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Letter of Recommendation Etiquette ― 11 Best Tips

Letter of Recommendation Etiquette ― 11 Best Tips

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You’ve been asked to write a letter of recommendation by a former student, a former employee or someone you have known in another capacity.

This is both a big honor and a big responsibility. In fact, you may sit down the write the letter and realize that you have a case of writer’s block!

Whether this is your first time ever writing a letter of recommendation or you’ve written dozens but are wondering if your approach could use some improvement, we’ve got some guidelines to help you get past any worries and write the best letter of recommendation possible.


1. Make sure you are the right person

First, be sure to assess whether you are the right person to write this letter. Can you give an unreservedly positive recommendation?

Do you have the time to do a good job? Do you know the person well enough?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, it’s okay to let the asker know that you aren’t the best person for the job and that they should ask someone else.


2. Get the relevant information

Next, you need to make sure that you have everything you need to write the letter.

No matter how well you know the person, get a copy of their resume or CV since there may be accomplishments that you are unaware of. Ask the person for a bullet points list of what they want included in the letter.

You should also find out more about what they are applying for. For example, if it is a job, get a copy of the posting so that you know exactly what the employer is looking for and you can highlight that.


3. Introduce yourself

A recommendation letter isn’t supposed to be all about you, but establishing yourself as someone who has the background to make a good assessment about the person’s fitness for the position is important.

What you emphasize here will vary based on the nature of the position the person is applying for and what kind of recommender you are.

For example, if you are writing a recommendation letter for someone seeking to go to graduate school, establishing your own background as a professor who has worked with a lot of graduate students is relevant. Include how long you have known the person and the capacity in which you know them.


4. Emphasize the relevant skills

Match what you know of the person’s accomplishments to the position they are applying for.

If they are applying for a management position, emphasize their ability to show leadership. If they are applying for a research grant, emphasize how good they are at research. Use the language of the job posting or the core competencies requested by the organization to guide you in what to write here.

Be specific, and use anecdotes.

Don’t just say that the person was a good leader. Give an example of a time they demonstrated that leadership.

This type of anecdote also helps to avoid the perception that your letter is a generic or boilerplate one that you provide for many people.


5. Offer a Comparison and Quantify

Emphasize the best qualities of the person by comparing them to others you have known.

You don’t have to be so precise as to say “She is the third best graduate assistant I have ever had” and indeed you should avoid anything that is even remotely negative.

However, you could write something like, “She is one of the most conscientious graduate assistants I have ever had the pleasure to work with.”

You could also quantify their accomplishments if possible. For example, if the person was head of sales and the company’s sales skyrocketed in that time, include the specific percentage by which they increased.


6. Be Careful With Personal Information

Sometimes, you might be asked to write a recommendation letter for someone who has overcome a great many personal hardships, and you feel like this should be highlighted to show the person’s determination in the face of adversity.

However, it is possible that the person wants to keep the application solely focused on their professional accomplishments and would prefer that this other information not be shared. Before including information of a personal nature, be sure to discuss it with the individual first.

There might also be situations in which the person specifically asks you to make reference to personal issues.

For example, if the person took longer than usual to finish a PhD, it might be relevant that they were dealing with immigration issues at the time or were the sole caregiver for a dying parent.

Including this information if asked to do so by the person you are writing the letter for can help explain an irregularity or potential negative without making it seem as though the person is trying to make excuses.


7.  Convey your enthusiasm

Your enthusiasm for this person as a great candidate for a scholarship, job or graduate student opening should be palpable. If you feel you cannot sufficiently convey this enthusiasm, you are probably not the right person to write the letter.

You should not stretch the truth or be hyperbolic, but you also should not be restrained in describing the person’s accomplishments and potential. If they did groundbreaking research when you supervised their dissertation or you think they have the potential to become an extraordinary journalist, this is absolutely the time to say so.


8. Be Original

If you write a lot of letters of recommendation or you’ve just written one for the first time and found it a struggle, you might be tempted to use the same version of the letter over and over.

However, each letter of recommendation should be written individually. This helps ensure that you make it as specific as possible.

Also, you may end up writing multiple letters to the same body, and you don’t want the person or people who are reading it to notice that you keep sending them the same letter with just a few details rearranged!

You might want to reuse a basic template and look at samples of other recommendation letters to get an idea of how to write yours, but primarily, you should be original.


9. Make it the Right Length

A couple of paragraphs is too short for this type of letter. It implies that you don’t know the person well or that you are not very enthusiastic about them even though you are writing the letter. At the same time, you want to avoid writing a letter that’s too long. Try to keep it to about a page.

As a general rule, you can use a structure that starts with an explanation of what you are writing in regards to and introducing yourself.

In the following paragraphs, you should detail why you believe the person is right for the job, graduate school slot, fellowship or other position.

The final paragraph should be a summation, and you should also invite the person to contact you if necessary.


10. Use the Right Format

Your letter should be formatted professionally.

If you are writing a letter to mail, the heading should include your address and contact information, such as a phone or email address.

If you are writing the recommendation as an email, include this information with your signature at the bottom. The subject line of an email should be something like “Recommendation” and the name of the person that you are writing it for.

You should find out who the letter should be written to and address it accordingly by the person’s name, such as “Dear Mr. Wilson.” If you do not know the person’s name, you can address it to a relevant body, such as “Dear Admissions Committee.”

You can also address it generically if you don’t have a name. “To Whom It May Concern” is usually appropriate.

In the closing, reiterate your recommendation, ask them to contact you if necessary, and sign it “Sincerely” followed by your name.


11. Leave Time to Proofread and Edit

Unless the student has asked you do to the letter at the last minute and there is really no time for this, once you have completed the letter, you should leave at least day to let it sit so that you can come back to it and review it.

This can make it easier for you to spot any errors.

However, there is another good reason to do this. Waiting a day or two gives a little time for everything you wrote to percolate in your head, and in that time, you may have some new insights that you want to include in the letter.

Writing a good letter of recommendation can be vital to the success of the person who has asked you for the letter, so it’s important that you take this process seriously and write the best letter that you can.

If you believe in the person, that belief will shine through.