Throughout the course of my career, I’ve written many recommendation letters for people I’ve both worked with and supervised. The recipients of these letters have ranged from managers of corporate full-time jobs that need just a quick few lines of feedback, to those in government roles where I’m required to provide a lengthy documentation of my time with my colleague.
Serving as someone’s professional or personal reference is a powerful position, indeed; many times, it can be the deciding factor for employers during the hiring process. But while you know the stakes are high, knowing what to actually write in a recommendation letter can be another matter entirely. Here are some useful tips on how write a letter to help your colleague shine above the rest!
While these ideas do not comprise full-fledged recommendation letter templates, they can help any letter writer with writing a letter that will illuminate a job applicant or help a student application by illustrating their qualities. If you have major writing block, while you may want to start with a sample letter of recommendation, a letter sample must be customized to candidate application, and should be a customized letter of recommendation in order to be a good letter.
1. Get the details. Obtain as much information from your colleague as you can before you write this letter, including (if possible) the job description of the position they’re after and their updated resume.
2. Treat it like a cover letter. Indicate what position the person is applying for, why you know they’re interested in working for that company, and any of their best skills and personal strengths that you have witnessed. Much like cover letters, recommendation letters must paint the picture for an employer. You know your colleague or friend is great, but the employer needs to know the specifics about why. Show them, don’t just tell them.
Example: “It is with pleasure that I recommend Piper Jones for the senior volunteer coordinator position within your department. Piper has been a volunteer manager with our department for over two years where her role has been to coordinate volunteers for service projects. Piper and I have had many conversations about her career goals that include obtaining a leadership role in an organization that may offer opportunities to travel abroad, such as your company has.”
3. Use the S.T.A.R.S. Method. To better tell your colleague’s story, discuss a particular Situation, the Task the person had to execute, the Action steps they took, the Results, and the Skills or Strengths you witnessed this person use effectively.
Example: “Piper was stationed in Spain last fall, where she assisted our satellite office with providing service opportunities to the local community and coordinated volunteers both in person and virtually. Her strengths lie in her ability to organize, communicate, and execute tasks, as demonstrated by her initiating several projects there last fall. Since her return to our main office, she has participated in programs where she has contributed creatively and reconnected with those staff members and individuals she serviced abroad.”
4. Make confidence contagious. Make sure you close your letter with confident, reassuring statements that this person is the one they are looking for! This may help seal the deal if your colleague was a bit nervous during the interview and didn’t mirror these sentiments him/herself.
Example: “I am confident that Piper will be an integral part of your team and work well with your professional staff as she has with ours. I am happy to discuss my experience supervising Piper further and can be reached at the number below.”
5. Lastly — keep a copy. Always keep a copy of your recommendation letters for both your and your colleague’s sake. You never know when you may need to write another one!
In addition to the foregoing tips for writing a recommendation letter, think about the reader's point of view. Do you discuss their work ethic, is this a character reference letter, and what overall message are you conveying as a recommender? Do you provide specific examples, is this an appropriate recommendation letter for employment, or is it for a graduate school application?
Ultimately, to write a letter that's outstanding, recommenders will need to think beyond the recommendation letter template box!
Nicole Wolfrath is mom to two feisty girls in elementary and nursery school and has worked full time as a college career counselor for the past 15 years. She holds leadership roles on her children’s school boards and PTA, loves to create art when she can find the time, and is passionate about women’s and parenting issues, which she advocates for through teaching and blogging.
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