Have you been asked to write a letter of recommendation or reference letter? Our experts have compiled a comprehensive library of samples and templates, as well as an A to Z walkthrough of everything you need to know to write a strong, convincing recommendation letter. Not sure how to ask for one? We’ll teach you the proper technique and etiquette.
Table of Contents
- Template Library 1: Student, College, and Teacher Samples
- Template Library 2: Employment Related Samples
- What is a Letter of Recommendation?
- Format – Content Sections, Font, and Margins
- Important Steps Before Writing
- How to Write a Letter of Recommendation in 9 Steps
- Characteristics of a Strong Letter
- How to Ask For One
- When to Reject a Request
1. Letter of Recommendation Template Library 1: Student, College, and Teacher Samples
2. Letter of Recommendation Sample Library 2: Employment Templates
3. What is a Letter of Recommendation?
A letter of recommendation (or reference letter) is a document designed to add extra weight and merit to a job or college application. They are usually written by a supervisor, colleague, teacher, or friend.
There are various different types of recommendation letters, but the three main ones are those for employment, for university applications, and character references.
Who needs letters of recommendation? Why do they need them?
Below we’ve outlined all the various types of people and reasons a person might require one, as well as who to ask for one.
1. Students Applying for University, Grad School, or Scholarships
Almost all Universities and scholarship programs require at least two recommendation letters as part of the application process. These reference letters should ideally be written by previous teachers or professors who are familiar with your academic achievements and abilities.
Students need references because admissions officers and scholarship organizations want to get a better understanding of who they are as a person. Recommendation letters help to shed light on the “full-package” that is difficult to fully convey in a resume and personal essay.
For more details on who you should ask to write your recommendation, check out our detailed guide on how to ask for one.
2. People Applying for Jobs That Require Strong References
For most job applications, a well-written resume and cover letter are more than sufficient. However, certain industries or companies may require a letter of recommendation in addition to these basic essentials. Teachers and physician assistants are two such examples of jobs that often need a written reference as part of the application.
Generally speaking, the most convincing reference letters will be those written by a supervisor. In cases where this is impossible (or undesirable), a recommendation from a coworker who is intimately familiar with your work is also acceptable.
3. People Who Want to Beef Up Their Job Application
If you feel as though your resume and cover letter aren’t particularly strong, a letter of recommendation can help you land a job when it otherwise might be impossible.
A character reference from a friend, teacher, or family member can make all the difference when it comes to job hunting.
This usually occurs when you have little or no work experience. In situations like these, a character reference from a friend, teacher, or family member can make all the difference when it comes to job hunting.
On the other hand, if you’re applying for a particularly competitive job, a strong reference from a previous employer can turn the tide and help you stand out from the crowd.
4. Format – Content & Page Layout (Font, Margins)
Now that we know what a recommendation letter is and who needs one, let’s go through exactly how to structure the content of your letter, as well as the best page formatting and fonts to create a professional look.
Content Format Guide: 7 Basic Sections
No matter who it’s for, including these 7 basic parts in your letter will ensure it hits every point needed to write a strong and compelling letter of recommendation.
Part 1. Contact Information & Letterhead
Ideally speaking, your own name, address, and contact information should go in a letterhead at the top of the page. If you don’t have a letterhead, place this information above the date on the top-left side of the page.
Otherwise, the first thing on the top-right side of the page should be the current date, followed by the addressee’s name, title, company or school name, and then address.
Part 2. Salutation
As with any letter, the very first line should address the person or body of people you are writing to by name and title. Avoid vague salutations such as “To Whom It May Concern” unless there are no other options available to you.
Check out the first step of our writing guide for a more detailed explanation of how to craft the perfection salutation.
Part 3. Introduction: How you know the applicant
Start by expressing your sincere recommendation of the applicant, explain who you are and your relationship with the person you are recommending, including how long you have known them.
Part 4. The Academic, Personal, or Professional Achievements of the Applicant
The second paragraph outlines the relevant academic or professional strengths of the applicant. Include one to two specific and detailed examples that demonstrate the applicant truly does possess these strengths.
Part 5. Personal Traits and Characteristics
The third paragraph is all about personality. Include details of the applicants positive personality traits and examples that clearly showcase them.
Part 6. Explanation of Applicant’s Departure [Optional]
This optional section is only used when writing letters of recommendation for employment. It should also only be included in cases when the applicant’s reason for leaving their previous or current company is either neutral or positive. Such as relocating for family reasons, or outgrowing the opportunities at the company.
Part 7. Conclusion: Call-to-action
Reiterate your wholehearted recommendation of the applicant and encourage the reader to contact you with any questions they may have.
