A letter of recommendation, or reference letter, is an important tool for job candidates who are leveraging their personal connections and impressions that aren’t shared on a resume. Recommendation letters validate the achievements listed on a candidate’s application for a new company, educational program, or internal promotion, providing important insights into their professional qualifications and character.
According to Checkster, 95% of companies perform reference checks on potential hires to find out how they handled their previous positions. The information provided by references will help an executive or manager determine whether or not the candidate is a good fit, and a detailed referral letter can put a candidate one step ahead of their contenders.
Getting all of this across in a letter may feel intimidating, but you were asked to write it for a reason. The candidate believes that you have a great understanding of their capabilities and are best suited to relay them to a potential employer or administrator, so go with your gut, and use a letter template to nail down the correct format for your referral letter.
- A letter of recommendation is a detailed statement of a candidate’s skills, achievements, and character.
- Over 90% of companies check references for potential employers to find out how they handled past positions. A well-written referral letter will provide a leading edge for any candidate.
- When describing candidate qualities, highlight those that are most relevant to the potential position and most sought after, such as critical thinking skills and problem-solving abilities.
Types of Recommendation Letters
Letters of recommendation are a form of persuasive writing that focus on a person’s exceptional qualities that will benefit a company or institution. The goal of a referral letter is to make the candidate stand out from the rest. It will add value to a person’s resume by providing a lasting impression during the acceptance process.
You can do this with a personal story, a reflection of their positive qualities, and specific examples of how they have shown strong character and work ethic in your experiences together. By highlighting the candidate’s attributes in a personalized, unique letter, they will have a far greater chance of landing the position.
There are several types of recommendation letters, depending on what position the candidate is seeking. Although the specific guidelines for each type of letter may change, the purpose will always be to write an honest portrayal of the candidate based on your personal experiences.
The most common types of referral letters include:
- Position with a new company
- Internal promotion
- Internship or fellowship
- Character reference
- Scholarship or grant offering
- Educational program
- College undergraduate/graduate acceptance
- Home rental referral
- Babysitting or part-time job referral
9 Tips for Writing Strong and Unique Recommendation Letters
1. Establish Your Relationship
The first thing you want to do when writing a letter of recommendation is establish your relationship with the candidate. What makes you the “expert” on this person’s capabilities? Include how long you’ve known the candidate, the nature of your relationship, and how they have impacted you or your company.
2. Reference the Specific Job Description or Program
When explaining a candidate’s personality and qualifications, be sure to reference examples that relate to the specific job description or program they are applying to. Remember that you are presenting this person as an ideal match for the opening, so include the candidate’s skill set and how they will use these traits to enhance the company or institution.
3. Keep It Positive
A referral letter should be honest and straightforward, but always with a positive and optimistic tone. Remember that the letter is meant to separate your recommended candidate from the rest, so you’ll be highlighting their strengths, abilities, and character.
4. List Specific Qualities, With Examples
A well-written letter of recommendation lists specific qualities or characteristics that the candidate brings to the table. Make sure that these qualities relate to the position or program that the candidate is applying for and consider what a manager, recruiter, or administrator wants to see in a candidate.
For instance, a 2018 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that employers rated critical thinking and problem-solving as the most essential competency among new hires. Other qualities deemed most important by employers include teamwork, work ethic, communication, and leadership.
5. Include Statistics and Facts
Providing specific stats and facts on the candidate’s performance is a great way to prove their value. When applicable, include a revenue growth percentage or conversion rate that the candidate helped to achieve. For educational programs, include impressive course grades or test scores.
6. Don’t Forget About Character
When you’re pointing out professional qualities in a candidate, don’t forget to mention their character, too. According to a Yale University article, “Even if we have every other desirable quality, if we lack good character, we lack something essential.”
Some noteworthy qualities that prove good character include being respectful, trustworthy, honest, loyal, compassionate, and dependable. How does the candidate display these qualities in the way they act and communicate? Answering this question will prove that they may be a good fit for a company’s or institution’s culture.
7. Follow Instructions
Each company, program manager, or institution will be looking for a specific type of recommendation letter, so use the guidelines provided, and if they’re unclear, ask the candidate for more details. You want to make the best impression by following directions carefully and submitting the letter in a timely manner.
8. Use a Letterhead
Whenever possible, use a professional letterhead when submitting a letter of recommendation. Ideally, the letter will fit onto one page, but if you have extensive experience with the candidate that requires additional room, be sure to conclude your letter within two pages.
9. Say “No” When Necessary
If you are unable to write a positive and informative letter of recommendation, then be honest with the candidate and explain that you aren’t the best choice for the task. Faking your enthusiasm will come across in the letter and may do more harm than good, so say “no” when necessary.
Letter Writing Mistakes to Avoid
Now that you know the best practices for writing a letter of recommendation, keep in mind these common mistakes that should be avoided:
- Skipping your introduction: Your introduction and explanation of your relationship with the candidate is very important because it adds credibility to the letter.
- Generalizing: A vague letter will have little impact, so be sure to add specific qualities of the candidate and personal anecdotes that will describe their attributes.
