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Elements of a Letter of Recommendation

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A recommendation letter, sometimes called a reference letter, usually takes one of three forms: employment, academic or character. The letter should be written based on the type of recommendation you are giving. For example, you would give a former employee an employment reference, a past student an academic reference, and a friend a character reference. The details of the letter depend on the type of recommendation. However, some general elements apply to each.

Overall Impressions and Your Qualifications

The letter must have an introduction, which gives your general impressions of the candidate and states why you are qualified to write the letter. You should say how long you have known the candidate and your relationship to her, such as supervisor, professor, teammate or neighbor. General impressions might pertain to traits she displayed during her time at your company, such as a strong work ethic, which justifies your recommendation of her. This section should be one paragraph long.

Detailed Assessment of Candidate

A letter of recommendation should give a detailed account of the candidate’s ability to perform as an employee. This section gives concrete examples of his accomplishments, qualifications and characteristics. By describing his strengths and achievements, you show what sets him apart from others. For example, you might mention a major project he willingly undertook and completed above expectations before the deadline. You could also explain how others, such as his peers and customers, regard him. This section is typically one or two paragraphs long.

Summary of Recommendation

In closing, the letter gives an overview of your impressions of the candidate, additional qualifications she might have, and your specific recommendation. For example, you might say she is a polite, punctual and diligent worker with a knack for handling difficult clients or getting along well with others. Additional qualifications might include training or seminars she completed, or an educational endeavor she is currently undertaking. To express your specific recommendation, you might say, “I strongly recommend,” “I recommend without reservation,” or “She has my highest recommendation.” The letter should invite the reader to contact you for additional information if necessary. This section is typically one or two brief paragraphs.

Writer's Credibility

A good recommendation letter is written with confidence and credibility. It states your qualifications so the reader knows you are suitable to write it. Your recommendation should be based on facts and tangible experiences with the candidate. To provide a strong and credible letter, you must know the candidate well. Shallow knowledge results in a thin recommendation letter that does not give the reader enough information to make a well-informed decision. If you cannot provide a positive recommendation, let the candidate know beforehand. Do not write the letter if you do not believe you are qualified to write it.


Employment references should be no more than one page long. Your employer might have rules regarding recommendation letters, so check your company’s policy before you write the letter.


Grace Ferguson has been writing professionally since 2009. With 10 years of experience in employee benefits and payroll administration, Ferguson has written extensively on topics relating to employment and finance. A research writer as well, she has been published in The Sage Encyclopedia and Mission Bell Media.

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