Tips for Writing Letters of Recommendation

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Almost everyone is asked to write a reference letter at some time during his or her career. Whether it's for an employee, a friend, or someone you've worked with, it is important to be prepared to write an effective letter of recommendation. It's equally important to be ready to say "no" if you're not comfortable recommending someone for employment.

Read below for tips on how to respond to a recommendation request, and how to write a strong letter of recommendation.

When You Have Nothing Positive to Say

It's actually in the person's best interest for you to politely decline writing a reference letter if you can't provide more than a wishy-washy endorsement.

A less than positive reference can cause as much harm as a negative reference. Employers are usually good at reading between the lines and will pick up on what you're not saying.

If you decline, the person can move on to another reference who may be able to provide a glowing recommendation. A simple way out is to say that you are not familiar enough with their work or background to provide a reference. That way you can minimize any potential hurt feelings. Here's how to decline a request for a reference.

Request Information

If you're thrilled to be asked, but not sure what to say, ask the person for a copy of their resume and a list of accomplishments. This will give you guidelines to use when composing a letter.

If you are writing a letter of recommendation for a student applying for a job or internship, you might also ask for a list of their related coursework.

Ask for information on what the recommendation is for. If it is for a specific job, ask for the job listing. If it is for a school, ask about the type of program they are applying to.

This will help you focus your letter on skills and qualities related to the position or school.

Also be sure to ask the person who you should submit the letter to, and how to send it. Some letters must be sent in hard copy, and others are sent via email, so it is important to follow directions carefully.

Start With the Basics

Start by stating how long you've known the person. Briefly provide details on how you know the person (for example, if the person worked for you, if you are neighbors, if the person was your student, etc.).

Also include any relevant dates – if he or she was an employee, include dates of employment. If he or she was a student, state when.

Include Details

Continue by describing the person's skills and performance, and what makes them an ideal candidate for a potential new employer. Include two or three outstanding attributes, and try to provide an example of a time the person displayed these attributes.

Try to select attributes that connect to the position he or she is applying for.

If possible, look at the job listing ahead of time, or ask the person what kinds of jobs he or she is applying to. Look at the job description (or search online for job listings for the type of job the person is applying for). Look for qualities included in the job description that remind you of the person you’re writing the recommendation for.

End by summarizing why you are recommending this person for employment.

Offer to Follow Up

At the end of the letter, you may also want to provide a phone number or email address. This way, employers can follow up if they have questions or want more information.

Be Professional

Be sure to thoroughly read and proofread your letter before sending it, looking for any grammar or spelling errors. Consider asking a friend or family member to edit your letter for you.

Write your letter in proper business letter format. Select a clear, easy-to-read font like Times New Roman or Arial.

Follow Instructions

Submit your letter exactly as the person asks you to. If they do not tell you how to send the letter (or to whom to send the letter), ask.

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