- Exaggerating the truth: Keep your letter honest. The candidate will succeed if the position is the right fit, so there’s no benefit in exaggerating the truth about their qualifications.
- Failing to keep it relevant: If the candidate is applying for a technical position and you discuss their creative qualities, the letter will have little impact. Make sure that it’s relevant to the job or program.
- Making it too long: Reference letters don’t have to be long to be impactful. In fact, keeping it concise, with specific examples that address the candidate’s qualifications, is ideal.
- Using an informal tone: Avoid using an informal or casual tone in your letter. Instead, keep it professional and remember that your writing is a reflection of the candidate you’re recommending.
How to Format Your Letter of Recommendation
What should be covered in a letter of recommendation? Follow this format:
- Provide a recommendation statement
- Introduce yourself
- List your reasons for the recommendation
- Give a personal story about the candidate
- Write a closing statement
1. Provide a Recommendation Statement (One Short Paragraph)
Begin your letter with a recommendation statement, which can be as simple as, “It is with great pleasure that I recommend [full name] for the [position title] in your [organization, company, or program].”
To Whom It May Concern:
It is with great pleasure that I recommend Ashley Smith for a position as the Communications Director for C&C Global.
2. Introduce Yourself (One Short Paragraph)
You want to be seen as a reliable resource, so provide an explanation of your professional position (title and longevity), your relationship with the candidate, and how long you’ve known this person. Close the paragraph by noting how impressed you’ve been by the candidate in your time together and note 1–2 specific characteristics that stand out to you.
I am Christine Leigh, a Regional Manager at Waterside Communications Company with 15 years of experience in a leadership role. I currently manage 20 employees in the communications department, working with each of them daily to create engaging and informative content for our clients. Ashley Smith is one such employee who stands out to me due to her willingness to get the job done and the leadership abilities she displays among her coworkers.
3. List Your Reasons for Recommendation (1–2 Paragraphs)
List 2–3 specific reasons why you recommend the candidate for the position or program, providing examples of how you’ve seen these attributes play out in the workplace or educational setting.
Examples of candidate characteristics you may include are:
- Leadership skills
- Technical skills
- Time management
- Attention to detail
- Communication skills
- Social skills
- Motivated to learn
- Natural talent
- Growth mindset
- Critical thinking skills
During Ashley’s five years on my team, she has displayed a range of leadership skills and natural talents. She works well in a collaborative setting, providing the critical thinking skills necessary to approach new projects with a unique perspective. Her creativity and attention to detail have been paramount for the success of our team, with a client retention rate that’s grown 10% since she joined the company.
4. Provide a Personal Story About the Candidate (1–2 Paragraphs)
This is where you can describe a specific example in which you witnessed exceptional skills by the candidate. Explain when this took place, what qualities the candidate showed, and what this example says about their overall personality and capabilities.
A personal story about the candidate may include a(n):
- Obstacle that was overcome
- Learning moment
- “Saved the day” scenario
- Team player situation
- “Going the extra mile” example
- Dedication to their work example
- Task that the candidate completed with excellence
- Example of their intelligence in a specific area/topic
- Story of a time you learned something from them
It didn’t take long for Ashley to prove her worth to the team. Just a few months after being hired, Ashley was tasked with leading a new client project, which required extensive research, copy and graphics creation, and clear communication with the client.
Not only did she finish the project in a timely manner, one week before the deadline, but she worked as a leader to highlight every team member’s attributes. The finished product was flawless and it boosted the morale of the entire communications department. Needless to say, the clients were thrilled with the results and they continue to be loyal customers to this day.
5. Write a Closing Statement (One Short Paragraph)
In your closing statement, provide your contact information and offer to provide additional information about the candidate, if requested. Conclude with a final statement about the candidate and reiterate your position that they would be an asset to the company or institution.
The letter should end with your signature and your position title listed underneath your full name.
I know a referral letter provides only a snippet of a candidate’s achievements, so I invite you to reach out to me if you have any questions about Ashley or seek additional information about her qualifications. Feel free to contact me at 888-123-4567. I will miss Ashley’s work ethic and trustworthiness but know that a leadership role, as communications director for a company like yours, is far better suited for her level of expertise. For this reason, I wholeheartedly recommend her for the position.
Waterside Communications Company
How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation
If you’re not the letter writer, but the letter seeker, knowing what’s required in a letter of recommendation is important. The writer will be tasked with highlighting your best qualities, so be sure to choose someone who has witnessed your strengths first-hand. Ask a manager, colleague, mentor, or teacher—someone you’ve had a positive relationship with for an extended period of time.
First, ask them face-to-face or over the phone to write the letter. Then follow up with an informative email that includes the position you’re applying for, guidelines for the referral letter, and any other information needed to write a detailed recommendation. Make sure you’re giving enough time to write the letter and provide a due date.
If you know that needing a letter of recommendation will be a requirement down the road, but you’re not sure who you would ask, consider getting a mentor. Read this article on how to find a mentor and why you need one.