How to Write a Letter of Recommendation (with Examples)
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Recommendation letters can open doors that would otherwise remain locked shut. Whether the person you’re recommending is a college student applying for internships, a well-loved employee seeking their next opportunity, or a mentee you’ve seen grow up over the last few years, they’re counting on you to write a letter that will make a hiring manager decide to set up an interview. No pressure.
You’ve probably been on the other side of this interaction — as the person asking for a recommendation, or the manager receiving recommendations. But now you’re the one who’s supposed to write.
You want the letter to be short, but meaningful, honest and positive. You want to sing their praises without coming across as smarmy or fake. And you also don’t want to spend 500 hours laboring over what ultimately should be no more than five paragraphs.
To do this, you first need to understand why you’re the person writing the recommendation.
Am I the Right Person to Write This Recommendation?
Hopefully, before you agreed to pen the letter, you considered whether you can positively write about the person in question.
If not, go no further until you address the following questions:
- How well do I know this person? Have we worked together or interacted enough for me to be able to describe their work ethic, attitude, character, integrity, or how they work with others?
- Would I want to work with this person again? Did I enjoy my time with them? Was I impressed with their work, their way of thinking and approaching problems, or how they collaborated with the rest of the team?
- Do I have positive thoughts about this person? What are the first things that come to mind when I think about them?
If you don’t know the person well, if you wouldn’t want to work with them again, if you don’t have positive thoughts about them, you shouldn’t write their recommendation letter. Why? Because what you write will either be an anti-recommendation or a well-developed lie about your experience with them, neither of which is helpful to you or them.
This brings us to the number one rule of writing recommendations: be honest.
You do not owe anyone a positive recommendation, even if they’re a student in your department or a long-time employee on your team. If you can’t write them an honest, positive recommendation, don’t write one at all.
How to Politely Decline If You Can’t Write a Positive Recommendation
Tell them gently — either in person (this is preferred) or via the communication method they used to ask you for the recommendation. You can follow a script like this:
Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m the right person to provide you with a recommendation. I’m happy to chat with you to come up with ideas of other people who may be better candidates, if that would be helpful.
You don’t need to explain why, but if you have a cordial relationship and the person seems eager to grow or improve, you can provide more information in a direct, polite, matter-of-fact manner.
If you ran through the questions above and you are the right person to write this recommendation, congratulations! You’ve been trusted with an honor and responsibility that gives you an excuse to brag about someone you respect, admire, or love.
Small, But Mighty: Writing a Brief, Direct Recommendation Letter
Recommendation letters are small documents that pack a punch — in the best way.
Sandwiched between a formal greeting and sign-off, each recommendation covers three main areas:
1. How you know the person / How you’ve worked with them
This opening section introduces you and the person you’re writing about simultaneously. It explains your relationship:
And it briefly describes in broad terms how you’ve worked together or interacted. This section will be about 1 paragraph long.
2. Their character, personality, work, work ethic, collaboration skills, etc., and how you’ve seen those things in action.
This is the meat of the recommendation. Here, you’ll dive into them as a person. What stands out about how they show up in the workplace or classroom? How do they interact with others? What work skills of theirs shine in comparison to others? Are there any specific examples you can sum up in a couple of sentences?
Whatever you write, keep it relevant to the particular opportunity, but if there are fun, need-to-know things about the person you’re writing about — the spunk they bring to dull Monday meetings, for example — mention those things too. This section can be anywhere from one to three paragraphs long, so don’t cut yourself off too soon.
3. Why they’re a fit for the opportunity.
Aka, why the employer should hire them or why the college should accept them.
What do they bring to the table, the team, the academic community? What did they bring to your team, workplace, etc., that your letter recipient would be missing out on if they didn’t hire the person? What will you miss about them when they leave your staff?
These are the sorts of questions this section answers, tailored to your letter recipient and the opportunity. This section, which may be 1-2 paragraphs long, tells what the previous section shows, and adds a bit more interpretation to get your meaning across to the reader. If writing this part feels personal, that’s a good sign, because it should have some heart.
5 Tips for Writing a Recommendation When You’re Stuck
Some people can just whip up a recommendation letter at a moment’s notice, but if you’re stuck — at a loss for words or overwhelmed by all the different things you could say — these tips can replace that blinking cursor with a trail of text.
1. Find out why they asked you.
Chances are, they thought of you because of past experiences they’ve had with you. Maybe your class was their favorite. Maybe you were the first boss they felt like they could actually talk to. Maybe they’ve felt like your mentorship improved their overall confidence and awareness and ability to step out of their comfort zone.
It’s also possible that you’re the only person they think is qualified to write their recommendation. Maybe you’re their first boss, the only professor who’s ever remembered their name, or the only coach who took the time to get to know them.
