How to Write a Letter of Recommendation for
A letter of recommendation is not intended to be an objective evaluation of someone; it is
supposed to recommend, not analyze. As such, negative comments about the job candidate in question
should be avoided.
Most candidates submit only the most glowing letters of recommendation anyway. A letter
expressing an objective opinion will look like a condemnation compared to letters from other
candidates; it will be the kiss of death to any hopes for admission or scholarship or whatever the
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A negative comment in your letter will probably be enough to
keep the candidate from using it, which of course defeats the whole purpose of the exercise.
In the academic arena, sometimes schools arrange for a
candidate's references to send their letters of recommendation not to the candidate, as is usual, but instead
directly to the schools - by-passing the candidate so that she cannot read the contents of the letter. This
approach is supposed to make the information in the letters the schools receive less biased.
Generally, this does not work. A good portion of referrers will
share the contents of their letters with their job candidates anyway, despite the schools' wishes. In
practice, rather than lead to a more fair assessment of candidates, this tactic tends to weed out the few
candidates whose letter-writers are perhaps a bit too honest - that is, naive. In my opinion, this situation
is a lawsuit waiting to happen.
The worst that you should say about a candidate is that she
"struggles with" something. For example: "Sally does not have a mind for details, which has been a real
challenge for her in this environment. However, her organizational and computer skills have allowed her to
keep her research assignments on schedule." In this way, Sally is not presented in a negative light; instead,
she is shown to be able to use her strengths to overcome her weaknesses, which is something we all need to
Just Say No
All of this is not to say that you should portray your candidate
to be better than he is; this is, of course, dishonest - and dangerous to your professional reputation.
Present positive characteristics and accomplishments accurately and just avoid mentioning negative
Now if the candidate in question has so many negative qualities
that you cannot in good conscience recommend him, then you shouldn't. Thus, you have no business writing a
letter of recommendation. Simply refuse.
Letters of recommendation are official correspondence. As such,
they should be written in a very business-like tone. If you are writing a letter of recommendation that is
being sent to someone you know well, do not let that influence the tone of your letter; you should stay in
Your friend may have to justify a decision to accept the
candidate you are recommending. If this decision is called into question, your letter of recommendation could
serve as evidence, if you will. If so, your friend's boss may be reading the letter. She may very well doubt
the wisdom of a decision based on a letter of recommendation that seems a bit too chummy.
Letters of recommendation should be kept to two pages - one, if
possible. Just from a logistical point of view, this is important. Reviewers deal with a very large amount of
paper during the process of looking through candidates, and multiple-page letters can become separated in a
large stack of documents. In our information-burdened society, one page documents are always popular;
important people (and if your letter of recommendation is to carry any way, that includes you!) do not write
Short letters are more effective at selling a candidate anyway,
in large part because they are more likely to be read (and effective letters are generally read multiple
times). Focus your letter on making the one or two points most likely to make the prospect want to read the
candidate's file carefully. Your candidate may have a very large number of positive characteristics, but
unless you narrow the field down a bit, your letter may be largely passed up due to its sheer bulk. One
strong point is much more valuable than a dozen weak ones.
Sometimes you don't have the option of refusing write a letter
of recommendation you would prefer to skip. For example, some schools require their teachers to write letters
of recommendation for their students, even if they don't want to. This is, of course, a strange and
ineffective policy, but it happens. In addition, there might be any number of other circumstances which make
an out-and-out refusal impractical.
In these cases, you should resort to using an "IBM-style" letter
of recommendation. In years past, IBM's policy was that managers could not offer more than the bare minimum
for letters of recommendation. They could confirm that an employee worked for the company and give the start
date and end date of employment. I'm not sure whether this policy was to avoid lawsuits or discourage
turnover, but this was the policy - however Draconian. (I'm also unsure whether this is still the policy at
IBM or not.)
If you have to write a letter of recommendation that you would
prefer to avoid, use this same approach. Just give basic information about the candidate's performance in
your class (we're assuming here that you are his teacher; adjust as needed if your relationship with the
candidate is different.):
- Courses you have taught the student
- How long you have known the student
- Assignments completed
- Attendance record
- Grades received
Here's an example; let's assume that while this student has
performed well in terms of grades, the teacher finds the student obnoxious and disruptful:
Dear Sir / Madam:
This is a letter of recommendation for Joe Bishop, who is applying
for admission to your school.
Joe has been a student for one year. He is in my English Composition
class. In this class, students study how to put together research papers that analyze various works of
English literature. Three such papers are assigned throughout the year, culminating in an extensive paper
on one of the plays of William Shakespeare. Students are required to develop theses and research their
topics either on-line or at the library of the local university.
During this year, Joe missed only two days while he was visiting
college campuses with his parents. He has turned all of his assignments in on time. For the most part he
has maintained a B+ / A- average in the class.
If you would like more information, feel free to contact me using the
information provided above.
Respectfully yours, Erin Harding, English Department
cc: Joe Bishop
Notice that none of this information is subject to
interpretation or opinion; the letter simply states facts about the candidate's performance that can be
readily documented. Even this minimal amount of information will have value to an admissions reviewer; it
will at least allow her to confirm some of the information in the candidate's application. It will also
prevent the candidate from being able to pad his work record in your class.
A couple of other details from this example are instructive.
