Writing a letter of recommendation is an art as much as it is a science. It offers assistance to a recent graduate, a current student or a great employee. Learning how to write a letter commending someone does not have to be difficult; five steps accomplish it for most.

Writing Recommendation Letters

The elements of a well-designed letter of recommendation include an authoritative voice, a personal relationship with the letter subject, first-hand observations and a willingness to put one’s name underneath the finished product. Never write a letter to someone about whom you do not feel strongly. A tepid letter actually reflects badly on both the writer and the subject.

The Five Steps of Recommendation Letter-writing

  1. Establish the relationship in the first paragraph. “Explain how long, how well, and under what circumstances” you have come to know the person about whom you are writing, say the President and Fellows of Harvard College. It stands to reason that the reader of a letter recommending another has some curiosity about the relationship. Be up-front if the subject of the letter is a friend, relative or ‘friend of a friend.’
  1. Offer a fact-based evaluation of the subject’s skills. Do not paint the person as being the ‘perfect worker’ or ‘best student.’ Instead, provide measurable information to go along with this evaluation. For example, if you laud someone as being a top-performing salesperson, explain that in five out of six months, the employee exceeded sales quotas.
  1. Project forward. Learning how to write a letter of recommendation is a bit of a sales job, in that it has the writer ‘selling’ the skills and personality of the subject to the reader. Go ahead and project the letter subject’s future success in the industry, a given job environment and also related fields. Do not hem in the person by tying success to a certain field.
  1. Make it personal. While it is not necessary to gush when writing a letter of recommendation, it does not hurt to add some personal touches. Commend the person on kindness toward others, team spirit or politeness. Let the reader know that you enjoyed working with the individual and why.
  1. Make it official. Use formal letterhead and a formal tone of voice. Sign the letter with your full job title or position, so as to add some weight to the recommendation.

Pitfalls to Avoid

Writing a letter of recommendation that portrays the subject of the missive as a saint is a big mistake. Coming across as too familiar is also a blunder. What about length? “One paragraph, or two short paragraphs, is the kiss of death,” explains Michael Ernst of the University of Washington. If it is not possible to craft a letter of some substance, it is better to deny the request for writing recommendation letters altogether.