How to Write a Letter of Recommendation

Letter of RecommendationI once wrote a Letter of Recommendation and the surprising thing is, it was for myself!

I’d asked a respected mentor to write something that I could attach to a job application. He suggested that I draft something that he could then edit and sign. Rats! I’d assumed that he would be doing the actual writing. Luckily, I know three writing steps that always work in getting me from a blank page to a solid draft. More below …

According to Wikipedia, a Letter of Recommendation is one in which the writer assesses the qualities, characteristics, and capabilities of the person being recommended in terms of that individual’s ability to perform a particular task or function. Letters of recommendation are typically related to employment, admissions to institutions of higher education or scholarship eligibility.

So my aim (in recommending myself!) was to write something short and convincing that highlighted exactly those qualities, abilities and achievements that demonstrated my suitability for the job I was applying for. Not too long and not too short. Not too detailed and not too abbreviated. With claims substantiated rather than just stated. Memorable but not laboured. Simple but not simplistic. And that conformed with expected structure, layout and style for a Letter of Recommendation.

It’s never easy to write about yourself, much less sing your own praises, even if you are a writer. In the end, I pretended I was my own client, and followed three writing steps that work every time, regardless of whether I’m writing a technical manual, a blog post, a business profile or, indeed, a Letter of Recommendation.

This blog lists three key writing guidelines and shows how I put them to work this week in order to write a Letter of Recommendation for an ex-student. 

First, a little context about my ex-student – we’ll call him Pierre. After 2 years in Australia, he’s returning to France to apply for postgraduate courses in international business. Pierre asked me to write a Letter of Recommendation that he can attach to his applications.

Three key guidelines for writing a Letter of Recommendation

1. Content – What does it say?

  • how you (the writer) know the person
  • the relevance of your relationship
  • how you qualify to provide trustworthy and reliable comment
  • relevant, specific examples of their qualities, characteristics and abilities
  • relevant general comments

2. Structure & layout – How does it look?

  • one page maximum length
  • sender and recipient addresses
  • date and heading
  • appropriate greeting and closing
  • paragraphs

3. Language features – How does it feel?

  • formal style and tone
  • accurate spelling, punctuation and grammar
  • no contractions
  • formal vocabulary and syntax
  • effective use of adjectives and adverbs

Sample Letter of Recommendation – download & notes

LetterRecDownload the Letter of Recommendation PDF file. The following notes point out some of the key features in terms of content, structure & layout and language.

Notes re. content

.. I briefly outline my relationship with Pierre: when I met him, where and why. I only include directly relevant information: the nature of the course, Pierre’s result and his consequent  graduation.

.. In the second paragraph, I talk about Pierre’s positive characteristics using specific examples. First I mention his motivation, as exemplified by his approach and participation. I note that his participation illustrated his ability to take risks and that he inspired others through his confidence, humour and leadership. I chose to mention these particular qualities because they are relevant for an application to a tertiary institution.

.. The third paragraph provides another specific example of Pierre’s behaviour, and concludes with a general comment on his potential for further learning.

.. My signature and website details establish me as a trustworthy referee.

Notes re. structure & layout

.. Note the placement of my address and the date in the top right corner.

.. There’s no recipient’s address and the opening ‘To Whom It May Concern is generic. This allows the letter to be used for any institution.

.. Note the bold heading: ‘Letter of Recommendation for Pierre Frossard’. This immediately signals the content for readers.

.. The opening sentence is a clear statement of the purpose of the letter.

Notes re. language features

.. Note the use of full forms rather than short forms or contractions: ‘I am’ not ‘I’m’; ‘I have known’ not ‘I’ve known’; ‘he would often’ not ‘he’d often’; ‘Pierre is’ not ‘Pierre’s’ etc. Full forms are more formal than short forms, so are used throughout the letter.

.. The language in the final paragraph is persuasive: ‘will do well’ is more certain than ‘is likely to do well’.

.. Note the adverb ‘fully’ and the choice of formal vocabulary: ‘excel’.  ‘I fully expect him to excel’ is stronger than ‘I expect him to do well’.

.. Note the adjectives ‘steadfast’ and ‘intelligent’. ‘I admired his steadfast approach’ is more specific than ‘I admired his approach’. Similarly, ‘appreciated his intelligent participation’ is more informative than ‘he participated’ or even ‘he participated well’.

Which other features of a Letter of Recommendation can you add to the mix? How would you feel if you were asked to draft a Letter of Recommendation for yourself? How helpful would this post be? And please do let me know if a sample and notes would be helpful for another type of writing that you’re working on. Your thoughts are always welcome.

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