Letters of Recommendation that Gets Results

* Writing Letters of Recommendation
* Requesting Them From Others
* Using Them to Best Advantage


Letter of Recommendation Template

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Step-by-Step Instructions for Writing a Powerful Letter of Recommendation

One of the biggest challenges in writing is to organize your thoughts effectively; this section will show you how

Many letters of recommendation are ineffective because they lack customer-focus - that is, the authors do not appreciate the readers' perspectives (who are, of course, the customers). Even otherwise well-written letters can fall into this trap. My own example could be a case in point:

Ms. Dunkin is able to maintain an upbeat attitude, even in adversity. After losing a major contract after months of preparing an extensive executive presentation, she focused on learning from the experience how she might do better next time and was cheerfully busy prospecting for new opportunities the very next day.

What if the author doesn't say anything else

about Ms. Dunkin's upbeat attitude? Well, we know she has one, but so what? Will the reader necessarily care?

This writer has provided what a sales person would call a feature: Ms. Dunkin has an upbeat attitude.

That's a feature of Ms. Dunkin, as opposed to a benefit of - say - admitting her to your country club.

QUICK NOTE: OK, so I've lapsed into sales talk again. Hey, never forget that this is a sales process; you are trying to sell yourself as a candidate. If you've never heard of things like assumptive closes and the difference between features and benefits, you might want to get a book or two on the subject and bone up a bit.

Sales people have known for quite some time that customers are motivated by benefits, not features. Why should a prospective employer want someone with an upbeat attitude? What is the benefit of hiring someone with this feature?

Extending this example, let us say that the prospective country club is looking for new members who can handle being around some of the older members who have proven to be kind of grumpy around new faces. In such a case, an upbeat attitude might be important.

But has our hirer thought about that? Probably not. He knows he is looking for someone who can handle difficult people (a benefit), but he probably hasn't translated that need into the features he should look for that will provide it. After all, there are other options...

  • Someone with a take-charge kind of attitude (a feature) might not be intimidated by a bunch of sour-pusses and just zip right by them.
  • Someone with a great sense of humor (another feature) might be able to get them in a better mood.

Any number of features might be appropriate.

In this transaction (and it is a transaction - you are trying to sell the candidate to the reader!), you are the seller, not the customer. As the seller, it is your job to make these feature-to-benefit connections; you must connect your features to the benefits that reviewers seek.

To finish our thought on Ms. Dunkin, we might add:

This allows her to deal with difficult - even hostile - people without becoming discouraged.

This completes the circle and ties her feature to an customer benefit.

So here is the formula (what we call our "success formula") you can use to put all of this together:

  1. Trait - Describe a positive characteristic of the candidate (E.g. upbeat attitude)
  2. Example - Provide a specific example of when the candidate exhibited the trait (E.g. bounced back after losing contract)
  3. Expected Result - Explain the benefit(s) the employer will enjoy by accepting the candidate because of this trait. (E.g. able to handle grumpy members)

 Here are a couple of other examples:

Ms. Jones has a great deal of native intelligence. She is a fast learner, able to develop sophisticated skills quite easily. For instance, she taught herself basic sign language in only a couple of weeks. This intelligence will allow her to find ways to challenge and fascinate even the brightest of children.
(Application for a nanny position)

Ms. Jones is a goal-oriented individual with a bias for action. She anticipates problems and is proactive about finding solutions. For example, she spearheaded a computer system upgrade project that included developing an office network, which greatly improved office efficiency. Her initiative will be a very valuable consideration to your organization because she can be counted upon to infuse energy and drive to your fund-raising projects.
(Application for a non-profit volunteer position)

Need some more help getting your thoughts organized?
Try our section that explains how to use a letter of recommendation form.

Putting it All Together

Here are some overall tips...

Gather information about the person and the organization that will ultimately receive the letter. Comb the Internet and the local library for any information that might give you insights that can help you tailor your pitch. You need to find out what the reader's key hot buttons are.

Identify which of your skills and accomplishments are most noteworthy. For each of the key benefits sought by the reader, find a trait that would indicate that you can fulfill this need. These traits will be the key features on which you will focus your letter.

For each of the traits you plan to cover, come up with a specific example in which you demonstrated to the recommender that you have that trait.

Use the feature-example-benefit model ("success formula") to write one paragraph on each of the key traits. Start with the most important benefit (the hottest of the customer's hot buttons) in the first paragraph, followed by the second most important, and so on. Insert linking text to make the letter flow (e.g. first of all,… secondly,… etc.). Insert these paragraphs just before your overall evaluation.

Have you said anything that could be interpreted as a negative trait? If so, rewrite that section, highlighting how you have used your strengths to overcome your (very few!) deficiencies.

Keep the tone of your letter business-like. Don't make your recommender sound too familiar with the reviewer or with you.

Pare down the letter if needed to keep it to one or two pages. Delete less important traits and non-essential information.

Have someone else read over your letter for typos, grammar errors, and awkward or confusing phrases. Other people can usually proof your writing better than you can.

Once you have finished your draft, it is a good idea to sit down with the recommender and review the letter side-by-side. Make whatever changes you think are fair. You should indicate that you have seen the letter using the cc at the bottom. You should proof again carefully if you have made any changes.

Make sure you have all contact information and addresses accurate. Double check the spelling of all names.

Finally, print your letter on your recommender's company letterhead. Have him sign the letter in blue or black ink.

Finally, make one final check on everything. Make sure the envelope is addressed correctly before you seal it. Then send it off!

Always write a formal thank-you letter when you receive a letter of recommendation... Always!

Contact the recommender to discuss how you've made out and - if possible - how your letter was received.

Free Letter-Writing Template

Get Instant Access to Our Free Template:
Step-by-Step Instructions for Writing a Powerful Letter of Recommendation

Automated Recommendation Letters