If you have been asked to write a letter of recommendation for employment or for an academic program, you may be struggling to know what information to include—and what to leave out.
Letters of recommendation matter. A survey from the National Association for College Admission Counseling showed that letters from counselors and teachers were weighted more heavily in the college admissions process than class rank or extracurricular activities.
In a job search, a letter of recommendation can provide more information—and more a more positive impression—than simply providing a list of references for a potential employer to call.
However, there is a right way and a wrong way to write these letters. To help your colleague, direct report, or student achieve their goals, you need to craft a document that’s both an endorsement and a pitch. Here’s how to do it.
What to Include in a Letter of Recommendation
Context. A recommendation letter should include information on who you are, your connection with the person you are recommending, why they are qualified, and the specific skills they have.
Specifics. Whenever possible, it's helpful to provide specific anecdotes and examples that illustrate your support. For example, rather than simply stating that a candidate is a strong writer, mention that they wrote a prize-winning essay. If someone has achieved awards or special recognition for their accomplishments, mention it.
A match between the position’s requirements and the candidate’s skills. Your goal is to write a strong recommendation that will help the person you’re recommending get hired or accepted. When writing a specific letter referring a candidate for a particular job opening, the recommendation letter should include information on how the candidate's skills match the position they are applying for.
Ask for a copy of the job posting and a copy of the person's resume, so you can target your recommendation letter accordingly. Try to use keywords from the job listing in your recommendation.
The letter should include your contact information for follow-up. Finally, be prepared to answer questions about your endorsement of the candidate.
Letter of Recommendation Format
This recommendation letter template shows the format of a typical letter of recommendation, with details on what to include in each paragraph of your letter.
Writer Name and Address
City, State Zip Code
If you are writing a personal recommendation letter, include a salutation (Dear Dr. Williams, Dear Ms. Miller, etc.). If you are writing a general letter, say "To Whom it May Concern" or simply don't include a salutation.
Paragraph 1 – Introduction
The first paragraph of the recommendation letter explains the purpose of the letter, as well as your connection to the person you are recommending, including how you know them, and for how long.
Paragraph 2 – Details
The second paragraph of the recommendation letter contains specific information on the person you are writing about, including why they are qualified, and what they can contribute. If necessary, use more than one paragraph to provide details. Include specific examples attesting to the person’s qualifications whenever possible.
Paragraph 3 – Summary
This section of the recommendation letter contains a brief summary of why you are recommending the person. State that you "highly recommend" the person or that you "recommend without reservation" or something similar.
Paragraph 4 – Conclusion
The concluding paragraph of the recommendation letter contains an offer to provide more information. You can include a phone number within this paragraph. Another option is to include a phone number and email address in the return address section or signature of the letter.
Finish up your letter with a formal letter closing and your name and title. If you are mailing a hard copy of the letter, include your signature underneath your typed name:
Signature (for hard copy letter)
Review a Sample Letter of Recommendation
Here's an example of a letter of recommendation written by a coach for a student athlete.
Coach / Biology Teacher
Thomas Jefferson High School
8740 Highland Avenue Hillside, Illinois 60162
May 21, 2020
To Whom It May Concern:
It is with much enthusiasm that I am writing this personal recommendation for my student, Keeshan Williams. Keeshan has been an indispensable member of the Thomas Jefferson High School football team that I coach since his freshman year in 2018-2019.
Keeshan is truly one of our star students at Thomas Jefferson High School. Not only has he twice been recognized as MVP for our football team, but he also is an honors student, maintaining a 3.85 GPA as he completes a full schedule of AP classes in English, Biology, Chemistry, and Calculus. He is an acclaimed student leader, holding offices in student government and Beta Club, and also volunteers as a Biology tutor in our peer mentoring program.
Keeshan possesses a maturity and focus that far exceeds those of most students his age. Determined to eventually go to college and medical school (to pursue a career in sports medicine), he has worked various part-time jobs in retail to help fund his education, and understands how to provide attentive customer service, operate point-of-sale systems, and build team morale and project ownership.
I thus highly recommend Keeshan Williams, confident that he will bring the same drive and dedication to your organization that he brings to the classroom and the football field.
Please contact me at the email or phone number listed here if there is any other information I can provide.
Signature (hard copy letter)
What to Include in an Email Recommendation Message
When you’re sending your recommendation letter by email, you can eliminate the “Writer’s Address” section and include your name, address, title, email address, and telephone number in the signature section of your message:
City, State Zip Code
The subject of your message should include the candidate's name:
Subject: Recommendation - Applicant Name
What Not to Include in a Letter of Recommendation
If you do not feel comfortable recommending someone—whether it's for a job or graduate school or for something else—it's best to let the person requesting the recommendation know that you cannot write it, rather than writing a negative letter. This will give them an opportunity to seek out someone who can wholeheartedly write a positive recommendation.
Keep in mind that your own reputation is in play when you write a letter of recommendation; you do not want to endorse someone in a letter who you do not think will perform well since it could cast a negative light on your own judgment.
You also do not want to lie in the letter: Don't exaggerate accomplishments. Overblown praise can diminish the impact of your recommendation. But be aware that since most recommendation letters skew very positive, any criticism will be very noticeable.
A Letter of Recommendation Can Help a Candidate Achieve Their Goals: Students and job candidates use these letters to help make their case to academic programs and employers.
Don’t Agree to Write a Letter Unless You Can Strongly Endorse the Candidate: Tepid praise in a recommendation is worse than no praise at all.
Use a Template to Help You Format Your Letter: But be sure to customize the content for the specific requirements involved.