Writing a letter of recommendation

Have you ever needed to write a letter of recommendation for a student, colleague, or employee and didn’t know where to start? The following websites provide ideas and guidelines that can help make the task easier.

The Chronicle of Higher Education suggests reviewing “Five Principles for Writing Effective Letters of Recommendation” before you set out to write a letter. If you’re at a  loss for adjectives to describe the person you’re recommending, check out this handy list prepared by the Rutgers Prep College Counseling Team.

The employment and professional networking site Emurse provides a few samples that illustrate how to add a personal touch to a letter of recommendation.   The “ABC’s of Writing a Block Style Reference Letter” hub page even blocks out the format of a classic letter of recommendation and outlines what should be included in each paragraph. Daily Writing Tips, an excellent site to refer to for almost any kind of doubts you may have related to grammar and composition, provides the following good advice:

The exact structure of a reference letter will differ slightly depending on the type of reference it is, but this is a good basic outline:

  1. Start using the business letter format: put the recipient’s name and address, if known, and address them as “Dear [name]”. If the recipient is currently unknown (this would be likely on an academic application, for instance), then use “Dear Sir/Madam” or “To whom it may concern”.
  2. It is often helpful to introduce yourself in the first couple of lines of your letter. The recipient will not need your life history: just give a brief sentence or two explaining your position and your relationship to the candidate.
  3. Your next paragraph should confirm any facts which you know the candidate will be supplying along with your letter. For example, if you are writing a reference for a job applicant, some or all of these details may be appropriate:
    • The person’s job title, and role within the company.
    • The person’s leaving salary when they were last employed by you (or your organisation).
    • The dates which the person was employed from and until.

    If you are writing a reference letter for an academic course, you will need to confirm the person’s academic grades.

  4. In your third paragraph, you should provide your judgement upon the candidate’s skills and qualities. It is often appropriate to state that you would gladly re-employ them, or that their contributions to your college class were highly valued. Single out any exceptional qualities that the candidate has – perhaps their drive and enthusiasm, their attention to detail, or their ability to lead.
  5. Where possible, use your fourth paragraph to give a couple of concrete examples of times when the candidate excelled. (You may want to ask the candidate to tell you about any extra-curricular projects they’ve been involved in, or invite them to highlight anything they’d particularly like you to include in the reference letter.)
  6. Close your letter on a positive note, and if you are willing to receive further correspondence about the candidate’s application, make this clear. Include your contact details too.
  7. As with any business letter, you should end appropriately; “Yours sincerely” when you are writing to a named recipient, and “Yours faithfully” when you do not know who will be receiving the letter.
Of course, many recommendations today are provided via social networking sites that do not allow formal formatting. Nevertheless, the basic information that you should supply remains the same. Chris Brogan, a monthly columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine and president of Human Business Works, a successful online education and community company for small businesses, charitable organizations, and entrepreneurs, provides sound advice for playing the recommendation game in social networking sites such as LinkedIn. Brogan considers the time one sets aside to write a recommendation for a colleague to be time well spent: “The service you perform by recommending others you’ve done work with goes well in both directions. It says something about that person, and it says something about you for taking the time to participate and recommend.” Nevertheless, he cautions against delving into aspects of a colleague’s experience and expertise that you  may not be familiar with. If you don’t know the person well enough to be able to differentiate what his or her skills and experience  from what other professionals working in the same field have to offer, chances are you should ask the person requesting the recommendation for more information or politely decline.

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