Any of this context can inform how you approach your recommendation letter. If you were their first boss, you can write about how they showed up to their first ever job. Were they eager to work? To learn? To try new things? All of those details could be relevant to your recommendation.
You can also ask them if there’s anything in particular they’d like you to touch on. Maybe they have recommendations that already talk about how they collaborate with peers, and they need you to write about their work ethic, timeliness, and trustworthiness.
Ask these questions to get the fountain flowing. What they tell you shouldn’t determine what you ultimately write, but it can provide helpful direction and narrow the scope of what your letter covers.
2. Interview yourself about the candidate.
Any of the questions in the previous sections can be helpful for this, but you can also pose these ones:
- What’s your favorite or most prominent memory of this person?
- What have you consistently seen from this person in the way they show up to class/work/etc.?
- What were they like when you first met them? How are they different now?
- What’s one (or three or five) things you appreciate about them?
- How have you seen them grow in the time that you’ve known them?
- How is your business different because of their influence?
You can interview yourself on paper and type out your answers, or record yourself and then go back through the recording to copy down fodder for your letter.
3. Read up about the opportunity.
Believe it or not, it’s helpful to know what you’re recommending this person for. Is it a fellowship opportunity in Greenland? A high-caliber university that’s hard to get in? A job that comes with security access to top-secret government information?
Ask the person you’re recommending for some details on the opportunity — or a link where you can learn more. As you gather information, pay attention to the size of the team they would be joining, the type of work or activities they’ll be involved with, the required job skills and expectations. When you consider those things, what stands out about your recommendee?
4. Talk to a friend or colleague about the candidate.
One of my favorite writing tips: Write like you’re talking to a good friend.
In this case, you can actually talk to a good friend (or colleague) about the person — as a way to get out of your head and help the thoughts flow. They might even ask helpful questions or add more perspective that fleshes out your initial thoughts.
You can record the conversation for reference later or just use it to get the gears turning. Afterward, as soon as you can, write down any highlights that came up.
5. Write it rough. Let it sit. Chop, chop, chop.
The tip is in the heading.
Sometimes when writing is hard, the best thing you can do is … write. Get out of your own way. Stop expecting or demanding perfection, and start putting words on paper.
You can write by hand or on a computer or a typewriter or your smartphone. But write. And don’t stop until you have something to work with later on. This might take 20 minutes, it might take 10. It might even take as little as five.
Once you have a page or two, step away. Let it sit for a day. Then, come back and start chopping what doesn’t fit in a recommendation letter. Or if it’s easier, copy and paste the good parts into a separate document.
As you go, you can rearrange sentences and ideas until you have the three sections we talked about earlier in this blog:
- How you know them
- How you’ve seen them in action
- Why they’re a fit for this opportunity
The Only Recommendation Letter Template You Need
A few notes on this template:
- If possible, find out who to address your letter to and use a specific name in the greeting.
- Even if you’re submitting the recommendation digitally, you’ll want it to be on official letterhead with your title and contact information. You can do this by printing it on physical letterhead and then scanning it back onto your computer — or simply use a digital letterhead. Marketing departments at larger organizations may have a letterhead template file for Microsoft Word, or you can make your own.
- Make sure to add your real signature, even if you’re submitting the letter digitally.
- On Macs, you can use Preview (the PDF reader) to insert your signature. Click on Tools > Annotate > Signature > Manage Signatures to add your signature using your computer’s camera. Then open your letter (saved as a PDF) in Preview and follow the same path to insert your signature.
- On Microsoft, you can add your written signature via a scanner and add it to your letter document as an image in Word.
Examples for Your Inspiration
College Admissions Recommendation
This example uses specific examples and details to introduce the reader to an ambitious, gifted student. The more specific you can be in your recommendation, the more of an impression it will have on the reader.
Job Application Recommendation
This recommendation again uses specificity, as well as a particular example of the person in action, to show the reader what the recommendee is like and how he took action to solve a problem. Are there any specific situations you can highlight in your letter?
General LinkedIn Recommendation
This recommendation, which a client gave me on LinkedIn, shows how you can tell a story in a few words. The author tells about the challenge she was facing and how the person she’s recommending helped her overcome that challenge. If your recommendee helped you solve a problem or challenge, consider focusing your recommendation on that.
The Most Important Thing About Your Recommendation Letter
It’s the same as the number one rule of recommendation writing: honesty.
Be genuine in what you write. Take time to reflect on why you appreciate the person and let that appreciation flow into your letter.
You might also do what one of my college professors did and give the candidate a copy of your letter to keep for themselves (or in 2024, add it to their LinkedIn profile). Because even if this opportunity doesn’t work out, it’s always good to know they have someone cheering them on.