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How to Write a Reference
At some point in your career, someone will probably ask you to write a letter of recommendation on his or her behalf. You may receive this request from someone you previously supervised, worked with, mentored or taught. Accepting the request to write a letter of recommendation means you are willing to vouch for someone’s professional performance, work ethic and character.
All-Purpose Recommendation Letter
The most common type of recommendation letter is an all-purpose document, addressed to no one in particular, which the requester can use in applying for a variety of different jobs. In this instance, begin by outlining your relationship to the requester, including how long you have known her and in what context you're familiar with her work. For instance, you may write, “I am writing today to recommend Jane Doe, a former employee with whom I have been acquainted for more than 10 years.” The all-purpose letter should go on from there to highlight the qualities that make “Jane” a good employee: “Jane is a self-starter and exceptional leader who fosters collaborative relationships between team members and consistently meets high-performance objectives.” The letter should also mention personal attributes and end with ways that “Jane” will be an asset to a company. For example, you could write: “Jane has a positive attitude, an ability to meet tight deadlines and is always poised for a new challenge.”
Appointment or Award Recommendation Letter
A specific letter of recommendation may be requested by someone applying for an internship, graduate school, or an award or recognition. In this case, you will likely be asked to write to a specific individual, council or board, and, in some cases, follow specific directives, such as listing a person’s academic credentials or detailing professional accomplishments. For example, you may write something like: “I am writing to endorse Jane Doe’s application to the university’s Ph.D. program for the fall semester. Jane’s academic record to date reflects her ability to think critically, maintain a heavy workload and participate in high-profile research projects.” This type of letter can carry more clout if you attach your personal resume to the document, or, at minimum, reference your position or standing to establish that you are qualified to make this kind of endorsement.
Personal Recommendation Letters
If you’re asked to write a personal letter of recommendation, you’ll want to be a little less formal and business-like. For example, if a couple asks you to write a recommendation for an adoption agency, the verbiage you use should be more intimate in nature. “I’m incredibly happy to write this letter of recommendation for Jane and John Doe. These wonderful people have been my neighbors for 10 years, and they have always opened their hearts and their home to me and my children. They will make exceptionally loving parents.”
Signing a Pre-Written Letter
Sometimes, students or past employees will draft their own letter of recommendation and ask you to sign it. On one hand, this saves you the time and effort of drafting something on your own, and it ensures the letter hits the key points the requester wants to highlight. The downside is that you may not be able to determine whether all the information is accurate, or you may be uncomfortable with the wording or the recommendation itself. In this case, ask for the opportunity to review and edit the document to reflect your personal style and ask for a resume to use as reference point. This allows you to simultaneously check the person’s credentials as you edit.
When Not to Write a Recommendation
Just because you’re asked to write a letter of recommendation doesn’t mean you should write one. For example, you should decline the request if:
- You don’t know the person well enough to vouch for them personally or professionally.
- You have reason to believe the person will not be a good employee, a responsible student or a contender for a professional award.
- You are, in any way, uncomfortable going on a written record as having supported the letter requester.
How to Say No
If you don’t want to write a requested letter of recommendation, decline early on, so the requester has time to find a more appropriate supporter. You can be as forthright or as neutral as you like in your “no” response.
Some possible examples include:
- “I’m sorry, but I don’t feel I can recommend you for a management position at this time because I don’t feel you have enough experience.”
- “Since I’ve never worked with you directly, I think you would be better served approaching someone with first-hand knowledge of your performance capabilities.”
- “I’m afraid I don’t have the time to do justice to writing an effective letter of recommendation for you.”
If you do say yes to a letter, make sure you set a date for getting the signed document back to the requester. This will ensure that the person doesn’t miss the opportunity for which the letter of recommendation was intended.
Lisa McQuerrey has been a business writer since 1987. In 1994, she launched a full-service marketing and communications firm. McQuerrey's work has garnered awards from the U.S. Small Business Administration, the International Association of Business Communicators and the Associated Press. She is also the author of several nonfiction trade publications, and, in 2012, had her first young-adult novel published by Glass Page Books.