First is the cc; the letter indicates that Mr. Bishop received a copy of the letter. This is a signal to the
reviewer that the candidate is aware of the letter's contents. There is also an invitation for the reader to
call for more information; negative evaluations are usually better handled that way.
If the candidate is really as obnoxious as this teacher thinks,
then this is probably the best recommendation Mr. Bishop will be able to muster. And, well... admission
boards aren't stupid!
If you write a letter like this one for a candidate you do not
know well (as opposed to someone you do not respect well), then you should mention in that fact in your
letter. You might say something like this:
I regret that the size of the classes I teach prevents me from
getting to know many of my students as well as I would like; unfortunately, this has been the case with
Mr. Meyn. I can highlight some of the details of his performance in my class which I think are most
noteworthy, but I am afraid I cannot offer much more insight into the kind of person he is. This lack of
candor on my part should not be interpreted as a negative opinion of him. I have had no reason to believe
him unworthy of my recommendation.
A statement of overall recommendation, such as "I can recommend
her highly," has little persuasive power for most reviewers; after all, most letters of recommendation make
some sort of statement like this. If you've seen one, you've seen them all.
Prospects want to know why you are recommending a candidate.
They want to know on what your assessment is based. They need to see enough evidence to feel confident that
they would have made the same recommendation in your place. They need enough specifics to compare the record
of your candidate with those of others who are competing for the same slot.
That's a key word in writing effective letters of
recommendation: "specifics." Don't just give traits; provide examples as supporting evidence. Don't just say
a candidate is intelligent; tell them what he did that demonstrates his intelligence.
Here's an example:
Ms. Dunkin is able to maintain an upbeat attitude, even in adversity.
After failing to place in a state speech competition after months of preparation, she focused on learning
from the experience how she might do better next time and was cheerfully busy putting together ideas for
her science project the very next day.
Here the author doesn't just say this candidate is cheerful (a
positive trait), he gives a specific example of when her upbeat attitude was put to the test and came shining
Another great reason to include specific examples in your letter
is to keep yourself out of trouble. As I said before, readers who accept a candidate based on your
recommendation can get angry if the candidate turns out to be a disaster. However, if you provide specific
examples that are verifiable, then not only do you give your opinion - you also point out the evidence on
which your opinion is based.
This tactic allows the reader a better opportunity to assess the
candidate for herself. She doesn't have to take your word for it; she can reach her own conclusions based on
the evidence you present. She will know why you said what you did, and she can form her OWN opinion.
Reviewers' decisions don't always pan out; people change. Regardless, this keeps your professional
credibility largely in tact.
Here are some more quick tips...
In most cases, agree to writing letters of recommendation only if you can honestly write something supportive.
If you cannot portray an individual positively, decline to write the recommendation.
Ask for a current resume and as complete a description as possible of the position or program to which the
person is applying. Assemble and review all other relevant information you may have about the person for whom
you are writing letters of recommendation. It is often easy to overlook some important
Writing letters of recommendation is about recommending people, not analyzing them. Present the person
truthfully but in a decidedly positive light. A recommendation that focuses on negative qualities may do more
harm than intended. Focus on strengths. If you can't, then refuse to write the letter.
Connect yourself in.
Begin writing letters of recommendation by describing how you know the individual you are recommending and the
specific contexts upon which you are basing your evaluation. In what situations have you known the individual?
For how long? How closely?
Don't just give a general recommendation - highlight specific characteristics that stand out and make the
candidate worthy of your recommendation. Present the individual's general qualities relevant to the position
along with one or two detailed examples. Including vivid detail will make the recommendation much more
Naked characteristics (or traits) don't carry much weight either. Give specific examples of things the person
did to give you that impression. Don't just say your candidate is a quick learner; give a specific example of
when she learned something quickly.
Your candidate is likely to be competing with other candidates - often a great number of such competitors. It
is important to make your candidate stand out somehow. Say how this person is unlike other people: his or her
specific strengths that are somehow unique.
Tailor the recommendation to the opportunity. A letter recommending an individual for a job as a camp counselor
should contain different information from that in a letter recommending the same individual for a job as a
computer programmer. Focus on what you believe will be the reviewer's hot buttons.
When writing to someone who shares context with you, name names. ("The best student I've graduated since little
Al Turing." "The best engineer I've seen at Astro Chemicals in twelve years.") Rankings in class are another
example of a helpful comparison.
Don't make the person out to be perfect. A recommendation that paints an unrealistic picture of a candidate may
be discounted. Often shortcomings are just ignored, but it can also be reasonable to note some, particularly if
the person has started to overcome them. We all must rely on our strength to overcome our weaknesses. How does
your candidate accomplish this?
The reviewer needs to know why you are writing letters of recommendation. Say how well you know the person, and
for how long. This should come at the beginning of the letter. State your own credentials. Give the reviewer an
idea of the caliber of candidates you typically see. If most of the people you deal with are world class, then
you need to make that clear.
Don't be too brief.
One or two short paragraphs is the kiss of death. If you don't know the candidate well and don't have much to
say, then highlight the element of the candidate's resume that impresses you most. This won't fool most people,
but will soften the blow of a short letter.
Short letters get read. In most cases, a letter of recommendation should consist of five or six paragraphs and
one or two pages in length.
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Step-by-Step Instructions for Writing a Powerful Letter of Recommendation