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Your guide to writing a letter of recommendation

Being asked to write a letter of recommendation is a common occurrence for managers and supervisors. They are typically prepared for an employee – or former employees – applying for another job, leadership opportunity, or volunteer position. 

As a manager, you must know how to craft a letter of recommendation and follow best practices. 

Recommendation letters typically have to key purposes:

  • They explain and validate what the manager or employer has learned about the person.
  • They answer questions and give specific details about that person’s performance and work habits. 

Letters of recommendation are honest accounts of a manager’s experiences and impressions of an employee. As such, managers need to ensure that they have a deep knowledge of the employee and give specific examples and details before agreeing to write a recommendation letter. 

In this article, we’ll provide a detailed walkthrough of what should be written in a letter of recommendation and include a template that you can use to get started.

Key considerations when writing a letter of recommendation

Letters of recommendation often follow a set of established best practices and guidelines. 

Managers are free to adapt and customize templates as they see fit, of course. But it’s important to keep in mind some key considerations when writing a recommendation letter for an employee to ensure that you’re hitting all of the most important points. 

Here are some important questions and considerations to keep in mind: 

  1. What is your relationship with the employee? Have you worked with them directly or been able to observe how they work? Are you aware of their unique strengths and skills? Do you have specific examples of the employee’s work and achievement? You should have a thorough knowledge of the employee’s abilities, skills, and personality before agreeing to write a recommendation letter. 
  2. Can you provide positive feedback? An employee will ask you for a letter of recommendation because they expect that you will provide a positive message on their behalf. You should feel comfortable and knowledgeable enough about that employee to give them a positive and thorough recommendation. If you’re not, then it likely means you shouldn’t agree to write the recommendation letter. 
  3. Are you qualified to give a letter of recommendation for this employee? It’s important to ensure that you feel that you are qualified to give a letter of recommendation for a specific employee and a specific job. Ideally, recommendation letters should come from someone who is more senior and more established in the industry to which the candidate is applying. If you feel that you don’t quite fit the bill, then it’s likely a good idea to steer them toward a more suitable person. 
  4. Ask for an updated resume and job description. It’s important to ensure that you write a letter of recommendation that is closely aligned with what the employee is showcasing in their resume and what is being asked of them in the job description. Use these two documents to get a full picture of the employee’s experience and achievements as they relate to the job to which they’re applying. Note the language and priorities outlined in the job description to focus your letter on what the potential employer is looking for in a candidate. 
  5. Focus on one or two key traits. It’s impossible to include everything about a candidate in a letter of recommendation. Instead, focus on one or two traits that you think are that person’s biggest strengths as they relate to the new position. What would you most want to know about the candidate if you were their hiring manager? This should help you focus your writing. Provide concrete examples of each of those traits, and clearly explain to the potential employer why they make this person an ideal fit for the job. 
  6. State how you know the person, and for how long. Letters of recommendation pack a harder punch if they come from a person who has known the employee for more than a couple of years and has worked closely with them during that time. Explain how you know the person, and how long you’ve known them, early in the letter to establish your credibility in reviewing this person’s abilities. 
  7. Make comparisons to emphasize achievements or skills. Don’t be afraid to make general comparisons between this employee and others who have reported it to you. This is a powerful technique for enforcing why this employee is uniquely suited for the job. Provide concrete examples and comparisons of how this candidate stacks up against their peers, and why that makes them a desirable candidate.
  8. Ask for the submission guidelines. Is the letter of recommendation supposed to be emailed or sent as a PDF or Word document? Who should you send it to, and what is the deadline? Ask these housekeeping questions early in the process to ensure that you give yourself enough runway. 
  9. Use a letter of recommendation template. Using and adapting standardized referral letter templates helps ensure that you’re covering all expectations and requirements, and will keep your writing focused on the most relevant points. Expand and customize the template as you see fit while ensuring that you’re hitting all of the key points required. 
  10. Don’t forget about formatting. Typically, letters of recommendation will use the following formatting:
    • Single spaced, with a space between each paragraph.
    • 1” margins at the top, bottom, and sides of the page.
    • Left-aligned text. 
    • Traditional fonts like Times New Roman, Arial, or Calibri. 
    • Font size between 10 and 12. 
  1. Keep it to no more than one page. Letters of recommendation should usually be between three and five paragraphs in length, and should rarely be longer than one page. Keep your recommendation letters concise and relevant to the job description. If you find it difficult to provide more than a paragraph or two about the employee, this likely means that you don’t know them well enough or that you’re not comfortable endorsing them. 

