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5 Things to Avoid When Writing a Letter of Recommendation

Updated on
August 4, 2017
5 Things to Avoid When Writing a Letter of Recommendation

So, you’ve been asked to write a letter of recommendation.

Aside from the immediate awkwardness of having to articulate how we think and feel about another person’s work, figuring out how to write a letter of recommendation often induces anxiety that a poorly written letter will weaken your contact’s chance at success.

Whether you are writing a letter for an employee, co-worker, or student, there are some essential Do’s and Don’ts for how to write an effective letter of recommendation. These basic guidelines will ensure that for whatever recommendation letter you are writing, you’ll be putting your best foot forward and doing right by the person requesting the recommendation.

Writing a Letter of Recommendation? Avoid These Five Common Mistakes

1 Don’t forget to introduce yourself.

Do explain who you are and your relationship to the person you’re recommending.

In order for your recommendation letter to carry weight with the recipients, you need to provide context. Otherwise, your recommendation may as well have been written by a stranger.

At a minimum, you need to explain:

  • who you are
  • what your title is
  • how you know the person you’re recommending
  • what the nature of your relationship is/was with that person
  • how long you have known this person

2 Don’t generalize.

Do adapt your recommendation to the job description and the job application.

If you agree to write a reference letter for someone, make sure you understand what it is you are recommending them for and that you are the best person to assess their abilities for that opportunity.

To this end, make sure you ask for and review:

  • the job description or education program
  • the applicant’s cover letter and resume or CV
  • any additional application materials that could help you understand how the applicant is positioning their skills

Even if the applicant cannot provide a job description—as in the case of applying to multiple jobs in a similar field or a LinkedIn recommendation—make sure you have a clear idea of kinds of positions or skills this person will be using. Be specific about how this person is the best fit for the job.

3 Don’t exaggerate.

Do write positively and honestly.

When someone toots their own horn too loudly, people respond with skepticism, frustration, and sometimes hostility. The same slew of emotions are provoked when a well-meaning reference sings praises for someone else too enthusiastically.

To avoid misleading or triggering negativity, apply the same balance you would use in positive self-promotion to your letter of recommendation. Focus on honesty, positivity, and clarity rather than “the best ever” superlatives and “very helpful” intensifiers.

Here’s a tip: Rather than gloss over or ignore weaknesses of an amazing person, discuss the weakness openly—including how the person you’re recommending has learned from or overcome it.

4 Don’t ignore formatting and editing.

Do format your letter professionally and remember to proofread.

Depending on the field, formatting can make or break one’s perceived professionalism. In general, it’s always better to err on the side of caution and keep it traditional. This means making sure that you format the heading and address the recipient correctly, then cover your bases in terms of content. The balance has a helpful template to guide you through the content of your letter.

Once you have the letter written, absolutely make time to proofread. If you don’t already have a proofreading routine in place, here are our best proofreading tips. If you are going to have a third-party review and edit the letter, for ethics purposes you should remove any mention of the person you are recommending.

5 Don’t agree to write a recommendation you can’t give.

Do tell the person that you cannot write the recommendation or serve as a reference for them.

Yes, we know it’s awkward to tell someone you can’t write a reference letter for them, but it’s the right thing to do. Maybe you aren’t familiar enough with their work or you don’t feel like you can in good faith write a glowing recommendation. Either way, attempting to spin your perspective into an actual recommendation is dishonest. Give the person in question an opportunity to find someone who will happily write the reference for them.

What if they ask you why?

If you’re uncomfortable stating exactly why you cannot write the letter, here are some soft explanations that might fit your situation:

  • If you don’t know them well or are unimpressed with their work→ explain that you don’t feel like you know their work well enough to write the letter.
  • If you know them well but are unimpressed with their work→ explain that you don’t feel you are the best person to give them a recommendation and, if possible, suggest a better fit.

How to Write a Letter of Recommendation Basics

In the end, writing an effective reference letter comes down to a few basics:

  • Being prepared.
  • Being honest.
  • Being clear.
  • Being professional
  • Being willing.

By approaching your letter-writing with these fundamental ideas in mind, you’ll deliver an effective reference without compromising yourself or the person you’re recommending.

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