Secrets for a Great Letter of Recommendation

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Towards the end of an interview process, potential employers may want to learn about you from someone other than yourself. This is typically when hiring managers ask for a reference they can reach out to directly. If you’re looking for tips on how to ask a previous boss, colleague, or mentor to be a reference, start here.

But on occasion, you may need to provide a written letter of recommendation. If you are in that position, follow these steps:

1. Offer to Draft Your Own Recommendation Letter

Reach out to your references asking whether they can provide one and—here’s the crucial part—offer to draft it for them. People are busy, especially past supervisors, professors, or teachers. They don’t have time to look through their calendars to figure out how long they’ve known you and may not remember which projects you worked on with them, which classes you took, and how you performed. Supply all the relevant information you’d want an employer to see. Also, if there are any recommendation letter submission instructions, make sure they are pasted below every email you send so that your reference doesn’t have to hunt for them. They’ll be grateful.

2. Follow This Format

As you craft the letter you will send to your reference for review, include these essential pieces:

Clear Opening Statement

Establish who is writing the letter and provide a strong endorsement that uses a descriptive adjective.

“My name is John Doe, English professor at University College, and I am writing to offer my highest recommendation for Jane Smith.”

Description of Your Relationship

Provide a quick overview of how, and for how long, the referrer has known you.

“I have known Jane for three years. She was my student, Teaching Assistant, and I advised Jane on her senior honors thesis.”

Concrete Examples

The main section of the letter should call out your specific skills and accomplishments, including at least one story. 

“Jane was always an exceptional student, but it was her willingness to help her classmates that led me to hire her as my Teaching Assistant. As my TA, she prepared lesson plans and taught breakout sessions. There was one student who was failing the class and did not seem interested in improving his grades. Jane befriended him, met him for coffee each week after class, and discussed the curriculum in a way that was relevant to him. His grades improved by over 50% and Jane won the English Department’s top Teaching Assistant award.”

Endorsement of Your Future Potential

End strong with a big compliment at the end. If you are drafting letters from multiple people, remember to change this language in each one. 

“I have no doubt that Jane will succeed in any role, inspiring others with her empathetic leadership. Based on her 3 years of hard work in and out of my classroom, I know she will be an asset to any future employer.”

3. Send Frequent Reminders if There Are Deadlines

If the employer needs to receive a recommendation letter by a certain date, don’t be shy about sending your reference polite reminders. They may have a million things on their plate and writing your recommendation letter is probably right at the bottom of the pile. They may forget, even if they really like you and want to help. They’ll probably feel terrible if they miss the deadline accidentally and mess up an opportunity for you. So they’ll likely appreciate a polite reminder email that might say something like this: 

“Thank you so much for agreeing to serve as a reference and write a recommendation letter for me. Recommendation letters are due to [Employer Name] at [Employer Contact Information] in seven days. Please let me know if there is any further information you need. If you anticipate being too busy to meet that deadline, kindly let me know as soon as possible so that I can ask another potential reference.” 

When it comes to letters of recommendation, be proactive. The referee has already expressed interest in helping you, so help him or her back by making the process as easy as possible.

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