There are certain situations when a letter of recommendation might be required, and it is certainly not a standard part of every job application. However, when one is requested, or if circumstances demand that it would add value, there are a number of considerations in terms of how to write – or how to request – recommendation letters.
A job application is about establishing your credibility, so borrowing the credibility from a senior member of your previous employer is a good way of providing an objective assessment. Letters of recommendation may not always be read, especially if you are a borderline candidate, but if you have gone through a couple of rounds of interviews and are up against a tough competitor, you never know what might be helpful to have in your candidate file.
Writing or requesting a letter of recommendation is more complicated than you might think. This blog will explore the following:
- What is a letter of recommendation?
- Who needs a recommendation letter?
- How to ask for letters of recommendation
- The format of a letter of recommendation
- 5 characteristics of a winning letter of recommendation
- Tips for writing a recommendation letter
A letter of recommendation could make all the difference to an otherwise shaky application. When extra context / background is required, the credibility that it provides could be the deciding factor in that interview invite or job offer.
What is a letter of recommendation?
A letter of recommendation is an influential tool in many job searches. There is always an inherent bias when a candidate is describing their accomplishments, but when the perspective comes from a colleague or previous boss, there is a whole new level of credibility. Sharing letters of recommendation introduces essential elements of social proof to the interview process.
Build your case using every tool at your disposal. A candidate who makes the effort to put forward a strong argument is someone who clearly wants the role. That is an important consideration for any employer.
A letter of recommendation validates a candidate’s work, skills or educational achievements. It corroborates the claims that they have made in their resume and during their interviews, reinforcing their trustworthiness and amplifying their other messages. If you offer proof of one achievement, the others seem more believable.
An ideal letter of recommendation will come from someone who has worked closely with a candidate, who knows what they can contribute and can explain with real examples and considered feedback why they would be a great fit for the role in question. Depending on circumstances, this may be a colleague, boss, teacher or close acquaintance.
The credibility of the referee is a crucial aspect of a powerful letter of recommendation – the person needs to have a sufficiently close relationship with the candidate. They should also be sufficiently senior to impress a hiring manager, but not too senior that they don't know the candidate well. Balance is important here.
Consider the source, and avoid asking for a recommendation letter from anyone who stands to gain by your hire, such as a supplier or provider who may want to win business from the company.
Who needs a letter of recommendation?
The majority of hiring managers will not welcome letters of recommendation unless they have been specifically requested. The resume and cover letter should do the job search heavy lifting, but there are certain circumstances when a letter of recommendation could be supplied – even in the absence of a specific request.
1. Applying for college, grad school or a scholarship
Colleges, universities and grad programs sometimes ask for letters of recommendation. This is partly because students may not have so much work experience, but it also highlights the power of a letter of recommendation as a tool to understand future potential. Admissions officers need a companion to a student’s personal essay. Be careful not to write the letter of recommendation yourself as your personal style will give you away. Many referees are time-poor and may ask you to do this, but find someone who is willing to write it themselves. If the letter "sounds" like you, it will arouse suspicion.
2. Certain professions encourage recommendation letters
Certain professions, such as medicine or education, have traditionally included letters of recommendation as part of their application process. When a role entails interactions with other people that have the potential to be life-changing, this external check allows for informed hiring decisions. Make sure that you check what the letter of recommendation should contain - ask previous applicants or look for advice online. If you are applying to a prestigious company, there should be plenty of advice about what they are looking for.
3. Lack of experience or changing careers
If a job candidate lacks experience or is seeking to change careers, a comparatively weak application can benefit from a letter of recommendation that will support a pitch for that new job. A character reference from a previous colleague or friend can make all the difference. If there is a contact in a desired field who can testify to suitability, then all the better. An impossible leap suddenly becomes a little more attainable. In some circumstances, a letter of recommendation can complement a cover letter to give some more context as to why you want the role and why you would be a perfect fit.
When writing or requesting a letter of recommendation, make sure it's tailored to the situation. No job or candidate is the same, so there will always be a unique fit of talent and opportunity. Avoid letters of recommendation that could have been written for any job.
How to ask for recommendation letters
Recommendation letters usually come from close acquaintances who are happy to help. This does not mean, however, that the request should not be polite and thoughtful. There are certain guidelines an applicant should consider when asking for recommendation letters. If the ground has been carefully prepared, the outcome will be that much better.
- Try to ask during a conversation rather than an email or message.
- Include the job description and explain your unique situation.
- Share your resume to show how you present yourself.
- Make suggestions about the sorts of things to include (or perhaps leave out).
- Consider including a template that can guide and shape the letter.
