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Letter of Recommendation Essentials + How to Write Advice

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By Eric Ciechanowski | Career Expert
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If you need to submit a letter of recommendation to a potential employer or write one for someone else, we’ve got lots of helpful information that will explain everything you need to know. Use this page to help ensure you set yourself up to receive a recommendation letter that helps land your dream job!

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What is a Letter of Recommendation?

A letter of recommendation is a document that some employers request so that they may assess more information about your background and history.

It almost works the same way that a cover letter does when you apply for a job, except that someone else is writing the letter for you!

A letter of recommendation gives authenticity and trustworthiness to your candidacy because someone else is sacrificing a bit of their time and energy as well as putting their professional reputation on the line to vouch for you.

In fact, before telephone and email made it so easy to reach out to a job candidate’s past employers, letters of recommendation were a really big deal. They were almost more valuable than a resume!

Nowadays, in many industries, letters of recommendation are considered an antiquated or outdated practice. If a potential employer wants to check your background and verify your history they will probably be making direct calls to references so that they can ask questions and have a conversation in real-time.

When to Use a Letter of Recommendation

So, first and foremost: You should only include a letter of recommendation if requested!

For most normal roles or roles in business, it will not be requested. However, there are still some professions that do incorporate letters of recommendation into their job-seeking process. These roles tend to be in academic professions or for jobs that are compensated through grant money.

The surefire way to know if you need to include a recommendation letter is to check the job post or opportunity description. If the employer wants or expects a recommendation letter, it should be mentioned there.

If it’s not mentioned, you can probably assume that you don’t need to include one.

It is sometimes common for an employer to ask for references after they have reviewed your formal application and are showing interest. This is usually a good sign, it means that you’ve passed their first round of cuts for interviews.

More often than not, this will be done over the telephone, but in some cases, they may request a letter.

How to Ask for a Recommendation Letter

The way you should ask someone for a letter or recommendation obviously depends a little bit on who you’re asking and how well you know this person.

If the person for whom you’re going to request a letter of recommendation is someone that you’re in regular communication with, it’s something you could bring up in person through a simple conversation.

However, if the person is a little less familiar — perhaps they’re a former employer, colleague or instructor — or, maybe it’s someone you haven’t talked with in a while; then, you should take the more formal approach and send an email.

The email needn’t be long. All you really need to do is:

Explain that you need a letter of recommendation for x-purpose, and cite the specific job name or academic post that you’re after.
Be direct, clear and polite in your request to have the reader provide a letter for you.
Mention any time constraints you may have.
Offer to provide more details and specifics.
Express lots of gratitude and appreciation for their time.

Here’s an example of how that could look:

Dear Professor Bogdan,

Some time has passed since we have last spoken, but I hope that you are doing well and continuing your mindful research!

Just dropping you a quick note because I am applying for a position as an adjunct professor in Oakmont University’s cognitive science department. Seeing as how you were the advisor on my thesis, your words would matter a great deal to my candidacy.

If you have the time to assist me by writing a letter, it would mean so much to me! Please let me know if this is something you’d be able to help me with and I can explain the specifics of what I need. I’m hoping to have my application documents submitted by May 1.

Otherwise, I hope that you’re well and that we can reconnect soon.

Kind regards,
Jillian Larson

It’s important that you determine if the individual you’re asking to write your letter has the time and willingness to do so. They may have valid reasons they cannot provide the help you’re looking for and rather than launch into a full explanation of what you need, check their availability first!

If you don’t hear back from your first email, wait at least 48 hours and then send a follow-up email. If that doesn’t work, maybe try a phone call to their school or work to make sure you still have the correct email address.

Once you know if they have the time and bandwidth to devote to your request, you can explain to them what your letter should include.

We’ll go over that next.

Diagram of a Recommendation Letter

If you have to write a letter of recommendation for someone, these are the parts it should include.

A recommendation letter is more or less just a standard business letter consisting of three main body paragraphs. They all should follow the same format!

Here are all the parts, diagrammed by section:

Every recommendation letter should include:

  1. The writer’s name and contact information
  2. The addressee’s name and contact information
  3. A greeting
  4. First paragraph: the introduction
  5. Second paragraph: the main body
  6. Third paragraph: the close
  7. Signature

Section-wise it’s that simple. However, if you want a bit more specific advice on what you should say in each section please check out and share our writing tips below.

