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Career Services

Writing Letters of Recommendation

Why write a letter of recommendation?

An organization's hiring officials often use letters of recommendation to get information about the candidate that they could not get in other ways. The confidential letter of recommendation is assumed to provide a candid view of the applicant's abilities. The letter should give a picture of the applicant's personal characteristics, experience, strengths, capabilities and professional promise from someone who has worked with or supervised the candidate. The committee uses these letters to help them make a final decision.

When not to write a letter of recommendation.

You might decline to write a letter of recommendation for any number of reasons. You might not know the applicant well enough. You may not have time to write it before it is needed. You may not feel you could say good things about the applicant. If any of that is true, you should be honest with the applicant about your reasons. If it is a lack of knowledge, perhaps you could have a conversation and get the information you need. It may be that the time frame is negotiable. If you feel you can't write a good letter, the applicant needs to hear clearly why. This can be an opportunity for the applicant to grow. It is difficult to say no, but if done tactfully, it will be more beneficial than a non-committal yes.

What to write?

It is best for the letter of recommendation to be written by someone who has been a supervisor or mentor to the applicant. It should be about one page long, and have the traditional three parts: opening, body and closing.


The writer should describe the relationship and the reason for writing the letter. What was your relationship to the applicant? Supervisor? Advisor? Professor? Your relationship will help the reader define the context for your comments.


The body of the recommendation should provide specifics, based on your observations. It might include:

  • Personal characteristics like patience, creativity, poise, confidence or dependability
  • Specific areas of experience or strength.
  • How well they work with others, etc.

The applicant may have particular strengths or areas of specific knowledge, a degree in another area, or related work experience. All of these could be mentioned here.


The closing of the letter should be a brief summary of previous points, and clearly state that you recommend the applicant for the position. Finally, you should give your contact information, in case they wan to contact you directly.

The Meeting

If you meet with the applicant regarding the letter, it can give you a good deal of information. They should tell you about what this letter will be used for generally (employment, graduate school, scholarships, etc.). The applicant should also give you information about their skills, experience, strengths and qualifications - anything that will help you with your letter. Ask for a list of accomplishments, organizations, or any other relevant information. A copy of his or her resume is an easy way to have this information at hand. You need to find out what sets the application apart from the average. The more you know, the better letter you can write. Starting the conversation can be as easy as asking, "Why should I write this letter?"

Important Points To Keep In Mind

  1. Give honest information. You should be willing to defend in public anything you write in the letter. Employers often skim the letter, then call the writer to ask specific questions.
  2. Concentrate on different aspects of the applicant. Specifically identify his or her skills, personal attributes, and growth, as well as his or her contributions and performance within your organization. It is very important to include examples wherever possible. If you have negative comments to make, back them up with facts.
  3. The letter's appearance will reflect on both you and the candidate. It will also determine whether it will be read. You may want to save a copy for updates.
  4. If the applicant gives you a standard form, do not feel restricted to the space provided. Written comments on the form or on an additional page will let you give specific details. Fell free to use letterhead of stationery.
  5. Don't refer to characteristics that can be used to discriminate against the candidate, such as nationality, gender, race, religion, age, appearance, or any handicapping condition, marital or parental status, or political point of view. Talk with the candidate if the applicant's strengths or involvement would clearly state such issues. They should be comfortable with the way you refer to it.
  6. The letter should include your phone number. You should keep a copy of the letter and expect that you will get a call. You will not come across as credible if you do not remember what you write.

Confidential vs. Non-Confidential Letters

Ask the applicant if the letter will be 'open' or confidential. It is their choice. If it is confidential, you will need to send the letter to the Career Services office where they have opened a placement file, or to the organization directly. Some employers prefer confidential letters, while others are not as concerned about keeping reference letters confidential.

Character References

Character references are generally used to support a candidate in terms of their personal qualities, rather than professional abilities. They are generally not very valuable for employers, and to not speak to the applicant's experience or strengths as assessed by a supervisor or mentor.

Words Can Make The Difference!

Many words we use in every day conversation are 'loaded' with meaning for a prospective supervisor. 

Avoid words such as:
Better words to use:

What Do Employers Look For In Applicants?

Some of the points for you to try to address, often listed as tools on which to base selection: 

intelligencewillingness to accept responsibilityleadership
imaginationinterpersonal skillsability to handle conflict
competitivenessdirectionstrong work ethic
teamworkappropriate vocational skillsgoal achievement
self-knowledgeflexibility energy levelinitiative
self-confidenceability to communicate 


Gets along with others? Outgoing? Shy? Sense of humor? Good sport? Acceptance of other ideas? Ability to communicate?


Independent worker, leadership role, intellectual courage (defends own ideas) Attitude facilitator, optimistic, enthusiastic, positive, sense of fairness, responsible, curious, interested, motivated


Values, perseverance, ethics, integrity Maturity level social independence, judgment, competence, work habits, pride in work, process of inquiry, receptive to feedback, communication abilities, participation, enthusiasm for job, helps others improve

Technical Skills

Ability to work with necessary equipment, willingness to learn fast, ability to learn as many software programs as possible, knowledge about intranets/networking, internet savvy

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