How to Write the Perfect Recommendation Letter

Larry Barkdull
Award-Winning, Nationally Recognized Writer

This article discusses three considerations for a recommendation letter:

  1. Requesting a Recommendation Letter
  2. Agreeing to write a Recommendation Letter
  3. How to write a Recommendation Letter

Requesting a Recommendation Letter

Before you get started, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Ask for a recommendation letter from people who know you and your capabilities, i.e., former employers, teachers, coaches, community or corporate leaders, influential friends who have known you a long time, etc. Relatives are not a good choice. Three letters are enough.
  • Be sure to give them time (3-4 weeks, if possible) to write the recommendation letter.
  • When you talk to them, tell them about your goals and what they might say to help you achieve those goals. Coach them to be specific; general praise is a waste of space. Don't be shy. A recommendation letter is a sales letter to sell you. Now is the time to brag!
  • Follow up your request with a review of your conversation in writing-even some suggestions for your letter would help. You may need to put words in their mouths. When you send your follow-up letter, be sure to include a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Then, feel free to contact them in a couple of weeks to confirm that they are aware of your deadlines.
  • Once you receive your recommendation letter, send a thank-you note. You should also let them know about your success and how they helped you.

Agreeing to write a Recommendation Letter

Are you the right person to write a letter of recommendation? If you are asked to write such a letter, you need to discuss this subject honestly with the requester. A letter of recommendation is most effective when it is written by a person who knows the requester or his/her reputation. Do you qualify? Another consideration is your integrity-can you honestly write positive things about the requester? If not, you need to bow out gracefully without hurting feelings. On the other hand, if you qualify, you should brainstorm with the requester to write what he or she wishes to be said, and be sensitive to deadlines.

How to write a Recommendation Letter

Here are some easy guidelines (not necessarily in order):

  • Explain how you know the applicant. If you've known him/her for a long time, you can state that fact.
  • State your own qualifications. Why should the reader be interested in your recommendation? How many other people of the caliber of the applicant have you known?
  • List the applicant's exceptional qualities and skills, especially those that are specific to the applicant's field of interest or job request. For example, competency in his/her field or prior experience, organizational and communication skills, academic or other achievements, interaction with others, sound judgment, reliability, analytical ability, etc.
  • Emphasize key points that you want the reader to note on the resume or application. Be sure to meaningfully elaborate, don't simply restate.
  • Give your value judgment of the applicant and his/her qualifications and potential. Why should he/she be considered over others? In your opinion, how does he/she compare to others? Omit weaknesses. If you can't write a positive letter of recommendation, you should respectfully decline in the first place.
  • Give specific examples to back up what you have said in the recommendation letter. Again, providing vague praise is a waste of space.
  • Unless it is absolutely relevant, do not include references (direct or implied) to the applicant's race, religion, national origin, age, disability, gender or marital status.
  • Don't be too brief. One or two short paragraphs are death. But be succinct. Make every word count. Here is a rule of thumb: a letter of recommendation for employment should be one page; a letter of recommendation for school should be 1-2 pages.
  • Make the ending strong without overdoing it. Undue praise can be viewed as biased or insincere.
  • List your contact information if you are willing to receive follow-up correspondence.
  • Proofread! The letter of recommendation represents both you and the applicant.

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