Page Format Guide: 5 Basic Rules
While the content of your letter is the most important element, the appearance of the page still requires some consideration. The alignment, font size and style, and margins can all impact the impression you give the reader.
The following simple guidelines will ensure your recommendation letter looks professional:
- Don’t exceed one page in length unless the extra paragraphs and details you are including legitimately strengthen your recommendation. That being said, anything over two pages is definitely too much.
- Use a size 12 font to maximize readability and economical use of space. Using a size 11 font in order to maintain a one-page length is acceptable but should be avoided when possible. Anything lower than 11 is too small.
- Stick to basic font styles such as Times New Roman, Arial, Helvetica, and Garamond. Avoid any overly stylistic fonts that could affect readability.
- 1” – 1.5” is the sweet spot for margins. You could arguably go slightly over or under these limits to fit everything onto one page, but it’s best to avoid anything too excessive.
- Maintain a left alignment throughout the entire page to ensure an organized appearance.
5. Three Important Steps Before You Begin Writing
Before you stretch your typing fingers, there are a couple of things you must do to ensure your reference letter is as compelling as possible.
Step 1: Ask the Applicant for Information
Ask the applicant for a copy of their resume, cover letter, personal essay, or any other such documents they are submitting as part of their application. Read through them thoroughly and avoid repeating any of the information mentioned unless it is particularly important.
Ask the applicant if there are any particular points or examples they’d like you to mention.
It’s also a good idea to ask the applicant if there are any particular points or examples they’d like you to mention.
Step 2: Conduct Your Own Research
Do some research on the company, university, or scholarship the applicant is targeting, and customize your letter based on their requirements. If you’re writing a letter for a job application, reading through the job description is a great way to get an idea of the specifics you should emphasize.
Step 3: Think About the Type of Letter You are Writing
Depending on the type of recommendation letter you are writing, the tone and contents will differ. If you’re a manager writing for an employee, the tone will be much more formal and contain a lot of detail regarding an applicant’s professional achievements.
On the other end of the spectrum, a character reference from a friend will be written in a more casual tone and focus more on an individual’s personal strengths and characteristics.
6. How to Write a Compelling Recommendation Letter – 9 Step Guide
Now that we’ve gotten all the little nitty-gritty details out of the way, it’s time to put pen to paper. Following these steps will help you create a convincing letter of recommendation that is sure to be an invaluable part of any application.
Step 1: A Polite and Personable Salutation
The way you greet someone when meeting them for the first time has a huge impact on their first impression of you. The way you address someone in a letter is no different. As such, it’s important to use a polite and personable salutation to start your letter off strong.
A proper salutation should be structured as follows:
Dear + Title + Name of Recipient
The title will vary depending on the individual you are writing to. For example, if you are addressing a hiring manager, you would use a general title such as Mr., Mrs., or Ms.
Dear + Mr./Mrs./Ms. + Hiring Manager’s Last Name
On the other hand, if you were writing to a Professor or someone with a Phd, you should use their professional title such as Dr. or Professor.
Dear + Professor + Professor’s Last Name
Ideally the applicant requesting the letter should provide you with the name of the person who the letter should be addressed to. If not, a bit of quick research on linkedin, or the company/university website should yield some results.
What should I do if I don’t know the name of the recipient?
When you don’t know the name of the recipient, you should still make your salutation as personable as possible. This means avoiding weak openings that make no attempt to directly address the reader.
Even if you don’t know their name you should never use To Whom it May Concern when addressing the recipient.
Here’s what you should do instead:
Dear + Title of Recipient
For example, if you are addressing a university’s dean of admissions whose name you don’t know, write Dear Dean of Admissions. Whereas if you are writing to the hiring manager of a company, write Dear Hiring Manager.
How should I address a letter to a body of people or an organization?
When addressing a body of people such as an admissions committee or board of directors you should follow the same principles as those outlined above. The only difference is that the title of the recipient should be replaced by the name of the group or organization.
Here is the exact formula:
Dear + Name of Group or Organization
The following examples give you a better idea:
- Dear Admissions Committee
- Dear Board of Directors
- Dear Rhodes Trust
Step 2: Start Your Introduction With a Punch
The first sentence of your recommendation is arguably the most important because it sets the tone for the entire letter. The best openers are those that immediately express the heartfelt and enthusiastic recommendation of the applicant.
Here are some useful phrases you can use to write a strong first sentence:
- It’s my pleasure to recommend…
- It’s my pleasure and honor to…
- I couldn’t be more pleased to…
- I have absolutely no reservations about recommending…
- I wholeheartedly recommend…
In comparison, a generic sentence that lacks enthusiasm such as “I am writing with regards to the recommendation for…” is both boring and weak.
