, Zip Code]
[Your Phone Number]
[City, State, Zip Code]
Dear Mr./Mrs./Ms. [Last Name],
I am writing to you to confidently recommend [Name] as a candidate for [position] with [Company].
As a [position], [Name] has worked with me at [Company] for [length of time].
During that time, I thoroughly enjoyed working with [Name]. While employed with us here at [Company], [Name] demonstrated critical skills, knowledge and abilities that will make [him/her] a valuable employee to your company.
While working with [Name], I observed on several occasions that [his/her] knowledge of [specific subject/skill] was extensive. In fact, on numerous occasions [Specific story related to their skills at a particular job or task that relates directly to the position they are now applying for].
In addition, [Name] is a team player and has demonstrated time and time again a willingness to go above and beyond. [Name] is a hard-working, dependable, knowledgeable individual and I consider [him/her] to have been a true asset to myself, the team and the company overall.
Please don’t hesitate to contact me at [your contact information here] should you have any questions or would like to discuss [Name]’s qualifications and skills in greater detail. I would be more than happy to expand further on my endorsement.
Wow, now that’s a great letter of recommendation template to use!
Of course, it’s just a sample template and you should absolutely use it as a guide…but be sure to tweak it to fit your individual needs. Remember, specifics are what get people hired so make sure you include those in your letter and be ready to back them up should a potential employer call you to ask for further details and clarification (another reason to NEVER LIE or OVEREXAGGERATE!).
Of course, like everything in life, there are ways to write your letter and ways not to write your letter. Let’s quickly go over what not to do.
Top 5 Recommendation Letter Writing Mistakes
1. WRITING A LETTER FOR SOMEONE YOU DON’T WANT TO WRITE ONE FOR:
We touched briefly on this before but we’ll go over it again because it’s so important.
Never write a letter for someone you don’t want to!
Again, there are a million good reasons NOT to write a letter but only ONE good reason to write one…and that reason is you genuinely and honestly believe the person you are writing the letter for is a good candidate for the position and you’re ready to stake your personal and professional reputation on that belief.
If you can’t honestly say that is true, then do NOT write the letter. No.
2. WRITING A LETTER THAT IS PADDED WITH LOTS OF COMPLIMENTS BUT NO SPECIFICS:
This goes hand in hand with mistake number 1. If you don’t know the person well enough to write specifics, then it’s probably a good sign you shouldn’t be writing the letter in the first place.
3. NOT TAILORING YOUR LETTER:
It’s always a good idea to ask the person you’re writing the letter for exactly how your letter will be used so you can properly tailor it.
Anyway, if there is a specific job they’re applying for, ask them if you can take a look at a copy of the job posting/write up. It won’t do anyone any good if you write a glowing letter that completely misses the specifics of the job they’re applying for.
If the letter you’re writing is more of a general recommendation (great for recent grads or people new to the job market) you still want to try to work some specifics into what you write to help them out. Ask them what sort of jobs they will be using the letter for and tailor your content based on that.
The more information you have about what sort of work they want to do and how the letter will be used, the more effective you can make your letter.
4. WRITING A LETTER THAT ISN’T TRUE OR IS OVERINFLATED:
It might seem like you’re doing the person you’re writing the letter for a favor by overstating their abilities, but in actuality all you’re doing is setting them up for failure. When you build up a potential employers expectations for an individual, you’re essentially making promises the job seeker can’t keep.
Not only could that have serious ramifications for them if they’re hired into a position they’re unprepared/unqualified for, but it also calls into question your ability as a professional to assess quality work.
5. NOT SPELL CHECKING/PROOFING YOUR LETTER:
This extends beyond just the usual grammar/spell checking and should also cover making sure you’re spelling the recipient’s name correctly as well as the name of the individual you’re writing the letter for.
Nothing screams “I don’t really know this person that well” quite like spelling their name wrong…and if you don’t know them well enough to spell their name right, what else do you not know about them? It throws the entire letter into doubt, including the validity of your endorsement.
Ok, so the last few sections dealt with the recommendation letter writer – or the person who is asked to write a letter of recommendation.
But what if you’re the one asking for the letter…not writing it yourself? So glad you brought that up!
How to Ask For a Letter of Recommendation
Asking for a letter of recommendation can be a nerve wracking experience, but it doesn’t have to be.
In many cases, the individual you’re asking will feel flattered that you trust them enough to write that letter for you.
And speaking of flattery, it doesn’t hurt to let them know why you consider their opinion of you to be important either, especially in a professional capacity.
Let the person you’re asking know why you value their opinion and how you feel their professional experience will help you in your pursuit of your next job.
Yes, this might seem like simple flattery, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to give a little ego boost along with your request, but more importantly, it shows the person you’re asking that you’re doing your research and making sure that the letter they write is right for the job you’re applying for.
You’re demonstrating to them that you trust their opinion and feel comfortable allowing them to assess you and share that opinion with your potential future employer.
Who To Ask For a Recommendation Letter
Always keep in mind what jobs/positions/companies you’re applying to and make sure your letters are relevant to that job/position/company.
It’s okay to have a letter from someone outside of the industry you’re applying to, especially if you’re in a career transition, but you want to make sure no matter what that the content of the letter directly relates to the job you’re going for.
In other words, choose a person that will offer a reference that is relevant to the industry.