Here’s the link to our How to Write a Recommendation Letter guide that you can share with the person who has agreed to write for you. It goes over all the specifics of what each section should include.

Recommendation Letter Writing Tips

If you have to write a letter of recommendation for someone, here’s how to do it!

The information in this section is meant to tell you everything you need to know about how to write a recommendation letter and what you should achieve in each section.

The first step is to always decide whether or not you should write the letter of recommendation in the first place.

Here are some valid reasons you might consider saying “no” to writing a letter of recommendation:

You don’t have the time to produce a solid letter on deadline.
You just can’t give an honest, positive recommendation for the candidate.
You don’t feel like you had enough experience or recollection working with the candidate to give a fair, full evaluation.

Otherwise, if you’re willing and able to help, a great letter of recommendation could make a really big difference in that person’s life — you’ll be a JobHero for doing it!

To start, the goal of this letter is to tell a convincing narrative about why this candidate should get picked. Keep it to one page, maximum.

To prepare for writing:

  • Make sure you understand the nature and specific details of the role the candidate is applying for, so that you can give a more tailored and pointed opinion.
  • Have a conversation with the candidate to refresh your memory of their personality, background, goals and passions.
  • Discuss the details of projects that you worked on together if any. It will help you brainstorm material to write about.
  • Ask the candidate to share with you the job listing or post description so that you can write more directly to it.

Addressing the recommendation letter

The first part of a recommendation letter is the easiest: All you have to do is write your name and address at the top.

For stylistic purposes, some people choose to right- or center-justify their contact information. But you can also keep it on the left side of the page, too. Just make sure it’s the first information listed.

Below that, you’ll include the name and the address of the person that you’re addressing the letter to. If you weren’t given a name, you should request this very important information.

Then, after that, start your letter with the classic greeting, “Dear [name of recipient].”

Writing the first paragraph

The first paragraph should be two to three sentences that clearly identify who you are, the person whom you are providing the reference for, how you know them, as well as the specific role that they’re applying to.

It’s very important that you mention the role because you want to show familiarity with the job candidate in addition to vouching that you believe the person will succeed in this specific position.

You should then give your most concise and strongest case for why this person is right for the opportunity.

To do so, there are a few strategies you could use to endorse the candidate:

  • You could cite the top two to four skills that make this position-seeker unique or special.
  • Mention a large project or obstacle that you saw your endorsee overcome.
  • Include a flattering statistic or two that illustrates the capabilities of this person.

Here’s an example of how that could look:

Dear Ms. WIlliamson,

I am writing on behalf of Elena Goddard in her application process to Central Coast Medical School. Having had the privilege of serving as Elena’s academic advisor at Wheeler College, I can assure you few candidates can match Elena’s intellectual curiosity with compassion and work ethic that will make her a wonderful physician.

Writing the second paragraph

The goal of the second paragraph is to justify the claims you’ve made in the first paragraph.

This will be the real heart of your letter, and the longest section. Shoot for somewhere in the four-to-six-sentence range.

In it, you want to make the strongest argument you can that backs up your claim that this candidate deserves the role that they’re applying for.

To do so, there are a few different strategies you could take here:

  • Mention your background and experience working with this candidate and what stands out about them to you.
  • Discuss a problem you saw this person face and outline the steps they took to overcome.
  • Tell a story about the candidate that communicates something about their personality or passion for the industry they’re pursuing.
  • Try to include some flattering statistics if possible that demonstrate the abilities of this candidate.
  • If they quit or left the organization you work with, you could mention that it was on positive terms or in pursuit of individual growth.

Once you have an idea of the approach you’re going to take, try to present your information with enthusiasm, but don’t go overboard.

  • Don’t: Embellish too much on behalf of the candidate by using sweeping, vague generalizations.

Here’s an example of a bad second paragraph:

Andrea Fernotu is the best, most qualified candidate for your faculty because she’s so good at teaching. She really inspires her students. Her classroom is a delight to be in and many students seem to like her. There’s no doubt that the students in your college will also find her classes compelling.
  • Do: Be specific. Explain things in more detail! More than that, do so in a way to paint a more vivid picture of how this candidate achieves success.

