types of letters
Letters of recommendation differ based on
who writes them and for what purpose. There are three basic types.
||Getting a job
||Getting into college or
graduate school, receiving a scholarship or fellowship
||Getting a job, winning
an award, child adoption, court hearing, etc.
These distinctions are not carved in
stone. Professors often write letters aimed at helping students
secure employment. Employers often write letters to help current or
former employees gain admission to academic programs.
Whether you are laid off or leave your job on your own accord a letter of recommendation
from your employer can be a valuable tool for finding a new job.
Such a letter is often preferable to listing your supervisor and his or
her phone number on your resume. A reference letter
- Provides an organized analysis of your
attributes and abilities
- Is a "fresh when written"
appraisal not clouded by time
- Creates an unchanging assessment
- Saves future employers the effort of
interviewing your former supervisor
- Saves your former supervisor the time
and trouble of being interviewed
Importantly, obtaining a written letter
also gives you insight into how your former employer perceives you-- on
balance either favorably or unfavorably. With this information in
hand you can spotlight a good reference or downplay a poor one.
Letters of recommendation are required for acceptance to the vast majority
of both undergraduate and graduate degree programs. Often applicants
must provide three or more letters.
While requirements differ by institution,
program and concentration, generally speaking successful academic
- Provide testimony to your aptitude,
curiosity and industriousness
- Demonstrate your maturity and
seriousness of purpose
- Speak to your leadership ability
- Paint you as "well rounded"
- Compliment your character
- Include other pertinent information
about you-- things not readily apparent from admission test scores or
Character reference letters are a special category of recommendation
because they are usually written by friends, neighbors or relatives. These
letters meet a variety of non-employment
and non-academic related needs. Everything from gaining memberships
and winning awards to child custody and adoptions. Character
reference letters can also be useful in job seeking. For sample
character letters and more information on this kind of recommendation click
Requesting a letter of
only need the letter, you need it to be as effective as possible. So
it's important to plan your request.
Whom to ask
Given a choice about whom to
ask, ask someone who
- Is comfortable writing a letter for you
- Can write well and write easily
- Has experience writing letters of
- Is familiar with your work
- Knows you well enough
to be able to include
personal anecdotes in the letter
- Has the highest and/or most relevant job
These guidelines apply to both supervisors
and teachers. Keep in mind that if you've been working in Payroll but
want a new career in Marketing, a letter from the Sales Manager of your old
company will carry more weight than one from the Accounting Manager.
Also, the higher up the writer the more clout the letter will carry. For
example, a letter of recommendation from a full professor is more valuable
than one from an assistant professor.
When to ask
Situations vary, but the more time you can
allow for receiving your letter the better. As a general rule request
your letter at least a month or two in advance.
How to ask
Always be forthright when requesting a letter
of recommendation. Explain exactly why the letter is needed and its
importance to you. In addition
- Lead up to the request if possible.
Get a sense of the writer's comfort level before actually making the
put the writer on the spot
- Always offer to provide
makes the writing task easier (biographical data, employment or attendance
- As a
practical matter, if writing the letter will clearly be a
favor make sure the writer knows you understand that
- If the subject
is broached by the writer,
offer to compose the letter yourself for the writer to sign
a letter of recommendation
a letter unless...
agree to write a letter of recommendation unless you
- Have the time to write it
- Know the individual well enough to
discuss him or her in a tangible way
- Honestly feel comfortable writing the
It is easier and better for all involved to
politely say no when any of these conditions are not met.
No need to reinvent the wheel
While it's true that the more personalized a
letter of recommendation is the more effective it will probably be. And it's true that writing a letter, any letter, involves a certain amount of
creativity. It's also true that in terms of their underlying dynamics,
what they cover and how they are organized-- letters of recommendation are almost always the
same. In other words, good recommendation letters are highly formulaic. So, approaching your letter from this context will not only
make your writing easier-- it will make your recommendation more useful.
Additionally, if you are unfamiliar with the
conventions of business letter writing, be sure to review the suggestions
Put yourself in the
The reader of your letter will most likely
have read hundreds of recommendations before, and will have only limited
time to devote to it.
The business reader will have the
applicant's resume. The academic reader will have the applicant's
transcript and his or her standardized test scores. Additionally, both
types of readers will have the opportunity to interview their respective
candidate. What they need from you are four things.
