Every now and then, applying for a position will require that you also submit a letter of recommendation.
Or, maybe, a coworker will ask you to write a recommendation letter for their new job application.
If you're not certain how to go about it, don't worry - nothing about recommendation letters needs to be complicated. Especially once you learn the nitty-gritty of the topic.
This is exactly what this article is here to teach you!
- What is a Recommendation Letter?
- What Should a Letter of Recommendation Include?
- How to Write a Letter of Recommendation
- 3 Types of Recommendation Letters
- How to Ask For a Recommendation Letter
- Recommendation Letter Template
What is a Recommendation Letter?
A letter of recommendation is a formal document confirming and recommending a person’s work, skills, or academic performance and potential.
Typically, a recommendation letter is required for:
- University admissions
- Fellowships or internship positions
- Job applications
- Volunteering opportunities
You should ideally write a recommendation for someone whose abilities and work ethic you are familiar with - for example, a colleague, student you taught, your employee, or someone you supervised at work.
Similarly, if you’re the one asking for a recommendation letter, you should ask someone who can attest to your professional or academic abilities.
3 Types of Recommendation Letters
The types of recommendation letters are:
- Academic recommendation letters.
- Employment recommendation letters.
- Character recommendation letters.
Here’s what each type of recommendation letter is about:
#1. Academic Recommendation Letters
Academic recommendation letters are typically required to be submitted by students during the admission processes of graduate and undergraduate schools.
Generally, each prospective student is requested to submit up to three references, which can be written by any education professional familiar with the candidate’s academic background.
Academic reference letters include:
- Recommendation letter for undergraduate/graduate school
- Recommendation letter for a scholarship
- Recommendation letter for a fellowship program
#2. Employment recommendation letters
This type makes up the most popular type of recommendation letter.
Sometimes, employers can ask you to submit up to 3 recommendation letters as part of your job application.
More often, though, a recruiter might ask you for recommendation letters if they already like your resume and want to learn more about you.
Employment recommendation letters are written by former - or current - coworkers, employers, or supervisors.
If you can choose, pick someone with more years of experience than you. After all, the more senior they are, the more weight their recommendation carries.
Employment recommendations include:
- Recommendation letter for a coworker
- Recommendation letter for a (former) employee
#3. Character recommendation letters
Character recommendation letters, also known as personal references, are used to describe an individual’s personality by someone who knows them well, including close friends, coworkers, or employers.
Personal references serve many purposes, the primary ones being court cases dealing with criminal issues such as drunk driving offenses, or legal situations such as child adoption procedures.
It is not uncommon, however, to have a potential landlord or even immigration officials ask for a personal reference.
Personal references include:
- Recommendation letter for a friend
- Recommendation letter for a tenant
- Recommendation letter for a patient
What Should a Letter of Recommendation Include?
Recommendation letters follow a particular format and layout that make writing them significantly easier.
In this section, we’ll cover how to do each the right way, starting with:
Letter of Recommendation Format
A letter of recommendation includes the following sections:
- The salutation; if you are addressing someone whose name you know or writing a personal recommendation letter, the salutation can be addressed to “Dear Mr./Mrs./Dr. Smith.” Otherwise, you may use the generic “to whom it may concern.”
- The introduction, which first and foremost includes your statement of recommendation (i.e. “it is my pleasure to recommend…”). It is common to also briefly state who you are and what your expertise is.
- The overview, or a description of the applicant’s top skills, attributes, and strengths.
- A personal story describing more of the applicant’s skills and qualifications.
- The closing statement, or the final call for action, is where you encourage the recruiter to contact you if additional information is needed.
- The signature, where you repeat your name and include your full contact information.
Letter of Recommendation Layout
When it comes to the layout of the recommendation letter, all you need to do is follow some basic formatting rules. Here are the most important ones:
#1. One page length. This rule applies to resumes too, but it’s even more essential for the recommendation letter. Recruiters go through hundreds of them, so chances are they appreciate concise, to-the-point letters that don’t waste their time. And besides, a good recommendation letter doesn’t have to be an essay to get the recruiter ‘hooked’ - especially if you follow the above format.
