How to Write Recommendation Letters

Strong letters of recommendation reflect on you and the candidate. Learn how to structure and write a recommendation letter so you can provide an honest and positive reference that helps someone land a new opportunity.

Lisa B. Marshall
4-minute read
Episode #176

How to Write Recommendation Letters

by Lisa. B. Marshall

Only part of what we learned in the third grade was true. Sticks and stones may in fact break my bones, but words…your words…could make or break my chances at getting a job.

I’ve talked many times about the weight our opinions carry. Everywhere we look these days, recommendations are high-volume and high-stakes.

When an employer is looking for a new hire, they put applicants side by side. Given similar work histories, a recruiter may be sitting in front of two different sets of recommendations, comparing, side-by-side, what others had to say about each candidate. You could make the difference between getting the job, or not.

See Also: How to Write Better LinkedIn Recommendations

No pressure.

With so much at stake, today we’re going to talk about how to write letters of recommendation:


Tips #1: Focus on Strengths

If your neighbor asks for a recommendation for an auto mechanic, it’s perfectly understandable and neighborly to say, “I use East Bay Autoworks and they’re great. They aren’t necessarily the cheapest, and it annoys me that they don’t throw in little extras like vacuuming my car, but they’re honest, always get my car finished on time, and are widely respected as the best in the business.”

Including both negatives and positives makes it a balanced review. In contrast, letters of recommendation should be mostly positive. The purpose of the recommendation is to highlight the strengths of the candidate; you are not being asked to provide a balanced review. However, it’s equally important not to lie and that you are able to provide an honest and positive reference. So you’ll want to think very carefully before agreeing to write a reference when you have hesitations.

If you decide you will write a letter of recommendation, you’ll want to focus on the positive. Employers are looking to be sold on a person. They are looking for an overall positive picture of the candidate including: skills and experiences, performance results, professional promise, and personal characteristics. And by the way, it should not include anything that is not relevant to the new opportunity, such as age, hobbies, marital status, ethnicity, and so on.

Here’s an example of what NOT to say: “Greg is a great 28-year-old manager. Though his CRR (client retention ratio) hasn’t been the best, his sales team consistently put out some of the highest numbers in the company.”

Tip #2: Be Specific

Be careful to avoid using jargon or language that’s too general (like the previous example). Instead, try something specific: “As his manager, I’ve known Greg for over four years. Under Greg’s leadership, his sales team consistently performed in the top 10% of the company. As a manager, Greg consistently challenges his team to perform their best, he communicates regularly and clearly, and his enthusiasm is contagious. He is particularly skilled coaching underperformers and leading by example. I recommend him highly.”

Of course, real letters of recommendation are longer than that and would also include specific and descriptive examples to support the claims. For example, to support the coaching claim, you might include details of an employee Greg coached, including quantified improvement results. If possible, quantify and compare the candidate’s achievements against others you’ve worked with. Be careful not to overhype or stretch the truth and at the same it’s also OK to consider including an area for improvement.

In order to write a strong letter of recommendation, you’ll need to find out as much as possible about the candidate so that you can be specific. Ask the candidate to provide you a recent copy of their resume (or CV) and supporting details, and to highlight the transferable skills that are important to the new opportunity.  Oh, and you’ll also need to ask for the instructions on where and how to submit your letter of recommendation. 

See Also: LinkedIn Recommendation Example

Tip #3: Follow a Structure

Once you have all the information, you are ready to structure your letter of recommendation. Every letter of recommendation should start by describing the relationship between the writer and the candidate. Some people choose to briefly introduce themselves as well as include a brief description of the specific responsibilities or special assignments that the candidate completed. The opening may also include why you’re writing the letter. By including this background information you are providing proper context for the recommendation.

The middle section is where you should highlight 3-5 areas of strength. The focus could be knowledge areas, skills and experiences, performance results that are important to the candidate’s field or transfer to the candidate’s new endeavor. Choose strong or standout adjectives, include examples or unusual anecdotes, and when possible, include quantifiable results. For a strong letter of recommendation choose unique and memorable specifics that support your claims.

Your letter should wrap up with a brief closing. It should summarize your previous points and specifically recommend the candidate for the opportunity they are seeking. If you are open to a conversation or further correspondence about the candidate, be sure to make this clear by including all of your contact details. Finally, it should end with a specific recommendation statement. “I give Greg my highest recommendation” or “Without hesitation, I recommend Greg.”

Your can find many example letters of recommendation on the web and I recommend you read through a few to see for yourself what works and what doesn’t.

You’re now ready to write your recommendation. Remember to clarify exactly what strengths the candidate brings to the new job by following a structure. Include a brief opening to set the context, follow this with 3-5 specific skills, experiences, or traits that are supported with detailed examples, and finally wrap up with your explicit endorsement of the candidate. 

This is Lisa B. Marshall, The Public Speaker. Passionate about communication; your success is my business.


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About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.