Step 3: Establish Your Relationship
The remainder of your introductory paragraph should be devoted to describing who you are and your relationship with the applicant. This is an essential step because it establishes the relevance of your letter.
If you have known the applicant for a good length of time – and are in a good position to evaluate their strengths – then the potency of your letter multiplies. When establishing your relationship, you should include the following points:
- Your position and company/school
- The capacity in which you know the applicant
- How long you have known the applicant
By including these details in the very beginning of your letter, the reader understands the foundation of the relationship that your words are coming from. This context makes everything you say afterwards much more powerful.
Step 4: Give Words of Praise
Finish your introduction with a sentence or two highlighting some of the applicant’s key strengths or personality traits.
The following examples will give you an idea of how you should write yours:
- During that time, I watched Zach grow into an exceptional individual who excels in both his academic and personal pursuits.
- Gregory was always an outstanding member of our team, and I have always been impressed by his professionalism and admirable personal qualities.
Don’t worry about going into detail. The purpose of these sentences is to round out the first paragraph, while simultaneously serving as a sneak peak of what’s to come in the body of your letter.
Step 5: Showcase the Applicant’s Professional/Academic Strengths
Your first body paragraph should start by mentioning 2-3 of the applicant’s specific skills, talents, or experiences that are relevant to their target job position or college program.
It is essential that these points are then followed up with detailed and descriptive examples of the applicant’s accomplishments that prove the aforementioned abilities.
Take a look at the difference between the following two examples from a reference letter written for a project manager:
- Jill is great at managing projects.
Specific and detailed:
- Jill’s in-depth knowledge of Scrum Methodologies helped increase the amount of projects completed on-time and within budget by 23%
Not only is the second example far more compelling, but it also showcases the professional accomplishment the applicant has that would benefit her target job. When the reader sees these kinds of examples, they think to themselves, “This is the kind of performance I need at my company.”
Whenever possible, include interesting anecdotes about the applicant that demonstrate the strengths and abilities you described. This will create a more personable tone that makes the reader feel as though they are getting to know the applicant – one of the key aspects of a strong recommendation letter.
Step 6: Highlight the Applicant’s Best Personal Qualities
The next body paragraph should focus on 2-3 of the applicant’s positive personality traits and characteristics – particularly those that would be beneficial or desired by their target company or school.
One of the chief reasons universities and certain companies request letters of recommendation is because they want to get a more holistic understanding of the applicant as a person. Thus, only including their academic or professional achievements is not enough to create a persuasive letter.
Much like with the previous step, include relevant and specific examples or anecdotes to backup your claims. Let’s take a look at some examples:
- Joyce is a selfless and compassionate person.
Specific and Detailed:
- As a member of habitat for humanity, Joyce demonstrated her compassion and selfless nature by providing invaluable tutelage and mentorship to countless underprivileged children.
In case you’re having trouble thinking of compelling ways to describe an applicant’s personality, we’ve created a table containing some of the best personal qualities to include in a letter of recommendation:
Just be sure that you prove that the applicant possesses the personal qualities you mention with specific and detailed examples.
Step 7: Explain Why the Applicant is Leaving [Optional Paragraph for Job References]
This paragraph is only relevant if you’re writing a letter of recommendation for employment purposes. That being said, you should only include this section if the reason the applicant is leaving your current company is either neutral or positive.
The following are a few examples of the types of reasons that would be acceptable:
- Relocating for family reasons
- Outgrowing opportunities available at current company
- Medical reasons
- Skillset would be put to better use at another company
After reading through a letter describing how amazing an applicant is, it is quite normal for a hiring manager to think to themselves, “If this candidate is so great, why are they no longer at the company?” By including the reason for an applicant’s departure, it helps to assuage some of these doubts.
If you’re unsure whether or not the reason might be seen in a negative light, then it’s safer to exclude this section altogether.
However, if you’re unsure whether or not the reason might be seen in a negative light, then it’s safer to exclude this section altogether.
Step 8: Encourage the Reader to Accept the Applicant
Begin the concluding paragraph by reiterating your complete, unreserved, and enthusiastic recommendation of the applicant. Follow this up by emphasizing the value of the applicant as an asset.
Use strong, authoritative, and confident language when writing this sentence. Take a look at the following examples:
- I am confident that Jon will make an outstanding member of your university’s community.
- There is no doubt in my mind that Allison would quickly become an invaluable asset for your team.
