Letter-Writing: Letter of Recommendation

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Getting mail is a ton of fun, but in an increasingly digital world, writing it can sometimes be hard. This blog post series about Letter Writing aims to make it easier. 

 In the past, this letter-writing series has confined itself to personal correspondence, rather than business letters. However, Letters of Recommendation are a type of writing that almost everyone is asked to author at one point, and  having all been in need of one at some point or another, we know writing good ones are of utmost importance  not just yourself (nor even your letter recipient) who will be effected, but the person you are writing the letter for. 

photo credit: sunside via photopin cc


These letters are generally written for job references, academic references, and character references (usually for things such as child custody or apartment leases). All of these have very important results riding, in part, on your reference letter. So, before you do anything else- make sure  you are the right person to write this letter. Sometimes people ask without realizing you are not a good fit, so ask it of yourself. If it is a work or academic reference letter, is your relationship with the person appropriate to the context (i.e. if a work letter, you work with the person and if an academic letter, you have had the student in class or other, similar student group)? A further note for work references: even if you do work with the person, is the relationship appropriate?  If you are asked to give a reference letter for your boss, that is inappropriate. You would not be able to be objective. Equally important, can you give specific and positive review of the person? If you do not feel you have interacted with the person enough, or do not feel you can honestly give the best review of the person, say so. Also say something if you do not feel you have the time. A so-so letter will do more harm than good! 

Once you have decided to write the letter, ask the person you are writing about for some background information. Ideally, they should be able to provide you with at least a resume, and/or transcript, where appropriate. This will help you in detailing hard facts and remind you of events and accomplishments that might be good to share. Some people also like to discuss before-hand with the person they are recommending whether there are any accomplishments or projects that they would like specifically mentioned. 

Reference letters are business letters and should follow business letter guidelines for how the letter is addressed and structured. They should also be on letterhead if at all possible. You wish to convey professionalism and authority. Since it is often unknown who recommendation letters will go to (and they may go to many different people), simple address your audience in a general way, "Dear Sir or Madam" and you are ready to begin.

Start your letter or recommendation by introducing yourself, and why you are writing (you are writing to recommend so-and-so for such-and-such). Make sure to include your relationship with the person (they are your student, or your subordinate etc.), and how long you have known them. This gives context and authority to your opinions. 
photo credit: L. Marie via photopin cc

In the body of the letter, you will be writing about the person you are recommending; this section will likely be several paragraphs long. Remember, longer does not always equal better. Instead, be specific. There are several ways to in which you want to do this. Use specific adjectives. Telling me someone is "wonderful" or a "delight to know" does not say much. Telling me they are a "hard worker," or "considerate to others." is saying a bit more. This second part though, is where most people unwittingly fail at writing effective reference letters. Far more important than picking adjectives though, is you want to mention specific projects and/or anecdotes about the person. By anecdotes  I do not mean, of course, telling silly stories, but was there a time the person showed remarkable leadership, or whose work ethic took a project to the next level? Also be sure to specifically mention any relevant accreditation, or awards.  Basically, you are backing up your opinion of the person with fact. 

There are two schools of thought on whether a recommendation letter should mention weaknesses of the person. In general, in America, steer clear of negative comments, even if they are wholly objective. 


In your last paragraph, reiterate your recommendation of so-and-so for such-and-such. Then, make sure to leave contact information. Many times you may be contacted for further information, or even just verification of the facts in the letter. 

Once the letter is done, give it to the person you are writing about unless otherwise specifically instructed. It is considered rude to not allow that person to read over the letter (they may ask for changes; you are free to oblige or not as your conscious compels you). More importantly, that person needs to be in ultimate control of his or her image and they need to be the one to choose whether to use the letter once it is a finished product. Following these guidelines though, and they'll be sure to love the letter you write! 

Looking for more tips on writing letters or recommendation? Try these articles:



LETTER WRITING SERIES: THANK YOU NOTES | PERSONAL CORRESPONDENCE | LOVE LETTERS | SYMPATHY LETTERS | CONGRATULATORY LETTERS | POSTCARDS | LETTERS OF APPRECIATION | CORRESPONDENCE CHESS | GET WELL CARDS | LETTERS TO SICK CHILDREN | INVITATIONS | HOLIDAY LETTERS | LETTERS TO SANTA| LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION | LETTERS TO THE EDITOR | CIRCLE LETTERS | LETTERS TO POLITICIANS | WRITING TO ADVICE COLUMNS | THE LETTER WRITING GAME | PENPAL LETTERS | LETTER OF COMPLAINT | COVER LETTERS | LETTERS TO PRISONERS | OPEN LETTERS | LETTERS TO FUTURE YOURSELF | LETTERS OF APOLOGY | "OPEN WHEN" LETTERS | FAN MAIL | GOOD BYE LETTER |

9 comments

  1. I love your letter posts. I have the hardest time composing formal letters so it's always nice to hear how you do it.

    xo

    Ashley

    Southern (California) Belle

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It was interesting researching one too because I was asking for letters and having a hard time pinning down what wasn't quite right (and what I wasn't doing quite right when people asked me to write them! Yikes!)

      Glad this is beneficial!

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  2. So interesting! I'm in the position of asking for rec letters now, so it's nice to see the other side.

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    Replies
    1. I've been asking for them too, but found this information helpful. For some reason, I'd never considered giving the letter writers my resume or trascripts. And if a letter seemed off soemhow, I couldn't always tell (it was usually that not enough specific ancedotes or empirical evidence).

      Good luck with getting the reference letters and with whatever the letters are for.

      Delete
  3. I love this post, very helpful since writing letters is such a struggle for me

    Delightful Ideas

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  4. I never know where to start when writing a formal letter. It definitely gets me very nervous, b/c the perfectionist in me never wants to say...err, write the wrong thing, especially when it is for someone else! Helpful post Kristian!

    ReplyDelete

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