- Allow plenty of time for the letter to be written and include a realistic deadline.
Above all, it's important to express gratitude when asking for letters of recommendation. Anyone who writes one for you is doing you a big favor, and you shouldn't take it for granted. If they have worked with you previously (hopefully the case), they may see your journey as part of their journey, so the letter of recommendation may be a pleasure to write for them as they realise what part they have played in your success.
Ask for a recommendation on LinkedIn
The world of LinkedIn recommendation is filled with murky reciprocation and algorithm-gaming tactics. Many people get recommendations from connections with whom they have never spoken and who are from entirely different industries. Ask for recommendations only from those you know personally, and make sure the recommendation is truthful and specific to the job seeker's skill set.
Letter of recommendation format
Writing a great letter of recommendation requires attention to formatting as well as word choice. Below we offer recommendation letter examples that include the following sections:
- Introduction and statement of recommendation
- Overview and reasons for recommendation letter
- Personal story with specific and tailored evidence
- Recommendation letter closing statement
Introduction and statement of recommendation
It is important for writers of recommendation letters to establish both their relationship with the applicant and their own area of expertise to give the recommendation credibility.
A statement of recommendation should be overwhelmingly positive and unequivocal in its support of the candidate. Set an enthusiastic tone of positivity. The contents of the letter may be used as a basis for questions during a later interview, so the more enthusiastic, the better.
It’s my pleasure to recommend Helen Hagot for a position as a graphic designer at the Tribune. I’ve known Helen for five years and worked with her closely in my capacity as art director of the Post. I’ve always found Helen to be a creative and dynamic colleague, prone to finding divine design solutions for every project.
Overview and reasons for recommendation
A great letter of recommendation gets straight to the point in terms of the personal qualities and accomplishments that make the applicant really good at this job.
Include the types of professional and academic accomplishments that will add to the candidate’s job search argument. And make it clear that the writer has witnessed these qualities first-hand.
Helen is especially talented at photo illustration, though she has astonishing skills in drawing and painting as well. She was always my go-to for creating cover art when needed, and given her collaborative nature and cheery disposition, everyone loved to work with her.
Personal story with specific and tailored evidence
Telling a story that mentions the specific strengths of the candidate and relates to how they will perform in their future role is the perfect way of influencing a future hiring manager. Offer context and evidence to back up any opinions.
The Post was proud to take home five Society of News Design awards last year, and I couldn’t help noting that Helen’s name was on three of them. Helen is not just good – she makes everyone around her better.
Recommendation letter closing statement
Close on a positive note. If you’re game, let the hiring manager know that you would be happy to provide more information over the phone or by email.
Any publication in the country would be lucky to have Helen. Please feel free to call or write if you’d like to talk more.
5 characteristics of winning recommendation letters
When there is an extra element added to job search documentation, it is important that it adds to a candidate’s case rather than detracts from it. If the following five characteristics are present in recommendation letters, there is every chance that there will be a positive outcome.
1. The recommendation letter comes from a credible source.
It matters a great deal who is writing the recommendation letter. They need to have experience in the target industry and be of sufficient seniority that their opinion will be respected by the hiring manager. Ideally, they will have worked closely with the applicant.
2. It is specific and tailored towards the role in question.
When a hiring manager is looking for specific answers in terms of a candidate’s suitability, there is nothing worse than a cookie cutter recommendation letter that seems to have been written for a broad range of possible jobs. Ideally, the letter should mention the name of the target company and speak to the role the candidate is seeking.
3. The message is unapologetically positive.
The clue is in the name. The letter is intended to recommend the person. There is no requirement to write a balanced assessment of suitability, so the recommendation letter should have an unmistakably positive tone.
4. It tells a story with a thoughtful level of detail.
The more detail the writer can add to the story, the deeper the reader will internalize the message. It is better to share one detailed story than to provide a superficial list of reasons to hire someone.
5. The recommendation letter suggests that a hire would be appropriate.
It’s not a recommendation writer’s job to tell employers what to do. But the message should be clear that this is a great candidate who would make a good hire.
Letters of recommendation are most common when people are changing careers or at the start of their careers. You shouldn't seek to inundate a potential boss before they have expressed an interest in you, so consider whether you wait until you have a confirmed interview before sending it over. Judgment is key, but if you have a stellar letter to share, then there is not really anything to lose by enclosing it.
- In certain situations, such as for students applying to college, a letter of recommendation may be an essential tool to make an impact.
- Avoid sending a letter of recommendation unless a potential employer has specifically requested one.
- When writing a letter of recommendation, make it specific and try to tell a story about the candidate.
- Follow the trusted format and make sure to include details of your personal connection with the applicant.