Here’s a good example of how someone could discuss why Andrea should be hired:

In my 12-year tenure as the head of the English department, few adjunct professors have ever impressed me as much as Andrea Fernotu. She had a lot of creative ideas for the curriculum that she was able to bring to our department. Her incorporation of modern and feminist theory was something that I believe made her a bit of a student-favorite in addition to her excellent publications. It was with great regret that we were unable to hire her for a full-time position due to budget constraints. She was a valuable member of our department and someone I would hire given the chance.

Writing the third paragraph

In the third paragraph you’re going to reaffirm that this is the right candidate for the job.

Thank the reader for their time in reading and offer to discuss the candidate further if necessary.

It should only take two to three sentences and is just a concluding statement that precedes your signature.

Here’s an example of what works:

Again, for these reasons given, there is no question that Tamara is an ambitious and capable doctoral candidate who will no doubt continue her exciting research if given your grant. If needed, please feel free to reach out, I would be happy to further elaborate. Otherwise, thank you for your time in reading and I wish you a stress-free decision-making process.

After that, you just need a signature.

Use a formal closing such as “Sincerely,” or “Regards,” and then type your name below.

If you are sending a hard copy of your letter to the recipient, leave two lines worth of space between the closing line and your typed name.

Check your document for errors

Don’t forget to proofread the letter carefully to ensure it's free from errors.

Run spell-check. Double and triple-check your letter.

Ask the candidate to review it for you too! The more eyes you get on the page before you send it, the better.

Recommendation Letter Examples

It helps to see some examples of solid letters of recommendation before you write one so that you have a better idea of how to be effective in yours. Check them out to get inspired!

We’ve got examples for six of our top-requested recommendation letters:

FAQ

How do I ask a teacher or professor for a letter of recommendation?

If you still attend the school or institution that the teacher works at, it’s appropriate to ask in person.

However, if you don’t see this instructor on a regular basis or haven’t communicated in a while, email is your best bet.

In the event that you lost this particular teacher’s contact information or it changed because they moved to a different school, you can contact the school they work for to find it or try to see if they have a professional social media page like LinkedIn you could use to find their email or reach out.

Try to avoid contacting them in personal venues such as by telephone, at home or through regular social media — that could come off as pushy or invasive.

If they do agree to write a letter for you, you can share our How to Write a Recommendation Letter guide to make the task even easier!

How long should a letter of recommendation be?

A letter of recommendation should be kept to a one-page maximum.

You might feel like you have a lot more to say and want to help by elaborating or telling more stories, but limit yourself. It’s not going to help the candidate if your letter is too long or tries to fit in too much information.

Instead, focus more on making sure that you feature the best quality of information that you can to make a strong case.

The first two paragraphs are really the most critical parts of the recommendation letter. In that space, you’ve got about a total of 6-10 sentences to make a compelling case. Make every sentence count!

How do I start a letter of recommendation?

The first paragraph of the letter of recommendation is very important.

In it, you need to communicate several things to the recipient.

You need to:

  • Communicate who you are and how you know the person you’re writing about.
  • Mention the position this person is applying for.
  • Make a convincing initial case for why this person deserves the opportunity.

The first two tasks just require a simple explanation. You mention who you are, cite your professional title and then mention how you know the candidate.

It’s making a convincing case for why they deserve the opportunity that requires a little more thought.

In essence, you want to choose the two to three most solid reasons someone should choose this candidate for the position.

What should a letter of recommendation look like?

It looks much like any standard business letter or even a job application cover letter. Here’s a diagram of all the parts a letter of recommendation should include.

They usually consist of the same parts: your address, the addressee, a greeting, three body paragraphs, and a closing signature.

The body paragraphs take up most of the page and are the meat of your letter.

Should I include a recommendation letter to apply for a job?

In general, recommendation letters are neither expected nor required for most jobs.

The only time that you should include one is if it has been specifically requested or suggested to do so.

Even if it’s a suggestion, do it. It will help you!

But if there’s no mention of a recommendation letter in the job posting or application description, then do not include one.