How to Write A Letter of Recommendation (Format & Sample Included)

By Mike Simpson

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.

Nice, huh?!

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.

Why?

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.

In this article, 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.

NOTE: This article is about a letter of recommendation from your professional career. If you are looking for info on character reference letters check out our article here.

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 a letter of recommendation for a coworker or colleague, 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 One

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