#2. Single-spaced lining, with space between paragraphs. This also keeps your reference letter within the limit by shortening the text.
#3. Traditional font. Don’t go for something too creative - pick a classic that works. We recommend Times New Roman, Calibri, Arial, Ubuntu, Roboto or Overpass.
#4. 1” margins on all sides. This creates enough white space around the margins and makes the letter easy to read. Additionally, the text should be aligned to the left - although this is a standard alignment for most documents.
#5. 10-12pt font size. This is the font size range that makes the document easy to read. Adjusting the font size is another good way to keep your recommendation letter within the length limit.
Recommendation letters usually follow similar layout rules as resumes. Learn more about font size and style from our article on the best resume font, size, and format.
Recommendation Letter Template
Struggling to write a recommendation letter?
Just follow our tried-and-tested template!
To whom it may concern:
[Recommend the referee for the position they are applying for.]
[Tell how you know the referee and describe their top skills, qualifications, and strengths.]
[Share a personal story with the referee where you highlight their strong points and key achievements.]
[Add a few more of the applicant’s skills and positive traits, preferably fitting the job description.]
[Show your availability to provide additional information for the referee if needed.]
[Your full signature and contact information]
How to Ask for a Recommendation Letter
Need to ask someone for a recommendation letter? Here’s what you need to know.
The go-to person for your recommendation letter will depend on the type of reference you’ll need.
For example, if you need an employment recommendation letter, your top choices should involve people who are familiar with your work ethic and professional abilities, but with whom you’ve also had a positive professional relationship. For example:
- Your team lead
- Department head
- CEO of the company
- Direct manager
- A coworker you’ve worked with together on a project
If you are a recent graduate with little work experience, you can ask a mentor or college professor to write you a professional reference.
In case you need an academic recommendation letter, consider asking a professor with whom you’ve worked closely and can positively attest to your academic potential and achievements.
Your thesis advisor, for example, would make a good choice to ask for an academic reference. If you never wrote a Bachelor’s or Master’s thesis, any professor who knows you as more than just a face in a sea of students should do the trick.
Finally, keep the following in mind when the time comes to ask for a recommendation letter:
- Whoever you end up asking, talk to them about it in advance. Then, follow up with a formal email that should contain all reference-related information, such as the submission details and deadline. The email can also include a description of what you’re currently doing (professionally, academically, or independently), what qualifies you for the position, and some relevant skills, achievements, or noteworthy facts.
- If you’re asking for a professional recommendation letter, make sure to also include your resume and the job description in the follow-up email. This way, the person writing the letter will know more about you and your new position and will be able to write a more relevant recommendation by tailoring your skills to the job, or by mentioning some of your (relevant) achievements.
- Notify the contacts you’ll be asking - considering that in most cases recruiters ask for up to three recommendation letters - at least two weeks in advance. This will give them enough time to prepare and write a good recommendation letter. This is especially important for academic references because professors are usually writing several recommendation letters simultaneously.
- Consider attaching a recommendation letter template such as the one provided in this article to your email. The template will considerably ease or guide them through the process of writing the letter.
- Follow up by sending thank you notes to everyone who writes you a recommendation letter. Sending a letter of appreciation is a courtesy act that will let them know you are grateful for the time and effort they took to recommend you positively.
If you’re also looking to update your resume or create one, head over to our guide on how to write a resume in 2023!
5 Tips on How to Write a Letter of Recommendation
There’s more to writing a recommendation letter than just following the layout instructions or sticking to the format.
We’re referring to content quality, which happens to be the trickiest part of the process.
In this section, we’ll teach you how to write a recommendation letter that will impress the recruiter and help your referee!
Tip #1. Write an Attention-Grabbing Introduction
First things first - the introduction.
This is where you need to grab the reader’s attention and get them interested in reading the recommendation letter.
How to go about it? Before formally (and briefly) introducing yourself, aim to write an attention-grabbing recommendation statement, instead of a generic one the recruiter probably knows by heart already.
