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How to write a winning letter of recommendation

Sharon Daugherty 5 min read
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When someone is applying for grad school or a new job, a letter of recommendation can be more powerful than a great cover letter or a perfect resume. Recruiters and schools often wait until the end of the review process to read letters, giving them real influence on the final decision.

It means a lot when a former employer is willing to use their name and reputation to recommend someone. So schools and companies take letters seriously – and so should you if you’re asked to write one. But what should you say to make a real impact? Here are some things to think about and include when you’re writing a recommendation for a former employee:

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1. Be sure you’re comfortable writing the letter

Even though it’s an honor to be asked to provide a letter of recommendation, you should only say yes if you feel comfortable advocating for that person. If you had very little exposure to them, or if your experience with them was less than positive, it’s okay to politely decline.

“I am honored that you put your trust in me for such an important task as writing a letter of recommendation for you. Regrettably, I must decline your request as I believe that it would serve you better to select another colleague whose endorsement would truly benefit you.”

2. Find out what the person is applying for

Ask the applicant what kind of role they are applying for. A new job, an internship, or acceptance into a grad school program are all highly competitive, but they may all be looking for different skills and strengths. Having a description of the role or the admissions requirements will tell you which qualifications to brag about.

Good Letter of Recommendation has a Lot of Impact-min

3. Use an enthusiastic tone

It would be easy to just confirm that you worked with a person and essentially had no problems with each other. But a letter of recommendation should make the reader feel that you really believe in the person, and that you’re excited that they could have the chance to work with them.

4. Tell the reader about your relationship with the applicant

In the body of the letter, tell a brief story about how you came to work with the applicant. This will put your relationship into context and help the reader see that your recommendation comes from real interaction with the applicant.

5. Talk about what impressed you the most

Companies and schools don’t just look for a list of skills; they want a person who will be a good fit and work well with their peers. This is where you can share the personal impression that was made on you, the stuff that goes beyond tactical experience. This is also a way to show that the applicant has areas for improvement and is not afraid to learn.

6. Share some their skills & successes

Mention some of the applicant’s key strengths and tie them to a situation when they delivered great results. Mention his/her ability to work with colleagues and form relationships. These are the kinds of wins that companies are looking for to know they will be getting their money’s worth.

Writing a Letter of Recommendation-min

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7. Make a strong, positive closing recommendation

This is your final moment to make your recommendation clear, and convince the reader that they will be missing out if they don’t hire or accept the applicant.

8. Keep the letter brief

It’s part of an application package and the reader wants to get to the point – would you recommend this person and why? Once you have made that point, your job is done.

Be sure to use business letter format with a professional greeting and closing, using your formal title and contact information. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Greeting
  • Introduction
  • Overview of the Applicant’s role
  • Impression & Success Story
  • Closing Statement

If you’ve never written a recommendation or you’re out of practice, refer to our sample letter below.

Sample Letter of Recommendation

John Anybody
Director of Marketing
ACME Corporation

Dear Mr. Anybody,

It’s my absolute pleasure to recommend Susan Davis for the role of Marketing Support Specialist with ACME Corporation. Susan worked with XYZ Agency for three years, and served as Support Specialist for my project team for two of those years.

I began working with Susan in 2016. She supported my team for two years and I had a chance to work with her directly on several high demand projects. She supported a team of five project managers, with several projects running concurrently.

I was immediately impressed with Susan’s willingness to ask questions about the unfamiliar, her ability to learn new tasks and jump in when an extra set of hands was needed. She quickly proved to be an asset beyond her formal role.

Susan is an excellent analytical and critical thinker, who looks at every part of a process to ensure they will result in the best outcomes. During her time with my team, she identified two major inefficiencies, resulting in process improvements that will save our organization thousands of dollars over the next several years. Along with her lighthearted personality and calm nature, she became a champion that the team respected and relied upon.

Though I would gladly have her back on my team, I am excited to see Susan’s continued growth. She would make a fine addition to any team, and I recommend her without hesitation. Should you have questions, you are invited to contact me at the phone number or email address below. Thank you for your time.


Jane Smith
PMO Lead

XYZ Agency

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