Why Write a Letter of Recommendation?

Letters of recommendation are often used by an organization's hiring officials to gather additional information about a candidate. It is assumed that a confidential letter of recommendation will provide a candid viewpoint of an applicant's abilities and professional promise. The letter of recommendation should give a picture of the candidate's personal characteristics, performance and experience, strengths, capabilities and professional promise from someone who has worked closely with the candidate. The selection committee relies on these letters to assist in making a final decision.

When Not to Write a Letter of Recommendation

There are several reasons to refuse a request to write a letter of recommendation: You may not know the applicant well enough, you may not have time to write it by the time the applicant needs it, you may not feel you could say good things about the applicant, etc. You need to be honest with the applicant about your reasons. If it is lack of knowledge, perhaps a conversation could give you enough information, or the time frame might be negotiable. If you feel you can't write a good letter, it is vital for the applicant to clearly hear why. This can be an opportunity for growth and a "reality check" for the applicant. It is difficult to say no, but if done with grace and tact, it can be quite productive for the applicant in the "long run."

What to Write?

Preferably, the person writing the letter of recommendation has been in a supervisory or mentor relationship with the applicant. The letter should be about one page in length, and generally consist of three parts: the opening, the body and the closing.


The writer should explain the relationship between himself/herself and the candidate as well as why the letter is being written. Were you a supervisor? President of the company? Advisor? Professor? It is important to indicate this because a professor may see the academic skills while a supervisor may be able to identify work habits.


The body of the recommendation should provide specific information about the applicant based upon the observations of the writer. Information may include: 1) personal characteristics such as poise, confidence, dependability, patience, creativity, etc. 2) Specific areas of strength or special experiences/projects on which they work. 3) How they work with other people, etc.

The applicant may have some exceptional strengths such as a very high energy level or excellent communication skills. An applicant may also have a specific area of knowledge or experience such as a strong background in science, an undergraduate degree in another area or related work experience in education, a research project, coaching, extracurricular activities, etc.


The closing of the letter should briefly summarize previous points and clearly state that you recommend the candidate for employment, graduate school, etc. Finally, you want to give them your contact information in case they want to contact you directly.

The Meeting

Meeting with the applicant can yield a great deal of information. You should be inquiring (they should be telling you) about what this letter will be used for, in general (i.e. employment, graduate school, scholarships, etc.). The applicant should also supply you with information regarding their relevant skills, experiences, abilities, strengths, qualities and qualifications—anything that will help you write the letter. Have the person give you a list of accomplishments, organizations that he/she belongs to or any other relevant information. It might surprise you to see how much that person has done outside of your contact with them. This can also help you get a more accurate picture of the individual. Having the person give you a copy of his/her resume is an easy way to have this information at hand. You have got to find out what sets the applicant apart from the "average." The more informed you are, the higher quality the letter, and the quicker and easier it will be to write it. A simple question "why should I write you a letter?" can be enough to get the conversation started.

Important Points To Keep In Mind

  1. Give honest and factual information. The letter should not include anything you are not willing to defend in public. Employers often skim the letter and pick up the phone to ask you pointed questions about what you wrote and how the applicant specifically could benefit their organization.
  2. Concentrate on several different aspects of the applicant. Specifically identify his/her skills, attitudes, personal attributes and growth, as well as his/her contributions to and performance within your organization. It is extremely important to include examples where possible. It is one thing to state that someone had some good ideas and another to say, "John consistently used his creativity in designing eye-catching promotional materials which translated into higher numbers of residents attending his programs." Also, if you do make negative comments, back them up with facts.
  3. The appearance of a letter is a reflection on both you and the candidate and it can also determine whether it will be read or not. Please type your recommendation neatly. You may want to keep a copy on your computer for future updates.
  4. If you are using a standard recommendation form, please do not restrict your reference to the space provided. Feel free to use office letterhead or stationary. Written comments on the form or on an additional page should not leave any questions in the mind of the reader.
  5. Don't reference characteristics that can be the basis of discrimination, such as race, color, nationality, gender, religion, age, appearance, any handicapping condition, marital or parental status or political point of view. In cases where an applicant's strengths or involvement would clearly state such issues (i.e. president of Prism) you will need to closely work with the applicant to determine their comfort level in terms of what you write.
  6. The letter should include a reachable phone number for the writer. You should keep a copy and expect a call (some HR officers believe that they can get a more authentic "read" of recommendations by phone. It's not necessarily true, but they do call). Not remembering what you wrote would reflect poorly on your credibility.

Confidential vs. Non-Confidential Letters

Ask the applicant if this letter will be confidential or non-confidential; it is their choice. If it will be confidential, you will need to send the letter directly to the organization to which they are applying or the Career Development office if they have opened a reference folder. Some employers (traditional organizations like banks, or any educational institutions) prefer confidential letters; the rest are about equally divided in regards to which of the two types they prefer.

Character References

These are generally used to support a candidate in terms of his/her personal qualities, not necessarily his/her professional competencies. Generally, these are not very valuable for employers as they don't necessarily speak to the applicants work experience and related strengths as assessed from a supervisor or mentor of some kind.

Words Can Make the Difference!

Beware of the power of words! Some words seem harmless in every day conversation, but carry positive or negative connotations to a prospective employer.

Avoid bland words such as:

  • Nice
  • Good
  • Fairly
  • Reasonable
  • Decent
  • Satisfactory
  • Various

Powerful words which are appropriate to use include:

  • Articulate
  • Significant
  • Imaginative
  • Effective
  • Expressive
  • Assertive
  • Sophisticated
  • Creative
  • Dependable
  • Intelligent
  • Efficient
  • Mature
  • Observant
  • Cooperative
  • Innovative

What Do Employers Look for in Applicants?

The following is a list of attributes often listed by employers as tools on which to base eventual selection. So, these are excellent points to address:

  • Ability to communicate
  • Self-confidence
  • Initiative
  • Energy level
  • Flexibility
  • Self-knowledge
  • Goal achievement
  • Appropriate vocational skills
  • Teamwork
  • Intelligence
  • Willingness to accept responsibility
  • Leadership
  • Imagination
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Ability to handle conflict
  • Competitiveness
  • Direction
  • Strong work ethic

Getting along with others, outgoing, shy, sense of humor, good sport, acceptance of other ideas, ability to communicate, independence, intellectual courage (defends own ideas), independent worker, initiative (leader, follower).


Positive, optimistic, facilitator (instead of blocker), enthusiastic, sense of fairness, motivated, curious, interested, responsible.


Integrity, perseverance, values, ethics.

Maturity Level

Ability to live away from home, ability to make judgments, process of inquiry, competency for job, work habits, communication abilities, participation, enthusiasm for job, pride in work, receptive to instruction/feedback, strives to improve, helps others be better, etc.

Technical Skills

Ability to work with computers and other office equipment, willingness to learn fast, ability to have a grasp on as many software programs as possible (word processing, database management, desktop publishing, etc.) and to know a bit about intranets/networking within/outside an office, internet savvy.

*This reference writing information was found at the State University of New York at Oswego web page and Montana State University's web page.