Recommendation Letter Tips, Tricks, and Advice
by Dr. Melvin Luthy, WriteExpress Chief Editor
Alice Feathers, M.A. TESOL, Professional Editor and Writer
Do you know your employer's rules regarding recommendation letters?
The new employer may sue if he or she finds the newly hired individual does not measure up to the assertions made in the letter of recommendation. Consequently, these letters now tend to be brief, stating only absolutely verifiable information concerning the individual, such as length of employment, job description, responsibilities, etc. A general, "To Whom It May Concern" reference letter, however, is not considered legally binding and may include a more embellished description of the former employee's qualities.
The individual will often copy this letter and submit it to several potential employers. A former employee may also merely list the name of a former employer or supervisor as a reference in his or her resume or initial letter of application for a new position.
Recommendation Letter Tips
If you need to secure a good position in the work force or be admitted to a school of higher learning, you will probably need one or more letters of recommendation. Both employers and admissions boards need to know as much as possible about an applicant to determine his or her ability to perform adequately. Letters of recommendation provide information from a former employer or a credible associate who has been personally involved with the candidate. This outside source provides a valuable record of the candidate's previous experience and can testify to his or her skills and abilities.
An effective letter of recommendation:
- verifies experience
- confirms competence
- builds credibility
- bolsters confidence
The information contained in a letter of recommendation depends on the type of letter and its intended audience. Information is often different for a letter written for an academic admissions board than one written for a prospective employer.
Types of Recommendations
Letters of recommendation provide a vehicle for a former employer to provide you with a credible history of your skills, abilities, job performance, and accomplishments. A potential employer may or may not request a letter, but having one or more available upon request is part of careful preparation for the interview. Even if not requested, a well-written letter of recommendation may help you stand out in the evaluation process.
The employee usually requests the letter of recommendation from a direct supervisor or other manager with personal knowledge of the employee's performance on the job and positions held. This person might also add comments regarding individual qualities such as initiative and dedication. A potential employer may also request character references testifying to the candidate's work ethic, dependability, and motivation level.
The credibility of the letter writer is very important in a character reference. These letters may or may not be addressed to a specific person, and may either be mailed to the recipient by the writer or hand-delivered by the employee at the interview. Ask for this type of letter only if you are on good terms with a current employer and he or she is able to respond positively to news that you are leaving. If you have already secured a new position, it may not be necessary to ask your current employer for a letter of recommendation. Letters of recommendation from employers may contain evidence or confirmation of some or all of the following:
- Previous positions held in the company
- Summary of job responsibilities
- Strengths, skills, and talents
- Initiative, dedication, integrity, reliability, etc.
- Ability to work with a team
- Ability to work independently
Admission to any institute of higher learning usually requires one or more letters of recommendation. Graduate programs often require the submission of two or more letters and frequently follow specifically outlined procedures for their creation and submission. Be sure to follow these instructions carefully.
Letters required for admission to post-graduate studies are typically written by a faculty member, academic advisor, or administrator. In some cases, an employer can write the letter if academic recommendations are not available. These letters provide the admissions committee with information not found in the application—information that shows the applicant matches the school's expectations and requirements. The letter also provides an opportunity for an applicant to be seen as an individual, and helps him or her to stand out from the hundreds or thousands of other applicants.
It is important that the person providing the recommendation has a good understanding of your academic history, interests, goals, and direction. Normally, this type of recommendation letter is addressed to a specific person and should be submitted along with the admission application or as outlined in the admissions procedure. In many cases, accredited universities require that letters of recommendation be sent directly to specific departments or to the admissions office. If this is the case, the applicant may be required to sign a waiver of confidentiality and relinquish his or her right to access the information contained in the letter or forms. Academic letters of recommendation may contain evidence or confirmation of the following:
- Academic performance
- Honors and awards
- Initiative, dedication, integrity, reliability, etc.
- Willingness to follow school policy
- Ability to work with others
- Ability to work independently
The Letter Writer
Choose who will represent you wisely. No one person can represent you accurately in all areas. Find someone who knows your strengths in the areas you need to satisfy the requirements of a particular employer or admissions board. Schedule a convenient time for you and your employer or advisor to meet. Review the requirements and expectations of the recommendation letter. This process helps the person who is writing the letter answer questions, clarify points that may need elaboration, and point out additional information that may be required. Make this process easy by providing all of the information needed so that you can obtain an accurate and positive recommendation.
When you request a recommendation, communicate your needs in a straightforward way. Explain what you are applying for and ask if the person can provide you with a good recommendation. If someone exhibits any uneasiness about providing you with a strong recommendation, be polite, thank him or her for their time and then look elsewhere. Choose someone who:
- can provide a well-written letter
- knows you well enough to be credible
- thinks highly of you and your abilities
- holds a respected position
Keep in mind that the recommender is doing you a favor and has a busy schedule with other commitments. Make sure you allow enough time so that he or she can provide you with a well-written and effective letter.
Writing Your Own Letter of Recommendation
Do not be surprised if a person you are asking for a recommendation asks you to write a first draft of the letter that he or she will then modify and sign. Begin by providing an accurate assessment of your strengths without dwelling on limitations. Letters of recommendation are intended to be positive and realistic evaluations of performance, competence, and capability. Do not be shy in communicating your strengths. Look at the following suggestions:
- List your strengths, talents, and abilities. These may include diligence, punctuality, leadership, reliability, enthusiasm, creativity, independence, teamwork, organization, etc.
- Highlight your strengths and accomplishments without bragging.
- Choose several of your qualities and strengths that match the current situation; do not list everything you have ever done.
- Use a professional vocabulary and style; write as if you were the employer providing the letter.
Writing a Letter of Recommendation for Someone Else
When you are asked to write a letter of recommendation, be honest in your assessment. Put yourself in the reader's position and consider what you would want to know if you were reading the letter. If you have concerns about specific areas, be up front with the requester when you are asked to write the recommend. There should be no surprises. A good way to create a letter of recommendation is to use pre-designed templates available in letter-writing products. Additionally, you should review writing samples to better understand the structure before you begin to write. Follow these steps to be fair to everyone involved:
- Be honest about your feelings, intentions, and concerns. This will save time and embarrassment for both parties if you feel that you cannot provide a good recommendation.
- If you are not sure what to write, ask the requester to provide a draft letter for you to review, edit, finalize, and sign.
- Find out when the requestor needs the letter and be sensitive to deadlines.
Letters of recommendation may be written in a classic format that includes an introduction, body, and conclusion. There may also be specific requirements for certain letters that you may need to follow. In most cases, however, any well-organized format will be acceptable. Look at the following sample format:
- Introduce yourself as the recommender. State your professional position, how you know the applicant, the length of your relationship, and any other pertinent information to build your credibility as a knowledgeable contributor.
- Provide an overview of your general impressions of the applicant.
- Cover one exceptional quality of the applicant in each paragraph
- Use specific examples to show how you observed each quality
- Address qualities in order of importance
- Keep the body of the letter to two or three paragraphs
- Confirm that the applicant would be a desirable employee, adding any other comments you feel appropriate.
- Encourage the reader to contact you for additional information or with any questions.
- Don't forget to personally sign the letter.
(four single returns)
Don't forget to personally sign the letter.
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