- It is my strong opinion that Matthew would be a tremendous addition to the University of Virginia’s graduate program in Theoretical Physics.
Finally, conclude by encouraging the reader to contact you if they have any questions about the applicant.
Step 9: Politely Sign-off
Your letter closing should be formal and polite. Sincerely, Regards, and Best regards are all great examples. Sincerely is widely considered to be the best sign-off because not only is it undeniably polite, it also carries a warm, friendly tone. In cases where the closing is more than one word, only the first letter of the first word should be capitalized.
Ready to get started? Save yourself some time and effort by downloading and customizing one of our free templates or samples:
7. The Six Characteristics of a Strong Recommendation
Regardless of what kind of content you end up including, keeping these six characteristics in mind throughout the writing process will help take your recommendation to the next level.
1. It is personable:
Your letter should sound like it was written by a real person. The chief reason why colleges and employers request reference letters is because they want to get an idea how an applicant’s qualifications and personal qualities are perceived by another person.
2. It comes from a credible source:
If your mom writes you a college recommendation letter outlying how you are “such a good, nice boy” it is unlikely to be very convincing to the admissions board. It needs to come from an authoritative source and be written in a strong, confident tone.
3. It uses supportive, positive, and enthusiastic language:
A powerful recommendation needs to be enthusiastic and sincere. If the reader feels like you don’t wholeheartedly recommend the applicant, your letter will be weak and unconvincing.
When describing the applicant’s strengths, enhance them with adjectives such as “exceptional,” “outstanding,” and “superb.”
Using adverbs such as “sincerely” and “wholeheartedly” will inject some passion into your words. When describing the applicant’s strengths, enhance them with adjectives such as “exceptional,” “outstanding,” and “superb.”
4. It is specific and detailed:
You should avoid empty cliches such as, “Jim is the best student/employee I’ve ever had.” Everything you say needs to be specific and backed up by evidence. If Jim really was the best student you ever had, then you need to describe exactly how and why that was the case.
5. It contains a narrative:
By the end of the letter the reader should feel like they have gotten to know both you and the applicant better. Your relationship with the applicant, and your description of their strengths, should feel like a story. Also be sure to include anecdotes demonstrating the applicant’s abilities and traits whenever possible.
6. It is relevant to the applicant’s goals:
A strong recommendation should focus on the strength’s an applicant possess that are relevant to their pursuits. For example, in the case of a student applying to a mechanical engineering department, avoid writing about their exceptional literary masterworks and focus on their achievements in science.
8. How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation
Asking for a recommendation letter can seem like a daunting task, especially when you’re not sure whether or not the person will accept. This guide will show you exactly how to properly ask for a reference letter, as well as who and when to ask.
If you’ve been asked to write a recommendation and you’re not sure whether or not you should accept, go to the next section for details on exactly when and how to reject a request.
When should I ask for one?
You should only ask for letters of recommendation when an application specifically calls for one, or when you believe your application would be weak without one.
The following are examples of when a reference letter would be required or useful:
- Applying for University
- Applying for Graduate School
- Applying for a Scholarship
- Applying for a job that request ones
- Applying for an entry-level job with little or no work experience
- Applying for a job as a teacher
- Applying to work at a volunteer organization
Who should I ask?
Generally speaking, you should ask someone you have a solid relationship with who can also accurately speak to your strengths from a position of authority. That being said, the best person to ask for a recommendation will depend on the type of application you are making.
Tips on who to ask if I’m a…
a. Student applying to college or scholarship:
Pick a teacher who has taught you for a long period of time and whose classes you performed particularly well in. If you are applying for a specific major, consider asking a teacher who taught you a subject related to your target field.
b. Student applying to grad school:
Ask a professor with whom you have had extensive interaction, such as one from a course which involved a lot of discussion. Even if you performed exceptionally well in a certain professor’s course, if there were 300 people in the class they would be unable to write an effective letter for you.
c. Teacher applying for a job at a new school:
Ideally, you should ask the principal of your previous school because they can write you a letter from a position of authority. However, if you’d rather not ask the principal or feel they don’t know you well enough, asking the head of your department is a great alternative.
d. Recent grad applying for a teaching job:
If you specifically studied to become a teacher in college, then you will have already taught some courses under the guidance of a professor or two. One of these professors is by far the best candidate to ask to write your recommendation.
e. Applying to a job with little or no work experience:
Ask a friend or extended family member to write a character reference for you. A reference from a direct family member will be seen as “too close to home” and will not be taken seriously by any potential employer.
f. Applying to a job with experience:
The ideal writer would be someone who has directly supervised your work such as a manager. In cases where asking your manager is not ideal, a colleague who you have worked with closely is also acceptable.
