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When one of your colleagues or students applies for a new opportunity, they might ask you to write them a letter of recommendation.
You likely want to write them a strong letter that improves their chances of landing that opportunity while also conveying your own professionalism.
So, how exactly do you write a successful recommendation letter?
Read on to learn our top tips for how to write a letter of recommendation as well as an example of a standard recommendation letter format.
How to Start a Letter of Recommendation
You should begin your recommendation letter with a formal greeting, addressing it to the person or people who will be reading.
The best way to address your letter is by name if you know the name of the person reading. Often, of course, you won’t have that information, in which case you can use a more generic greeting.
If you’re writing an academic recommendation, you might start with “Dear Admissions Committee” or “Dear Admissions Officer.”
If you’re writing a professional recommendation, you might start with “Dear Hiring Committee” or “Dear Hiring Manager.” Another safe option is “To Whom It May Concern,” which you can use in lieu of a more specific form of address.
What to Include in a Letter of Recommendation
Most letters of recommendation adhere to the same standardized format. Once you know the format, it’s not hard to follow it.
Here are the five elements you should include in your letter of recommendation.
Step 1: Explain Why You’re Writing This Letter
After the greeting, you should start the body of your letter with an introductory sentence that provides a quick overview of what this letter is for.
This sentence should tell the reader why you’re writing this letter. Think of it as stating your thesis statement upfront.
For example, you might say, “It is my pleasure to recommend [applicant’s name] for [opportunity].” Or you might say, “I am writing to enthusiastically recommend [applicant’s name] for [opportunity].”
Step 2: Introduce Yourself
The person reading this recommendation letter has probably never met you before, so you should give them your full name and job title.
You should describe your relationship to the applicant you’re recommending. How long have you known them? In what capacity have you worked with them throughout that time?
In this section, you might say something like, “I worked with [applicant’s name] as her direct supervisor for the past seven years,” or “[applicant’s name] was a student in my English classes for two years.”
Step 3: Describe the Applicant’s Qualities With Specific Examples
In the body of your letter, you should describe some key points about why the applicant would be a great fit for this opportunity.
If the applicant is applying for a school or scholarship, you might want to highlight their intellectual curiosity, academic performance, and passion for a specific field of study.
If the applicant is applying for a promotion or a new job, you might want to highlight their work ethic, their teamwork skills, or their industry knowledge.
It’s best to include specific examples that demonstrate these qualities. As with many forms of writing, it's important to "show, don't tell."
If possible, choose some detailed examples you participated in or witnessed directly. Here are some options to consider:
Projects the applicant completed
Awards or honors the applicant won
Initiatives the applicant started
If you’re not sure which anecdote to use, you can speak to the applicant and ask them if there’s a personal anecdote they’re particularly proud of they’d like you to highlight.
Step 4: Conclude With Your Final Recommendation
In the last section of the letter, you should conclude with a closing statement that explains why you think the applicant is a good fit for this opportunity.
Summarize the qualities you described throughout the letter, and tie those qualities to the skills they’ll need for this specific opportunity. Try to make a clear statement so potential employers or admission committees have no doubt about whether or not this person is a strong candidate.
For example, you might say, “Given his strong communication skills, I believe [applicant’s name] would be a perfect fit for your marketing team.” Or you might say, “Given her brilliant technical abilities, I have confidence that [applicant’s name] would excel as an engineer on your team.”
Step 5: Consider Including Your Contact Information
If you’d like to include your email address or phone number in the letter, you can do so at the end. This element is optional, depending on your own comfort level and the guidelines of the organization you’re sending the letter to.
Some recommenders choose to include a sentence like “Feel free to contact me at [contact information] if you would like to hear more about [applicant’s name].”
It’s possible the organization will ask for your contact information when you submit the letter, in which case, you don’t need to include it in the letter as well.
Top 5 Tips for Writing a Recommendation Letter
Now that we've talked about the structure of the letter, it's time to share our top tips for writing a great letter of recommendation.
Tip 1: Ask the Applicant for Details
Anyone asking you for a letter of recommendation should be happy to provide more information.
Ask them about their work experiences, any awards or honors they’ve won, and the traits they consider their greatest strengths.
You can also ask for a copy of their résumé, which can help you decide which strengths and work experiences to highlight.
In addition, you should ask the applicant for details about the specific opportunity they’re applying for. They can provide you with the job description, or the academic program overview, to help you tailor your letter for the opportunity.
Tip 2: Never Write a Negative Recommendation
When someone asks you for a letter of recommendation, remember you can always say no.
