Professional Letter of Recommendation: Guide for Applicants & Referees

Updated October 27, 2023
14 min read
Professional Letter of Recommendation: Guide for Applicants & Referees

Introduction

A letter of recommendation can be one of the simplest things to showcase a person as a qualified professional, especially when you write a letter of recommendation using a ready-made template. However, choosing the wrong referee, lacking preparation in writing a letter of recommendation, misunderstanding how to present yourself — all of this can turn the letter into an unsuccessful attempt to influence rather than a strong tool.

In this article, we will analyze writing a letter of recommendation from both sides at once, from the perspective of the person who needs the letter — the applicant — and the referee who will have the opportunity to write the letter. As a communications lead at Lawrina, I am drawing from my experience writing and reading such letters to provide a brief guide on preparing your letter of recommendation for the recipient so that it will work in the best way possible.

Why People Write Letters of Recommendation?

A person may have a lot of reasons to write a letter of recommendation. Some companies require these letters when a person applies for a job, and students need letters to receive scholarships or apply for specialized academic programs. Sometimes, even a landlord may require a letter of recommendation to see if a person will be a reliable tenant.

Therefore, in general, there are several major types of letters of recommendation:

  • A general letter of recommendation is a classic overview of a person’s achievements and suitability for their chosen discipline or line of work. The letter can cover all aspects of a person — academics, character, and employment performance.

  • Academic reference — a teacher or professor can write a letter of recommendation about a student if the student needs a formal recommendation for a scholarship, college, or graduate program.

  • Fraternity recommendation letter — a current or former fraternity member may create a letter of recommendation to recommend a friend to be accepted into the fraternity.

  • Character reference — these letters may be required by courts, employers, immigration offices, and schools if it is necessary to analyze a person’s personality, interactions with society, or overall behavior.

  • Professional recommendation — colleagues, supervisors, human relations, and even C-level managers write this type of letter to create a complete description of an applicant’s work performance.

Recommendation letters usually vary depending on the type, content, format, and referee. The most popular letter on Lawrina Templates is the professional recommendation, which a person will generally submit when applying for a job. That’s why, in today’s guide, we look at the ways to write a letter of recommendation for getting a job.

Why Is a Professional Letter of Recommendation Important?

It is always nice to add to your resume words from a manager who praises you and tells you how well you performed your duties and submitted tasks on time. The reasons to write a letter of recommendation for your job include the following:

  1. Stand out from the sea of other applicants. When someone with similar experience, expertise, and background also applies for a job, the applicant with something extra may be chosen. One way to stand out is with a letter of recommendation from a former CEO, explaining how the applicant changed the company, improved processes, or was an invaluable team member. Content like “I sincerely recommend hiring this person as an invaluable asset for any company” will elevate an applicant in the eyes of the hiring manager.

  2. Offer unique personal insights. A resume reflects a person’s basic information regarding employment history, education, and skills. A letter of recommendation, however, can showcase the applicant’s unique approaches to solving problems or managing people. Thus, a positive impression is possible even before the interview.

  3. Showcase strengths vs. weaknesses. If a referee writes in a professional letter of recommendation that the applicant is perfect, the letter will not be convincing. However, if the referee shows not only the applicant’s strengths but also how the applicant deals with his or her weaknesses in everyday tasks, then the hiring manager will have a positive impression before the interview.

Common Mistakes When Writing a Letter of Recommendation

Because every applicant wants the best letter of recommendation possible, the following are some common mistakes that applicants and referees make when it is time to write a letter of recommendation.

Applicant’s mistake: Choosing the wrong referee

Choosing a referee is a crucial step to ensure success or ruin an applicant’s chances. To select the right person, consider the following two factors:

  1. Relevance — The referee should be a professional with whom the applicant has worked on projects for which the applicant demonstrated the skills and abilities required for the potential new position.

  2. Relationship — The applicant should have a good relationship with the person requested to write a letter of recommendation, whether in the present or the past. If the relationship is not positive, the person may decline or report an adverse letter.

Best friend from another department

Supervisor or manager

In addition, the applicant should never choose his or her best friend at work who only chatted in the break room. It’s better to find a person who worked closely with or supervised the applicant in writing a letter of recommendation based on worthy information.

Referee’s mistake: Not writing an individualized letter of recommendation

Avoid using generic terms and adjectives that could apply to all or most colleagues. Words like “responsible” and “friendly” and phrases like “active team member” and “good communicator” are already overused. Instead, find unique words to describe the candidate. When you write a letter of recommendation, all common terms should be supported by specific examples that clearly demonstrate that the applicant genuinely possesses that quality.

The applicant is highly responsible and motivated.

The Applicant delivered all the tasks on time and offered improvements and new ideas until the last work day.

Applicant’s & Referee’s mistake: Repeating the resume information

When an applicant asks a referee to write a letter of recommendation, the applicant should clearly explain the requirements for the letter and what should and should not be mentioned. Of course, the referee will write what he or she considers appropriate, but the applicant should share the main points of interest and guidelines if provided by the prospective company.

Also, the applicant should show their resume to the referee to:

  1. Ensure that the information about qualifications and areas of responsibility in the letter and resume;

  2. Avoid repeating word for word from the resume. A letter of recommendation should show more unique characteristics of the person and professional impressions of the person’s work in the company rather than simply restating his or her qualifications.

Applicant’s & Referee’s mistake: Failing to maintain proper protocol

Formatting a letter can be difficult for both the applicant and the referee because a letter of recommendation is not a simple note about how everyone respected the applicant at work. Writing a letter of recommendation creates an official document representing the referee’s opinion, so it must be written in accordance with standard practices. Minimally, avoid spelling mistakes or politically incorrect or inappropriate language. Always check for errors and use respectful language toward the recipient and all people mentioned in the letter.