How should I ask? (6 expert tips for proper etiquette)
In many cases, how you ask for a letter of recommendation can be the difference between a person saying yes or no. These six tips for proper etiquette will help you ask in a way that makes it hard to decline.
1) Ask in person:
Whenever possible, always ask for a recommendation in person. The person you ask will appreciate that you took the time to make a personal, face-to-face appeal.
2) Explain your situation:
Don’t jump straight into asking for a reference. Start by explaining exactly what you are applying for so that they understand why you are asking in the first place.
3) Use polite language:
Use indirect turns of phrase to ensure your tone is as polite as possible when asking someone for a recommendation, even if you know the person very well.
Don’t say: “Hey can you write me a recommendation letter?”
Do Say: “I was wondering if it might at all be possible for you to write me a letter of recommendation.”
In almost all cases, politeness is the most important factor in convincing someone to accept your request.
This is by far the most important tip, so pay extra attention to it. In almost all cases, politeness is the most important factor in convincing someone to accept your request.
4) Give them an excuse to say no:
In case they are unwilling or unable to write your letter, always follow up your request with a statement that allows them to easily decline. Don’t put them in an awkward position where they have to directly refuse.
Example: “If you’re too busy with other tasks to write it, I perfectly understand and please don’t hesitate to decline.”
5) Emphasize why you’re asking them:
Explain why you chose to ask for a recommendation from them. Many times this will help convince them to accept your request even if they are busy.
Example: “I understand that you might not have time, but since you have taught me for 2 years and are familiar with my work, I believe that no one is more qualified to write my recommendation than you.”
6) Express your gratitude:
Tell them how appreciative you would be if they would take the time to write your letter. However, don’t give them the impression that you expect them to accept (as outlined in tip 4).
Example: “I would really appreciate it if you were able to write a letter of recommendation for me, if you are unable to do so, however, I completely understand and please don’t worry about it.”
How to ask via email (with template)
If you are in a situation where you are unable to ask for a recommendation in person, write a request via email. Simply follow the same guidelines outlined in the section above and your request will be golden.
If you’re still unsure of yourself however, we’ve created a professional template for writing a letter of recommendation email request below. Simply copy and paste the template and then fill in your own details.
Subject Line: Request for Letter of Recommendation
Dear [Title + Name of Person You are Asking]
First of all thank you for taking the time to read this email and I hope that this request does not cause you any inconvenience.
I am applying for [university program/job position] at [target school/company] and was wondering if it would at all be possible for you to write a letter of recommendation for me.
As my [relation with requestee], I sincerely feel that no one else is more suited to writing me a recommendation and I would truly appreciate any kind words you might be willing to say on my behalf.
That being said, I know that you are extremely busy and if you are unable to find the time to write a letter I would completely understand.
What information should I provide to the person writing my letter?
Once your writer has accepted your request, you need to provide them with as much useful information as possible. This will not only make things more convenient for your writer, but also ensure that they write you the best recommendation possible.
Here’s a list of some of the info you should provide:
- Your resume & cover letter
- Your personal statement (if you’re a student)
- The name of your target university or company
- A link to the description of your target job or program
- Personal strengths or characteristics you’d like them to focus on
- Specific achievements you’d like them to mention
9. When and How to Reject a Request for a Recommendation Letter
Of course, there are always times when you may be exceptionally busy and finding the time to write a letter can be difficult. In these situations accepting or rejecting a letter is completely up to you.
There are two situations in which you definitely should reject a request for a reference letter.
Other than that, there are two situations in which you definitely should reject a request for a reference letter.
1. You don’t know enough about the applicant to write them a strong recommendation.
Even if you are aware that an applicant has exceptional abilities and personal qualities, you may not be familiar enough with the specifics of their accomplishments to write a proper letter.
2. You know a lot about the applicant but can’t think of enough positive things to say.
It sounds harsh but there are times when an applicant’s performance at your company or school has simply not been ideal. If you’re struggling to come up with a way to portray them in a positive light, it’s better to decline the request and let someone who is more familiar with their strengths write their recommendation.
Of course, if you want to just flat out reject a request, that is completely acceptable. However, if you’d like to soften the blow a bit, coming up with an excuse is remarkably easy.
Simply apologize to the student and tell them that you are too busy, and feel as though you lack the time required to write them the letter they deserve.
Simply apologize to the student and tell them that you are too busy, and feel as though you lack the time required to write them the letter they deserve.
Now that you know everything there is to know about recommendation letters, feel free to check out our professional templates and samples. Our experts have created a comprehensive library of examples for both students and employment.