- A sense that your credentials are
meaningful and therefore what you say in your letter is worth listening
- A sense that you know the candidate well
enough to form sound judgments
- A sense of whether or not you are vouching for the
- Insights into the candidate's personal
dimensions. Insights that cannot
be gleaned from a resume or transcript, and often not from an interview.
These four items form the underlying
dynamics of recommendation letters. Include all four in your letter, make
them easily discernable, and you will have accomplished your task.
The underlying dynamics of
Each of the four underlying dynamics plays a role in determining the ultimate value of a
recommendation, but only one requires much writing.
||What is writer's
expertise? How important is writer? How relevant is writer's
background to his or her recommendation?
||On letterhead and/or
|Writer's relationship to
||Is writer individual's
supervisor, professor, co-worker? How long has writer been in
a position to judge individual's talent and performance?
||In second sentence in
opening paragraph of letter (see letter format section below)
|Writer's overall opinion
||Is the writer strongly
positive about individual, lukewarm, or something else?
||Made clear in first
sentence of opening paragraph and reiterated in closing (see section
below on communicating your overall opinion of the individual)
|How individual rates on
|Can stand the heat?
|Love of field?
|Serious about studies?
|Can stand the rigor?
||Addressed in the body of
the letter. Covering these or other similar dimensions makes
up the bulk of the letter (see letter format section below).
As a rule letters of recommendation are
organized into three sections. They usually contain between five and
nine paragraphs. Total word count can range from 200 to 600.
||1 paragraph of a couple sentences
||Sentence 1-- State the purpose of
the letter, namely that you're writing a recommendation concerning the individual
Sentence 2-- Explain how you know the
individual. State from
where and for how long you've known him or her. Be very clear
about the working relationship involved. That is, explain
whether he or she was your subordinate, co-worker, student, etc.
||2 to 6 paragraphs of 2 to 4
||Paragraph 2-- Ease into
the specifics contained in the rest of the body. Use this paragraph
to characterize the individual in general terms.
Paragraphs 3 thru 6-- Address
such as those listed above that you feel are
pertinent and for which you have direct knowledge. Include
anecdotes to back-up your assessments. Cover 1 or 2 dimensions
Final paragraph of body section-- If
relevant, explain why the individual is seeking a new
assignment. For example, if he or she was laid off mention
||1 or 2 paragraphs of a
Express your level of confidence in the individual. Explain
the extent to which you believe he or she is suited to the job or program sought.
Rec letter length
Longer is not necessarily better. The
reader, either the personnel professional or the admissions officer, is not
likely to hang on every word. More probably, he or she will be doing a
quick take on each of the four dynamics outlined earlier. What is
important is that letter length in and of itself affects the reader's
||The more important the
writer's title the less time the writer can devote
|Writer's relationship to
||The closer the writer is
to the individual the more likely the writer will include anecdotes
|Writer's overall opinion
||Communicated in opening
and reinforced in closing
||Does not influence
|How individual rates on
The more the individual stands out on
a particular dimension the more apt that dimension will be covered
||One or more longer
Communicating your overall
opinion of the individual
When you combine the likelihood that
the reader will not be devoting much time to reading with the truism that
first impressions are not only potent but hard to overcome, it's becomes
clear that communicating your overall opinion of the individual should be
done very early in your letter.
In fact, recommendation letter writers almost always
communicate most if not all of their true opinion when they open their
letters. The trouble is it is often unconscious. So, it's
important to understand the message you send when you open and to make sure
it matches the tone of the rest of your letter.
|Example opening words
||Opinion of individual
|This letter is in
|This serves as a letter
of reference for
|I am pleased to write
this letter of recommendation for
|I am pleased to
|It is a genuine pleasure
and honor for me to recommend
your own letter
Since writing a letter of recommendation can
easily consume 1 to 2 hours, it is not unusual for a busy manager or professor
to hand all or part of the writing task back to the individual making a request. If you find yourself composing your own recommendation keep in
- You have two audiences, the signer and the
recipient. While you must satisfy both, the signer is more
important. So try to write from his or her perspective.
- Follow the
letter of recommendation format outlined above.
- Address several
personal dimensions. Obviously you want to emphasize your strongest points, but be aware that too
much attention to one or two things is often perceived as a lack of breadth.
- Be honest with yourself about your strengths
and weaknesses. Don't let overcompensation for weaknesses drive what
- Unless asked to do otherwise,
only deliver a complete, polished version of the letter-- one theoretically
ready for signing. If the signer nevertheless wishes to add or delete
something, accept his
or her changes gracefully.