A referee may spend time reading recommendation letter examples to understand better the structure, form, language, and other necessary details. Or, the referee may use a template to create a recommendation letter. In addition to our template, we have prepared a short guide on writing a recommendation letter. Thus, before filling out the template, the applicant or the referee can review the recommendations and tips from Lawrina’s lawyers.

How To Improve Your Letter of Recommendation

Following are guidelines for both the applicant and referee to consider before working on a recommendation letter.

Impress from the beginning

Advice for the applicant: Make sure that all the information about the referee and the workplace matches what is on your resume if the referee is an immediate supervisor. Double-check that the work period and company name are correctly written.

Advice for the referee: Start with a brief introduction that tells who you are, your relationship with the applicant, and your personal experience or expertise. This opening will help the requester understand your feedback’s relevance and know that you are sufficiently qualified to provide it.

Provide specific information

Advice for the applicant: Since every organization has its own requirements, ask the requester for any guidelines. This way, you will know precisely what the company expects from you, and you can communicate this information to your chosen referee.

Advice for the referee: Ensure the letter effectively showcases the candidate’s strengths and qualifications while adhering to the organization’s requirements. The letter of recommendation should primarily be acceptable to the company you are writing for. Because you want the candidate to get the job, you will be particularly interested in giving a solid recommendation highlighting the candidate’s expertise. To do this, follow three basic rules:

  1. Do research — Find out what the candidate is applying for and the company’s main requirements. The applicant should provide this information.

  2. Be concise and concrete — Provide only the particularly relevant information that will showcase the candidate as a perfect match for the requester.

  3. Be formal but positive — Assure the requester that the candidate has the necessary qualities while remaining objective and professional.

Highlight strengths

Advice for the applicant: Usually, the referee can identify the applicant’s strengths and demonstrate how they were applied in practice during their work together. However, be sure to let your referee know if you feel that the letter should include specific characteristics for the prospective position.

Advice for the referee: Above all, be honest and sincere. We are all human, and we all have strengths and weaknesses. Remember that a strong candidate is not someone who has no imperfections because such candidates do not exist.

Instead, the best candidate may be someone who recognizes and works to improve their weaknesses. Therefore, do not attempt to create an idealized picture of a candidate like Dorian Gray from the world of employment. Show what this candidate does to work on any negative aspects and to be a valuable team member.

Keep solid structure

Advice for applicant & referee: To make the recommendation letter as concise as possible, start by creating a specific structure and then filling it in with the relevant text. It is recommended that you disclose the following points one by one:

  1. Introduction;

  2. Overview of the candidate’s skills and experience;

  3. One or more personal stories that demonstrate the candidate’s skills; and

  4. A wrap-up that summarizes the main conclusion about the candidate.

Use an appropriate tone of voice

Advice for the applicant: When communicating with your referee, emphasize the importance of objectivity and honesty. The author writing a letter of recommendation should always provide an honest assessment.

Advice for the referee: Maintaining a formal yet friendly tone is essential. Imagine that you are recommending a good friend or acquaintance to your boss. Be honest, do not shy away from shortcomings, and highlight the candidate’s strengths and accomplishments. Keep the letter professional in both form and content and provide specific examples of the candidate’s soft and hard skills from relevant work experiences or projects.

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Conclusion

With proper preparation, writing, and tone, a letter of recommendation can work in favor of a candidate, pushing them forward in the race for a desired position. Therefore, if you want to create a letter of recommendation for yourself, find the right referee and start writing.

To enable the referee to focus solely on providing quality feedback rather than dealing with the document’s format, consider using a letter of recommendation template, including all the necessary parts to fill in.

Article by Inna Lohvin

Article by
Ilona Riznyk
Lawrina

Ilona Riznyk is a Content Specialist at Lawrina. In her role, she creates and manages various types of content across the website, ranging from blog articles to user guides. Ilona's expertise lies in meticulous fact-checking, ensuring all the published content is accurate and reliable. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Can a referee be punished for writing false information in a letter of recommendation?

If it turns out that a referee intended to misinform the recipient or cause harm to the applicant, the referee can be punished for writing a false letter of recommendation. In the United States, fraudulent letters of recommendation can be the basis for defamation or breach of contract lawsuits. Therefore, a referee must write only what he or she believes is truthful and supported by facts.


 

How do I write a letter of recommendation?

Follow these few simple steps to write a letter of recommendation:

  1. Clarify the recipient’s requirements first. Ask the recipient to share guidelines or an example of a preferred letter. 
  2. Determine the applicant’s strengths. What specific characteristics and skills differentiate this candidate from other job applicants? Provide concrete examples to support all claims.
  3. Don’t be afraid to mention weaknesses. However, try to show how the applicant works on those weaknesses and, perhaps, produces success.
  4. Pay attention to the structure. Start with a brief introduction with some information about how long you’ve known the candidate and in what context you worked together. Then, describe the candidate’s skill set and experience and defend your position with examples. You may add a personal touch in the last part of the recommendation letter.
  5. Keep a professional tone. Use appropriate words for an official document, but don’t make it too dry or overly formal.
How can I ensure that my letter of recommendation is tailored to the specific opportunity I am applying for?

Candidates should conduct detailed research on the opportunity for which they are applying when writing a letter of recommendation. For the referee, asking the candidate about the opportunity description and requirements is essential. The candidate should ask the requester to provide guidelines for writing the letter of recommendation since they can differ from organization to organization.


 

How long should the letter of recommendation be?

The size of the recommendation letter can vary, as there is no “one page only” rule. Typically, a recommendation letter will contain at least two to three paragraphs. However, it’s more important for the letter to be concise yet informative. Avoid too many detailed descriptions of skills or irrelevant stories. The recommendation letter should only contain relevant information to help the candidate get the job.