Letter of recommendation overview
Character reference letters are a special category of recommendation because they are
usually written by friends, neighbors or relatives. These letters meet a variety of non-
employment and non-academic related needs. Everything from gaining memberships and
winning awards to child custody and adoptions. Character reference letters can also be
useful in job seeking. For sample character letters and more information on this kind of
recommendation click here.
Requesting a letter of recommendation
You not only need the letter, you need it to be as effective as possible. So it's important to
plan your request.
Who to ask
Given a choice about who to ask, ask someone who
Is comfortable writing a letter for you
Can write well and write easily
Has experience writing letters of recommendation
Is familiar with your work
Knows you well enough to be able to include personal anecdotes in the letter
Has the highest and/or most relevant job title
These guidelines apply to both supervisors and teachers. Keep in mind that if you've been
working in Payroll but want a new career in Marketing, a letter from the Sales Manager of
your old company will carry more weight than one from the Accounting Manager. Also, the
higher up the writer the more clout the letter will carry. For example, a letter of
recommendation from a full professor is more valuable than one from an assistant
When to ask
Situations vary, but the more time you can allow for receiving your letter the better. As a
general rule request your letter at least a month or two in advance.
How to ask
Always be forthright when requesting a letter of recommendation. Explain exactly why the
letter is needed and its importance to you. In addition
Lead up to the request if possible. Get a sense of the writer's comfort level before
actually making the request
Never put the writer on the spot
Always offer to provide information that makes the writing task easier (biographical
data, employment or attendance timelines, etc.)
As a practical matter, if writing the letter will clearly be a favor make sure the writer
knows you understand that
If the subject is broached by the writer, offer to compose the letter yourself for the
writer to sign
Writing a letter of recommendation
Don't write a letter unless...
Never agree to write a letter of recommendation unless you
Have the time to write it
Know the individual well enough to discuss him or her in a tangible way
Honestly feel comfortable writing the letter
It is easier and better for all involved to politely say no when any of these conditions are not
No need to reinvent the wheel
While it's true that the more personalized a letter of recommendation is the more effective it
will probably be. And it's true that writing a letter, any letter, involves a certain amount of
creativity. It's also true that in terms of their underlying dynamics, what they cover and
how they are organized-- letters of recommendation are almost always the same. In other
words, good recommendation letters are highly formulaic. So, approaching your letter from
this context will not only make your writing easier-- it will make your recommendation more
Put yourself in the reader's shoes
The reader of your letter will most likely have read hundreds of recommendations before,
and will have only limited time to devote to it.
A sense that your credentials are meaningful and therefore what you say in your
letter is worth listening to
A sense that you know the candidate well enough to form sound judgments
A sense of whether or not you are vouching for the candidate
Insights into the candidate's personal dimensions.
These four items form the underlying dynamics of recommendation letters. Include all four
in your letter, make them easily discernable, and you will have accomplished your task.
The underlying dynamics of recommendations
Each of the four underlying dynamics plays a role in determining the ultimate value of a
recommendation, but only one requires much writing.
Dynamic Comment How communicated
What is writer's expertise? How
important is writer? How relevant On letterhead and/or
is writer's background to his or her signature title
Is writer individual's supervisor,
In second sentence in
professor, co-worker? How long
Writer's relationship to opening paragraph of
has writer been in a position to
individual letter (see letter
judge individual's talent and
format section below)
Made clear in first
sentence of opening
Is the writer strongly positive
Writer's overall opinion of reiterated in closing
about individual, lukewarm, or
individual (see section below on
overall opinion of the
Addressed in the body
of the letter. Covering
Can stand the heat?
these or other similar
How individual rates on
dimensions makes up
personal dimensions Academic examples the bulk of the letter
Love of field? (see letter format
Ambitious? section below).
Serious about studies?
Can stand the rigor?
Letter of recommendation format
As a rule letters of recommendation are organized into three sections. They usually contain
between five and nine paragraphs. Total word count can range from 200 to 600.
Section Length Content
Sentence 1-- State the purpose of the
1 paragraph of a letter, namely that you're writing a
couple sentences recommendation concerning the
Sentence 2-- Explain how you know
the individual. State from where and
for how long you've known him or her.
Be very clear about the working
relationship involved. That is, explain
whether he or she was your
subordinate, co-worker, student, etc.
Paragraph 2-- Ease into the specifics
contained in the rest of the body. Use
this paragraph to characterize the
individual in general terms.
Paragraphs 3 thru 6-- Address
personal dimensions such as those
listed above that you feel are pertinent
2 to 6 paragraphs
and for which you have direct
Body of 2 to 4 sentences
knowledge. Include anecdotes to
back-up your assessments. Cover 1 or
2 dimensions per paragraph.
Final paragraph of body section-- If
relevant, explain why the individual is
seeking a new assignment. For
example, if he or she was laid off
Express your level of confidence in the
1 or 2 paragraphs
individual. Explain the extent to which
Closing of a couple
you believe he or she is suited to the
job or program sought.
Rec letter length
Longer is not necessarily better. The reader, either the personnel professional or the
admissions officer, is not likely to hang on every word. More probably, he or she will be
doing a quick take on each of the four dynamics outlined earlier. What is important is that
letter length in and of itself affects the reader's perceptions.
Dynamic Comment Expected length
The more important the writer's title
Writer's credibility Shorter letter
the less time the writer can devote
The closer the writer is to the
Writer's relationship to
individual the more likely the writer Longer letter
will include anecdotes
Writer's overall opinion of Communicated in opening and Does not influence letter
individual reinforced in closing length
How individual rates on The more the individual stands out One or more longer
personal dimensions on a particular dimension the more paragraphs
apt that dimension will be covered at
Communicating your overall opinion of the individual
When you combine the likelihood that the reader will not be devoting much time to reading
with the truism that first impressions are not only potent but hard to overcome, it's
becomes clear that communicating your overall opinion of the individual should be done
very early in your letter.
In fact, recommendation letter writers almost always communicate most if not all of their
true opinion when they open their letters. The trouble is it is often unconscious. So, it's
important to understand the message you send when you open and to make sure it
matches the tone of the rest of your letter.
Example opening words Opinion of individual
This letter is in reference to Very low
This serves as a letter of reference for Fairly low
I am pleased to write this letter of
I am pleased to recommend Fairly high
It is a genuine pleasure and honor for me to
Writing your own letter
Since writing a letter of recommendation can easily consume 1 to 2 hours, it is not unusual
for a busy manager or professor to hand all or part of the writing task back to the individual
making a request. If you find yourself composing your own recommendation keep in mind
You have two audiences, the signer and the recipient. While you must satisfy both,
the signer is more important. So try to write from his or her perspective.
Follow the letter of recommendation format outlined above.
Address several personal dimensions. Obviously you want to emphasize your
strongest points, but be aware that too much attention to one or two things is often
perceived as a lack of breadth.
Be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses. Don't let
overcompensation for weaknesses drive what you say.
Unless asked to do otherwise, only deliver a complete, polished version of the letter-
- one theoretically ready for signing. If the signer nevertheless wishes to add or
delete something, accept his or her changes gracefully.