If somebody—a current or former student, colleague, intern, employee, or mentee—asks you to write them a letter of recommendation, take a moment to be proud of yourself. You’ve made an impact on them, and they trust you enough to ask you to help them move forward in their career, educational or otherwise.
After you give yourself a pat on the back, get to work on writing the kind of letter of recommendation that will make them stand out as an ideal candidate for the position they’re seeking. That’s the key to writing an effective letter of recommendation: It’s not enough to express that they’re a great person; you need to demonstrate that they would be an asset to the company, school, or program for which they are applying.
What is a letter of recommendation?
A letter of recommendation is an honest testimonial about an individual that recommends them for a specific role, grant, or acceptance into a program. Although the goal is to present the letter’s subject in the best light possible, you need to present the information in a factual manner.
Types of letters of recommendation
There are a few different, common reasons why an individual might ask for a letter of recommendation. The goal is the same for every letter of recommendation: to present the candidate as an ideal match for the position or program they’re seeking. But the right topics to cover in your letter vary between the different types.
Academic letters of recommendation
If you’ve been asked to write a letter of recommendation for a student, your letter should speak specifically about their academic performance as well as the character traits that make them a strong candidate for the spot in the program or grant they’re seeking. There can be various application scenarios where a student might ask for a letter of recommendation:
- Undergraduate college
- A specific academic program within a college, such as the honors program or a particular major
- Graduate, medical, or law school
- A grant or scholarship
- An internship or fellowship
Whenever possible, tailor your letter of recommendation to the specific institution or program where the student is seeking acceptance.
Professional letters of recommendation
Professional letters of recommendation are another fairly common type of letter of recommendation. Many candidates ask former employers and mentors to help them with their job searches by recommending them for positions.
Here’s a key difference between an academic letter of recommendation and a professional one: In a professional letter of recommendation, the focus should be almost exclusively on the candidate’s professional performance and fitness for the specific role they’re seeking.
Home rental referrals
Another kind of letter of recommendation is for home rentals. Often, landlords ask prospective tenants for recommendations from previous landlords about their experience with the tenants. If you’re asked to write this type of letter of recommendation, keep the new landlord’s concerns in mind and highlight the experiences that made your relationship with the tenant a positive one, like their promptness in paying the rent and the care they took of the property.
Recommendation letter format
Your letter of recommendation shouldn’t be more than a page long. Keep it to approximately the same length as a cover letter: a few tight, focused paragraphs that express your point without fluff.
Tone-wise, a letter of recommendation should be professional. Write it in the same tone you would use to write an email to a professional contact or a reference letter. It shouldn’t be in the same formal tone that you would use for a piece of academic writing, but it also shouldn’t assume familiarity with its recipient or read like a casual letter. Using an inappropriate tone for your recommendation letter can reflect poorly on the person you’re recommending, so be sure to get your tone just right.
In most cases, your letter of recommendation should adhere to the following format:
In the first line of your letter, greet the recipient directly. Don’t try to get creative here; a simple “Dear Mr./Ms./Mrs./Mx./Dr. ____” is the best choice. If you don’t know the recipient’s name, start your letter with “To whom it may concern.”
In the next line, clearly state the name of the candidate and the position for which you are recommending them. You can also introduce yourself in this section. Here are a couple examples of effective introduction lines:
“I am writing to recommend [Candidate’s first and last name] for acceptance into [University’s name]. I have had the pleasure of teaching [Candidate] for the past three years at [High school’s name].”
“It is my pleasure to recommend [Candidate’s first and last name] for the Copywriter position with [Agency name]. [Candidate] and I have worked together at [Company] for the past six years.”
In this section, clearly state the attributes that make the candidate the ideal choice for the position they’re seeking. Depending on the type of recommendation you’re making, this could be a mix of personality traits and skills, or it could be strictly focused on the candidate’s skills and accomplishments.
Elaborate on the traits you discussed in your overview with personal stories that highlight the candidate’s traits and skills. Be as specific as possible here—if there was a particular project where the candidate took the lead or there are stats you can share about their work, include them here.
Bring your letter to a close with a statement reiterating your recommendation. This statement can include a personal testimonial, such as the following example:
“After renting to [Candidate] for the past two years, I can confidently recommend her as a responsible, conscientious tenant.”
Finish out your letter with a signature.
Much like a professional email signature, your recommendation letter signature should include more than your name. Although you likely mentioned your relationship to the candidate in your letter, include your professional title beneath your name.
The letter’s recipient might want to contact you to discuss the candidate further, so make it easy for them to reach you by including your contact information in your signature. Usually, a phone number and email address are the best choices to include, along with your work hours.
Tips to keep in mind when you’re writing a letter of recommendation
Keep it relevant
Maybe the candidate rescued a family of lambs from a burning barn. That’s heroic and adorable, but unless they’re applying for a job with the local livestock fire department, it’s probably irrelevant to your letter.