Let’s explain this more practically:
Dear Mr. Smith,
I am pleased to recommend Sarah McKay for the Communications Assistant position.
Nothing wrong with this introduction at first glance, right? It’s a standard way of opening a recommendation letter after all.
Well that’s exactly what’s wrong with it - it’s way too common. No, this probably won’t get your application disqualified, but it won’t impress the recruiter either.
Want yours to strike the right note? Try something like this instead:
Dear Mr. Smith,
I am sincerely glad to be the one recommending Sarah McKay for the Communications Assistant position.
This recommendation statement is not significantly different from the previous one, except for one thing: it gives the reference letter a head start by implying that recommending Sarah is an honor. And that’s more likely to get the recruiter’s attention - or, at least, curiosity.
In case you’re struggling to come up with an attention-grabbing introduction, simply mention one of the following points, and you’re good to go:
- A little-known fact about the candidate.
- Your general consideration of the candidate’s qualities.
- A remarkable achievement or award the candidate might have won.
Tip #2. Establish a Meaningful Relationship With the Candidate
All recommendation letters explain what the relationship with the referee is before listing their skills and qualifications.
To make the recommendation more meaningful, you should show the recruiter you are just the right person to attest to the candidate’s abilities. And that’s not something you can convey by simply stating how you know them. Take the following example:
I have taught Jake Political Science for four years.
Does this example tell the recruiter how you know the applicant? Sure, it does.
But it does so in a boring way and without establishing a convincing relationship with them. For all the recruiter knows, Jake is just one out of a thousand students you’ve taught over the years.
It has been a pleasure for me to teach Jake for four years and guide him through his remarkable Bachelor’s thesis in Conflict Resolution.
Notice the difference? This example specifies the writer is Jake’s thesis advisor, which makes the recommendation all the more meaningful.
Tip #3. Tailor Your Recommendation to the Application
Want to put in the extra effort and make sure your referee truly stands out?
Tailor the recommendation letter to the job / university program they’re applying for.
Tailoring your letter to the candidate’s application is easiest when you’re recommending someone for employment (you can just check the job requirements), but it works for any type of recommendation (incl. academic). All you need to do is match the referee’s skills and strengths to whatever they’re applying for.
Let’s assume, for example, that you’re recommending a co-worker for a marketing manager position.
Some of the job requirements are:
- +5 years of professional experience in marketing
- Experience developing marketing campaigns
- Excellent communication skills
- Project-management and multi-tasking skills
To tailor your recommendation to the job requirements, all you need to do is mention them as your referee’s best qualities. For example:
Even after seven years working together, Ema’s skillful way of effectively communicating with clients and co-workers alike doesn’t cease to amaze me. It only comes second to her multi-tasking abilities, which I’ve witnessed throughout the many marketing campaigns we have developed and managed.
As you can see, there’s not much to it.
All you need to do is check the job requirements, pick several skills and qualifications, and make them part of your referee’s top skills, strengths, or personality traits.
Tip #4. List the Candidate’s Achievements
Mentioning some of the candidate’s achievements is another great way to help your referee really stand out.
After all, skills, strengths, and character traits are awesome, but they can also come across as meaningless if you can’t back them up with facts.
What do we mean by this?
Let us explain:
Here’s how a typical personal story in a recommendation letter looks like:
I came to truly appreciate Eric’s work ethic, passion, and attention to detail the first time I assigned him to do a report on child trafficking. Eric was respectful of journalistic ethics but also willing to chase the story relentlessly, believing in its value and importance.
Sure, this is a perfectly acceptable personal story.
However, it doesn’t do much more than just list the referee’s skills, traits, and work experience through a subjective lens.
What we’re saying is, it doesn’t really sell the candidate.
Now, let’s compare it to the following:
Eric’s ability to chase after difficult stories first became apparent when I assigned him a report about child trafficking. Despite the challenging topic, Eric not only pulled through but achieved more than expected by a) identifying a trafficking ring that put more than 50 minors into forced begging, b) interviewing 10 of the older minors and managing to bring that trafficking network down once the reportage went public and c) increasing the TV Channel’s ratings by 40% in 3 weeks.
