When you’re approached to write a letter of recommendation, you should be flattered and hopefully excited to help your co-worker or old colleague. However, this scenario can also be nerve-wracking—after all, you’re helping decide someone’s future! How can you fit all of her great qualities onto one tiny page? What if you don’t say the right thing?
Pause and take a breath. Writing a letter isn’t rocket science, especially if you feel positively about the person you’re recommending. I’ve written a lot of letters of rec in my day, even ghostwriting them for CEOs of many different companies (yes, executives delegate this task), and along the way, I’ve learned a few things that simplify the process. Follow these steps to write a letter that’ll help your colleague get hired.
1. Do Your Background Research
Letters of recommendation can be requested for a whole slew of reasons—a job application, award nomination, acceptance into a school or board, and more. So, even if you know everything there is to know about the candidate’s current situation, work ethic, and past successes, you still don’t have all the information you need. Find out why the recommendee is asking you for a letter and what her readers are going to be looking for in it.
Before you start writing, be sure to ask the following:
- What can you tell me about the position or company you’re applying for?
- Is there a specific time, project, or trait you’d like me to feature?
- Who should the letter be addressed to and what can you tell me about this person?
- Why did you think of me for this letter?
These questions will help guide the content of your letter and will ensure that you’re positioning the candidate for the job or award in the best way possible.
2. Follow the Formula
Letters of recommendation should address three things: your relationship with the candidate, your evaluation of her work, and how she compares to others you’ve worked with in similar positions (a.k.a., why she stands out). So, as you’re writing, structure the letter around those areas:
Explain Your Relationship
First, explain the nature of your work with the candidate, toward the beginning of the letter. This can be a simple statement detailing when you worked with her, for how long, and in what capacity. For example: “Jane was an account executive at my company from 2010 to 2013, where she was responsible for planning, developing, and executing marketing strategy for five of our largest clients. As her manager, I witnessed… ”
Evaluate the Candidate
After explaining your relationship, evaluating your colleague’s work is the next priority. This should be the meat of your letter, though the exact content will vary based on what you’re recommending her for. For example, if you know the position she is applying for is in management, you may want to focus on how well she worked within your team and her natural ability to be a great leader. If the position she is applying for is more of a technical position, or maybe a writing position, focus on her ability to juggle several projects at one time while delivering results.
In any case, you’ll want to explain what you saw in her work, and point to tangible results she produced. Remember that it’s always better to show, not tell. If you say she is able to develop and implement sophisticated marketing strategy, point to things like the total marketing budget she managed and the percentage increase the sales team saw during her tenure. Any numbers or stats you can reference will help paint a strong picture of what, exactly, she achieved.
Make a Comparison to Seal the Deal
Comparing the candidate to other people you’ve worked with can be a powerful way to offer a strong recommendation. You might say someone is “the most effective project manager I’ve ever worked with,” or “one of the top three employees I’ve ever managed.” Of course, only use statements you truly believe!
This can also be a way to assuage any concerns a hiring manager might have. For example, if you’re recommending a candidate who’s young or who doesn’t have much experience, saying that she shows “maturity and strategic thinking well beyond her years and experience level” can go a long way.
If possible, use a story or anecdote to demonstrate one of the above areas. It’s easy to read through a letter and see that a candidate has strong characteristics, but in the end toss it aside because there wasn’t something remarkable or tangible to remember her by. On the other hand, it’s hard to forget someone who’s made an obvious impact on and a true connection with her former colleagues.
3. Put in the Final Touches
Now the logistics: First, the person collecting and reading letters of recommendation is likely busy and has plenty of other pages to read through. In order to make the most impact, quickly, keep your letter short (no more than one page) and to the point. In terms of tone, you want to be formal and professional, but also enthusiastic. A lukewarm recommendation might as well be a bad one, so make sure you’re conveying how much you like the candidate.
Use your company’s letterhead and include your signature and contact information at the bottom. Include a date, address the recipient by name (if possible), and end with a statement about your willingness to discuss the candidate further, such as, “If you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to call me.”
Letters are only the beginning of the different types of recommendations you may be asked to do, but these steps can help you through any form. Whether you’re serving as a former employee’s reference over the phone or recommending a colleague on LinkedIn, do your research, follow the format, and stay enthusiastic. You (and your colleague) should be good to go!
Finally, remember that if a colleague asks you for a recommendation, you’ve made an impact on her and she will be forever grateful if you assist on her path to success. The letter-writing process may seem stressful, but it’s really an honor.