Just like a cover letter, your letter of recommendation should be concise. It should highlight the key reasons why the candidate is the ideal choice for the position they’re seeking, and any details you choose to include should support these reasons. Discussing the candidate’s character can be helpful, but tie it to their fitness for the role they’re seeking—if they’re applying for nursing school, discussing their commitment to ethics is an important detail to include. If the application is for a grant to conduct archeological research, make sure you mention the research projects they spearheaded while working with you.
Include specific anecdotes, facts, and statistics
The more specific facts you have about the candidate’s work, the more compelling your letter of recommendation will be. For example, if you’re writing a letter for a colleague who’s seeking a digital marketing position, mention specific conversion rates they achieved while working with you. Similarly, if you’re recommending a high school student to a university, make sure you include anecdotes about their performance on specific assignments and/or extracurricular activities in your letter.
Use a positive, friendly, yet professional tone
As we mentioned above, the right tone for a letter of recommendation is one that’s professional, yet approachable. Your relationship with the candidate and your regard for them should be evident in your writing’s tone.
If you can’t write an effective letter of recommendation, don’t
You might find yourself in a situation where you can’t write an honest, effective letter of recommendation for somebody who asks for one. This might be because you simply don’t know the person or their work well enough, or it could be that you found their work to be underwhelming or unsatisfactory.
In either case, the professional way to decline the request is to simply tell them that you aren’t familiar enough with their work to discuss it effectively, or don’t believe you would be the best person to write them a letter of recommendation. Depending on the situation, you could direct them to another person in your organization who’s more familiar with their work and is thus more capable of writing an effective letter of recommendation. If this isn’t feasible, simply let them know that you’re not able to write them a letter of recommendation and leave it at that. This isn’t the time to denigrate their work or tell them why you aren’t impressed with it.
Mistakes to avoid
Take a look at these two testimonials:
“Luis was a great student. He is very smart and a hard worker, and because of these traits, I know he’ll succeed at Rutgers University.”
“When he took my Chem I and Chem II classes, Luis consistently put 100 percent into his assignments. He demonstrated his innate intellect and dedication to his schoolwork through his thoughtful and often creative responses to critical thinking questions and assignments. Because of his passion, drive, and capacity to handle rigorous coursework, I know he’ll succeed at Rutgers University.”
In the second example, the letter writer discusses specific courses Luis took and how he worked hard in those courses. There are lots of great students out there (and they’re applying for the same limited number of university spots), so it’s crucial that your letter communicates exactly what makes the candidate an ideal choice.
Just like you shouldn’t send a generic write-up of the candidate’s achievements, avoid embellishing them. Compare these two examples:
“Nobody has ever been a better salesperson than Alicia.”
“Alicia exceeded her projected sales figures every quarter.”
In the first example, even if it’s true, reads more like a description of a comic book character than a testimonial of an actual person’s work. Using hyperbole in your letter of recommendation undermines its credibility, which can hurt the candidate’s likelihood of being accepted or hired.
Not introducing yourself
In your letter, you’re personally vouching for the candidate. For that vouching to have any impact, the person who reads your letter needs to know who you are and why you’re qualified to recommend the candidate. A quick introduction and a sentence or two about your relationship with the candidate are sufficient.
Letter of recommendation examples
You can find great recommendation letter samples all over the internet. Just search for the type of letter you’re writing and you will find numerous examples of letters that work.
In it, a former supervisor discusses a candidate’s fitness for a graduate school program. This is an important point to keep in mind—even if you knew the candidate in a professional setting, your insight to their work could be just as valuable as an academic contact’s recommendation when they’re applying to college or graduate school.
See how this letter makes its candidate stand out by discussing specific examples where he went above and beyond? If you have those kinds of anecdotes to share, include them in your letter.
Letter of recommendation FAQs
What is a letter of recommendation?
A letter of recommendation is a written testimonial of an individual’s abilities, achievements, and capacity for continued growth.
How should I start a letter of recommendation?
Start your letter of recommendation with a greeting that acknowledges the letter’s reader. Whenever possible, address them by name. When this isn’t possible, use a formal, professional greeting like “To whom it may concern.”
What should go into a letter of recommendation?
A letter of recommendation should include the following:
- An introduction that states the candidate’s name and the position they are seeking
- A clear statement of your relationship with the candidate
- An honest testimonial of their work
- A clear recommendation of the candidate
- A signature that includes your contact information
How should I end a letter of recommendation?
End your letter of recommendation with a signature that includes your job title and contact information. By including these, the letter’s reader can easily contact you to discuss the candidate in greater detail.
Write confidently when you’re recommending the best
Even the most glowing letter of recommendation will make its subject look like a poor candidate if it’s riddled with spelling and grammar mistakes. Before you send your letter to its subject (or their prospective new supervisor), have Grammarly give it a once-over to catch any mistakes you might have missed and make suggestions you can use to write a more effective letter of recommendation.
This article was originally written by Kimberly Joki in 2017. It’s been updated to include new information.