As you work your way through each of the above considerations to establish what you’re going to focus on in your letter of recommendation, it’s helpful to use an established template to guide the process. 

Letter of recommendation template

Below you will find a paragraph-by-paragraph recommendation letter. It’s important to note that this template likely won’t fit all scenarios and employees. Use this letter of recommendation template as a guide for how to structure your writing. Adapt and customize the layout as you see fit. 

Here’s our letter of recommendation template: 

Paragraph 1: Brief introduction 

Open your letter of recommendation with the following points:

  • Who you are: Your name, position, and current company. 
  • Your relationship to the applicant: How you know them and for how long (i.e., I’ve been their direct supervisor for five years).
  • Your experience and expertise: Years of experience in your industry and in a management or leadership role.
  • An explanation of why you’re qualified to write a recommendation letter: First-hand knowledge of the employee and the position to which they are applying.

Paragraph 2: Specific information about the employee

Transition your letter into specific information about the candidate and their skills. This should include:

  • Why they are qualified for the position.
  • One or two key strengths that you’ve witnessed that relate to the job description.
  • One or two examples of relevant skills or personality traits that relate to the job description. 

Feel free to use more than one paragraph if necessary, while ensuring that you keep your examples relevant to the job description. 

Paragraph 3: Personal story with examples

This paragraph should expand on the points raised in paragraph two. It should include:

  • A personal story that you can share to demonstrate the candidate’s personality and work ethic. 
  • A specific example of a time that the employee demonstrated these strengths and skills. 
  • A comparison of the candidate to their peers to demonstrate how they stand out from the crowd. 

Paragraph 4: Closing statement and summary 

By now, you should have firmly established why the employee is a strong fit for the role. From here, it’s time to make a closing statement and summarize the points above. 

This paragraph should include:

  • summary of why the person is a good fit for the job, with reference to your key points above.
  • A statement that you “highly recommend” the person or “recommend them without reservation.” 

Consider this paragraph to be your closing pitch to the reader and your final affirmation that you think they would make a good fit for the role. 

Paragraph 5: Conclusion and sign off 

Before ending your article, it’s good practice to offer additional information if requested. Write a quick sign off that includes: 

  • A statement that says you are willing to provide more information or clarification if it’s needed. 
  • Your contact information with instructions for how the hiring manager can contact you. 

Signature 

At the end of your recommendation, it’s best practice to include a parting salutation like “Best regards” or “Sincerely” followed by your name, title, and a handwritten signature. 

Signatures are often overlooked on letters of recommendation, especially in our digital-first world. You should, however, take the time to include one, if possible. 

That’s because signatures on a letter of recommendation accomplish the following:

  • It shows that you back up what you’ve written.
  • It proves that the candidate knows you and that you wrote the letter.
  • It ensures that the letter is authentic and personally written.
  • It prevents plagiarism or edits to your original letter of recommendation by signaling a final sign off of the document. 

Now that we have a letter of recommendation template to work from let’s look at a genericized sample that puts this structure to work. 

Sample letter of recommendation

The paragraph below is a high-level example of what a letter of recommendation might look like if you used the previous section’s template. 

Dear [first name], 

I’m writing to recommend [Applicant Name] for [Position and Company]. My name is [Your Name]. I’m the [Your Title] at [Your Company] and have worked for [Number of Years] in [Your Industry]. I have an extensive working knowledge of what makes a great team member in this field. [Applicant’s Name] and I have known each other for [Number of Years] from working together at [Company Name]. As such, I can confidently say that they are uniquely qualified for this position. 

During his/her time at [Your Company], [Applicant Name] displayed strong abilities in [Skills / Trait / Responsibility]. Over the course of his/her employment with us, I was extremely impressed with [Applicant Name]. He/she happily took on more responsibility and ownership over [Job / Responsibility], which grew their skills and knowledge at an impressive rate, and contributed tangible results for our company. 

For example, [Insert Personal Story with Specific Examples Elaboration on the Points Above]. 

[Applicant Name] would be a great fit for your [Company]. He/she has the skill, experience, and track record of success that you’re looking for in an applicant. I’m positive that he/she will become an asset to [Company] and help your team succeed.

If you need more information, please do not hesitate to contact me at [Contact Information]. I would be happy to provide additional information about [Applicant’s Name]. 

Best regards,

[You Name, Company, and Title]

[Your Handwritten Signature]

Conclusion

The recommendation letter template above should be used as a guideline and starting point. Your letter should include your personality, word choices, and examples to make it unique and authentic. 

Remember, letters of recommendation are a critically important step in the hiring process. You must take them seriously and provide the best possible chance for your current or former employee to land their dream job. 

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