Recommendation Letters: How to Request Them and How to Write Them

Recommendation Letters: How to Request Them and How to Write Them

by Ronna L. DeLoe, Esq., October 2018

Many job applicants rely on letters of recommendation in today's competitive business market. If you're a job applicant, a letter of recommendation can help you gain an advantage in hiring within your company or in a job outside your company. Likewise, solid letters of recommendation can help you get into colleges and advanced degree programs.

Blonde woman looking at desktop computer with coffee mug and notebook beside it

Sometimes the people you ask for references have no idea how to write a proper business letter of recommendation or academic letter of recommendation. Providing a few tips can help you get the recommendation letter you want.

Requesting a Letter of Recommendation

The first hurdle in getting a letter of recommendation for employment or for admission to schools is asking someone to write one for you. There are several steps involved in requesting a letter of recommendation, including:

  • Picking a co-worker or employer who is familiar with you, your achievements, and your work ethic
  • Picking a teacher or professor who is familiar with you, your academic success, and your strengths
  • Asking your reference by email if you can have a face-to-face meeting, and asking them either at the meeting or by email if they will write the recommendation
  • Making sure your potential reference has access to your resume, your academic scores and transcript where applicable, and either a copy of the job description or information about the school to which you are applying
  • Giving your potential reference plenty of advance notice about writing the letter

Also make sure that your potential reference knows you well enough to speak about you in a compelling way. It's not enough to get a letter of recommendation—you need a very good letter of recommendation or the letter will be of little value.

Writing a Letter of Recommendation

In some cases, you may need to show the potential reference how to write the kind of recommendation letter you need.

The format for writing a letter of recommendation varies, depending on whether you need the letter for employment or educational purposes. There are letter of recommendation templates and examples you can find by doing an internet search.

You may choose to engage an online service provider who can help you with writing either a business letter of recommendation or an academic letter of recommendation. While there are letter of recommendation samples on the internet, they're not all good ones, nor are they necessarily tailored to your particular situation.

Length

Make sure your reference knows to keep the letter to between one and two pages, although they should feel free write a longer letter in cases where you're going for a prestigious position or are a Masters or Ph.D. candidate.

Likewise, a recommendation letter with just one or two paragraphs isn't usually helpful, because it doesn't seem like a stellar endorsement.

Format

Some basic guidelines for formatting recommendation letters include the following:

  • Have your reference use their business or school letterhead if possible. (The letterhead goes on the first page only.)
  • Date the letter and put in the address of the company.
  • Use a greeting with the hiring person's name; this is the preferred way to start the letter. If you don't know their name, try to find out by making a phone call, or refer to their position, such as, "Dear Hiring Manager" or "Dear Ph.D. Selection Committee."
  • Keep the body of the letter to the point. A good letter of recommendation highlights your strengths as they relate to the position you're seeking. Use words and phrases such as "reliable," "dependable," "honest," "strong academic skills," "expert accountant," "accomplished technician," "extremely motivated," "strong work ethic," or "hard-working student." Have a personal reference include words about your character.
  • Have the reference include how they know you, and how long they've known you—especially if it's been several semesters or several years.
  • Have your reference say how you performed your job with their company, such as that you improved sales by a certain percentage, you're a team leader, and how you raised morale within the company. Alternatively, have them say how well you performed in school.
  • Have the reference say that you would be an asset to the company, or that you would be an excellent addition to the Ph.D. program, and explain why. Ask your reference if they can give a strong recommendation to hire you, or to add you to their Ph.D. or Masters program. If they can't give a strong enough recommendation, find another person to use as a reference.
  • Have the reference offer to discuss anything provided in the letter or anything about you as a candidate. The reference can provide their phone number again at the end of the letter for additional contact by the company or school.
  • Use "Sincerely" as a closing. Type the person's name with a space for their signature, and underneath the typed name, provide their job title and school, or their job title and company. The person must sign the letter.

A letter of recommendation, when done properly, can help give you an advantage over your competition. A solid letter of recommendation may mean the difference between getting the job—or getting into your desired school—or being rejected.