Maybe you don’t know them well enough to really talk about them in detail. Or maybe you had a negative relationship with them and would be tempted to describe those negatives in your letter.
You can say, “I’m not the best person to write this letter.” Tell them upfront you wouldn’t be able to honestly write them an enthusiastic letter of recommendation, and they’ll likely rescind the request.
No matter what, don’t insult the person you’re writing about. You want to make sure you don’t burn any bridges or come across as unprofessional.
Tip 3: Check the Organization’s Specific Guidelines
Some organizations have specific requirements for recommendation letters.
If there are no guidelines, stick with a clean, professional 12-pt font.
Follow the instructions. You don’t want to go through all the trouble of writing an entire letter of recommendation just to jeopardize your applicant’s chances by formatting it incorrectly.
Tip 4: Show, Don’t Tell
Every hiring manager has read a recommendation letter that says something vague and generic, such as “This applicant was a pleasure to work with” or “This applicant is passionate and intelligent.”
Without specifics, those sentences feel like empty praise.
Try to think of specific anecdotes that show the reader why this applicant is passionate and intelligent, instead of simply describing those qualities.
Tip 5: Edit Well
Like any piece of writing you do for work, this letter is a reflection on you as a professional. You don’t want to hurt the applicant’s chances by turning in a letter that has multiple typos or grammar mistakes.
Run your letter through ProWritingAid to ensure it has no mistakes. The grammar checker will catch spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors and help you fix them with ease.
Examples of an Effective Letter of Recommendation
Let’s look at some examples of recommendation letters you can use as reference points.
Academic Recommendation Letter Example
Dear Admissions Committee,
I am writing to strongly recommend Mary Montgomery for the physics program at [university name].
I am [your name], and I have been Mary’s physics teacher for the past two years, including the Honors Physics class when she was in eleventh grade and the AP Physics class when she was in twelfth grade. In my 15 years of teaching physics, Mary stands out as one of the brightest students I’ve had the pleasure of working with.
Mary has a strong sense of intellectual curiosity that shines in everything she does. I was impressed with the dedication she brought to all our classroom projects, and when she went above and beyond to ask questions far beyond a twelfth-grade level. Her intellectual strength is further demonstrated by the fact that she won first place in a statewide science competition last year for her project about sustainable engineering.
In addition to being intellectually driven, Mary is always compassionate and generous with her time. She started a tutoring club at our school for students who excel at specific subjects to volunteer to tutor other students who struggle in those subjects. The club now has over 100 members, and it significantly improved the average test scores in my physics classes. In spite of her already busy schedule, Mary personally dedicates ten hours each week to helping her classmates prepare for their exams.
Mary’s long-term goals also impress me. Her passion for working in the intersection between science and sustainability is inspiring and remarkably clear-eyed for someone at her age. I believe she has the drive and motivation to make it far in this field.
As you can see, Mary is a fantastic student, and I have confidence she will excel in her undergraduate studies and be an asset to your academic community.
If you would like me to elaborate on Mary’s qualifications, you can contact me at [contact information].
[your name and title]
Professional Recommendation Letter Example
Dear Hiring Manager,
It is my pleasure to enthusiastically recommend John Jacobson for the product manager role at [company name].
My name is [your name], and I am a director at [your company name], where I have ten years of experience leading teams to build and launch new products. John has been my direct report for three years. Out of the many young professionals I’ve mentored over the years, John stands out as an individual who will definitely go far.
In the time we’ve worked together, I’ve been very impressed by John’s technical skills. He’s a brilliant problem solver who often thinks outside the box to find innovative solutions. He’s an expert at using [software names], which my team uses every day, and he can create fully fledged products that are high quality and high performing.
When John first joined the company, we were in the process of reorganizing our teams, which left my team understaffed. John immediately showed his strong work ethic. He always finished his own tasks ahead of schedule and was willing to step up to the plate whenever anyone else needed help. Whenever we had to launch products under tight turnaround times, John was the person who always ensured the work got done on time.
Furthermore, John always has a sunny disposition that improves the morale of the team. He greets everyone with a smile and always looks on the positive side, which makes him a pleasure to work with.
With his strong technical skills and admirable work ethic, I have confidence that John would be a fantastic addition to your team at [company name].
Should you need more information about John’s abilities, please feel free to reach out to me at [contact information.]
[your name and title]
Conclusion on How to Write a Letter of Recommendation
There you have it—our complete guide for how to write a strong letter of recommendation.
If you follow the steps in this article, you’ll be able to write a clear, professional letter that will give the applicant a better shot. Don’t forget to run your letter through ProWritingAid to check for errors before you send it in.
Good luck, and happy writing!