By mentioning those achievements, your account of the candidate’s experiences is a lot more “factual,” as well as impressive for the recruiter.
Not sure which achievements to include? Check out these 101+ achievements to list on your resume!
Tip #5. Polish Up Your Recommendation Letter
Finally, here’s 5 more simple tips to get your recommendation letter ready:
- Maintain positive rhetoric. At no point throughout your reference letter should the recruiter sense a hint of doubt regarding the applicant’s skills and qualifications.
- Don’t overdo the positivity. Extremes are never good - which means being overly positive might also come across as a bit suspicious or weird (even if everything you're saying is true).
- Follow the submission instructions. A bunch of employers, but also educational institutions, will provide instructions on how to submit the recommendation letter. We recommend you ask the candidate to double-check them and give you a heads up, because if you submit the recommendation letter wrong, the candidate might lose their chance.
- Use a business tone. Even when you’re being creative, your writing tone should maintain a business tone - polite, and as formal as possible.
- Mind your grammar and spelling. This is another tip that goes for all things application-related. You won’t compromise the referee’s chances with a typo, but your recommendation won’t matter much either if it’s filled with simple grammar/spelling mistakes. Run your letter through a grammar and spell-check app once you’re finished with it, just to be on the safe side of things.
Recommendation Letter FAQ
Still have some questions on how to write a letter of recommendation?
Find your answers below!
1. What is a professional letter of recommendation?
A professional letter of recommendation - also called an employment recommendation letter - refers to an official document that is typically required when you apply for a job and which describes the applicant’s professional skills, experiences, and qualifications.
Professional letters of recommendation are typically written by current or previous employers or supervisors. A coworker can also write you a professional letter of recommendation, but it’s not as optimal as a coworker is not really an authority figure (and might just be a friend doing you a favor instead of being honest).
2. What should be written in a letter of recommendation?
Letters of recommendation generally follow the following format:
- A formal salutation
- An introduction (which includes a recommendation statement and your professional title)
- An overview of some of the applicant’s skills, strengths, or qualifications, which you can tailor to the application
- A personal story where you can mention some of the applicant’s achievements
- A closing statement and call for action
- A signature, with your contact information
3. Who should I ask for a letter of recommendation?
If you’re asking for an academic letter of recommendation, you can ask:
- Current or former professors
- Academic mentors
- Thesis advisors
If you’re asking for a professional recommendation letter, though, you can ask:
- Current or former employers
- A supervisor or professional mentor
- Former professors
- Experienced coworkers
4. How do you start a recommendation paragraph?
To keep the recruiter reading your recommendation letter interested, you should start with an attention-grabbing introduction - specifically, an interesting recommendation statement.
This statement is the opening sentence of the letter and it should optimally express your conviction to recommend the applicant in a non-generic way.
If you’re struggling with coming up with something creative, just start with one of the following:
- A little-known or impressive fact about the candidate
- Your general consideration of the candidate’s qualities
- A remarkable achievement, or an award the candidate might have won
5. How do you end a letter of recommendation?
A letter of recommendation concludes with a call to action or a request towards the recruiter showing your availability and willingness to provide additional information if needed. After mentioning that you remain available to discuss the candidate’s qualifications, you may finalize the letter with your signature - your name, title, and company.
And that’s a wrap! We hope this article will make the process of writing a recommendation letter easier for you.
Let’s go over some of the main points we covered:
- A letter of recommendation is a formal letter confirming and recommending a person’s work, skills, or academic performance and potential.
- Recommendation letters follow a particular format and layout. The format typically consists of 1) the letterhead and full contact information, 2) a salutation, 3) an introduction, 4) an overview, 5) a personal story, 6) a closing sentence and 7) your signature.
- The three types of recommendation letters are employment, academic, and character recommendation letters.
- Who to ask for a recommendation letter depends on the type of reference you need. As a rule of thumb, pick someone who knows your skills and strengths well and whom you’ve had a positive experience (professional or academic) with.