Speaking of relevance, make sure you’re only using letters that are current. Using a letter that is old or outdated is only going to make you look bad. You want to use a letter that relates directly to the work you’re currently doing and/or applying to do.
You also want to make sure it’s someone who knows you well enough to be able to honestly assess you and your skills. At the same time, you also want someone who is going to be objective in their assessment.
What to Include in a Letter of Recommendation
Now let’s talk about what should be in that letter and the best way to make sure it covers what you want it to cover is to give your writer all the relevant information up front.
THIS DOES NOT MEAN YOU WRITE THE LETTER YOURSELF AND GET YOUR TARGET WRITER TO JUST SIGN IT.
Hey, we get it, everyone’s busy and not everyone is going to be eager to write you a personalized letter. In many instances, when you ask someone for a letter, they’ll agree to sign one as long as you write it up.
Do NOT fall for this.
While it might be tempting to write your own letter of recommendation (and really, who knows you better than you do?) you’re not doing anyone any favors, yourself most of all.
Because these letters tend to come off as over the top and insincere. You want your letter to read “objective and sincere” and it is tough to accomplish when you are singing your own praises.
Instead, try suggesting that you’ll write up some specifics and ideas and then let them elaborate on those in their own words.
It’s also a great idea to provide the person writing your letter with specific achievements and recent interactions.
You should also include any details you feel might be relevant to the job you’re applying for as well as examples of skills you have demonstrated that will help you with your future work as well.
This echoes the “tips” we offered earlier in this article that cover “tailoring” the letter. Make sure the person writing your letter understands that the letter will be much more powerful if it highlights the knowledge, skills and abilities that your company puts the most value in (and of course making the case that you possess those qualities).
Again, the idea isn’t to write your own letter, but to provide whoever is writing the letter with enough solid information to make it easier on them.
Finally, make sure you let the person writing your letter know how much you appreciate both their time and the letter.
Dropping them a little note is not only a great way to say thank you but will also go a long way towards future requests should you have to ask them for another letter of recommendation again down the road.
Top 5 Recommendation Letter-Securing Tips
1. GIVE YOUR WRITER ENOUGH TIME TO WRITE THE LETTER:
Writing a personalized letter of recommendation for someone is a big deal. Make sure when you ask someone for one that you’re showing them respect and appreciation for what you’re asking by giving them enough time to get the task done.
Asking someone for a letter 24 hours later means you run the risk of ending up with a sloppily written rush job. Always provide plenty of lead time and follow up with gentle reminders, but try not to be annoying or put too much pressure on the individual writing the letter.
2. GIVE YOUR WRITER THE INFORMATION THEY NEED TO WRITE YOU A GREAT LETTER…BUT DON’T WRITE IT YOURSELF:
The ultimate goal of any job seeker required to provide a letter of recommendation is to have one that is specifically tailored to the job you’re applying for and the best way to make sure that happens is by providing your writer with as much information as possible.
If you’re applying for a specific job, include a copy of it with your letter so they can tailor what they share about you. Feel free to also include a list of applicable accomplishments and achievements. Remember, you’re not writing the letter for them, but making sure that their task is easy and painless.
3. ASK SOMEONE WHO REALLY KNOWS YOU:
Having a letter of recommendation from the desk of the CEO of your company might seem like a great idea, but unless you’re working directly with this person and they know your work personally, it’s essentially a useless letter.
Don’t try to impress a potential employer by giving them a letter full of generic compliments written by someone who barely knows you. While it might look good in theory to get a letter from the head of the company, employers would much rather have a letter from someone who really knows you and is aware of your skills and abilities and can speak directly to your contributions to and history with the company.
4. ASK SOMEONE WHO IS RELEVANT TO THE JOB YOU’RE GOING AFTER:
It’s great to have a well written letter of recommendation but asking for one from someone who has little to no relevance to the job you’re applying for is basically a waste of time for you both.
If you’re applying for a job as an upper level accountant with a multi-national corporation, it really won’t do you much good to bring in a letter from your local dog groomer who you’ve worked with a few times before while in college.
5. DON’T INSIST YOU GET TO READ THE LETTER YOURSELF:
It is absolutely human nature to want to know what others think of you, but in the case of recommendation letters, sometimes not knowing is better off than knowing.
Confused? Don’t be. Let me explain.
In some instances applications which ask for letters of recommendation also include a form where you can waive your rights to read what those letters say. (Generally this is most true in the world of academia, but is sometimes also included in the professional world as well, so it’s worth covering here briefly.)
Why would you ever say okay to this form and waive the right to know what your letters say about you?
Going back to human nature – a person will generally be more honest and candid in what they write if they know that you’re not going to be reading the letter yourself. Of course, this is a great way to make sure the person you’re asking to write your letter is the right person for the job.
If you have any doubts about what they might write, then that’s probably a good indicator that they shouldn’t be the person you choose to ask.
Putting it All Together
So there you have it! More information than you ever thought possible for letters of recommendation. We’ve covered both how to write a solid letter for someone as well as how to ask for one for yourself and given you a great letter of recommendation template to help build your own off of.
Regardless of what side of the letter you are on (writer or receiver) keep in mind that a well written letter is a lot like your friend at our role playing party.
You want them to give you the best possible introduction without totally blowing smoke up the tail pipe of whoever is reading it. Keep your letters brief, keep them targeted, keep them realistic and honest, and as always…