9 June, 2021
By Mike Simpson
If you’re asked to write a reference letter, using the right letter of recommendation format is a must. It ensures you cover critical information in a professional manner, and that’s critical.
By using the right format, you may do a better job at helping someone land a job, get into a top-notch school, or snag a scholarship. That’s what makes a great reference letter so awesome.
If you want to make sure you do it right, you’ve come to the right place. Here’s what you need to know.
What Is a Letter of Recommendation?
Before we talk dig into the reference letter format, let’s pause for a second and discuss what a letter of recommendation is in the first place. We’ve actually taken a deep dive into the topic before. But, if you haven’t had a chance to review that, here’s a quick summary.
A recommendation letter is a document where one person discusses the capabilities and traits of another individual. Essentially, the content of the letter describes why the person would make an awesome addition to a company’s workforce or a school’s incoming class. They may explain why the person is deserving of a scholarship.
In some cases, a letter of recommendation is simply a nice addition to an application. However, they can also be mandatory, particularly for getting into some colleges or landing certain scholarships. There’s a reason the Common App has space for them. Additionally, written recommendations play a role in determining who wins National Merit Scholarships.
Why Is the Letter of Recommendation Format Important?
The letter of recommendation format you choose impacts readability. With the right format, you can create flow in your narrative. Your use of paragraphs actually establishes a rhythm for the story, making what you’re sharing more engaging.
Plus, the best reference letter formats ensure that the reader isn’t bombarded with a giant wall of text. It makes it easy to balance text with white space, something that’s critical for readability.
The recommendation letter format can also help keep you focused, reducing the chances that you’ll go off on a tangent. Finally, when you use the ideal approach, you come across as more professional. That’s nailing the letter of recommendation format is vital.
Choosing the Correct Format for a Recommendation Letter
Generally speaking, the letter of recommendation format is pretty standard. You use the same approach no matter what you’re writing it for. All you have to change is the content, ensuring it speaks to the situation. We’ll dig a little more into that here in a second.
Common Mistakes When Formatting a Letter of Recommendation and How to Avoid Them
If you’re writing a letter of recommendation, avoiding certain mistakes is a must. Generic content can be a biggie. Without clear examples of what the person has to offer, your letter won’t stand out.
Additionally, mentioning anything negative is a no-no. Remember, the letter says believe this person can do the job, excel at the school, or make great use of the scholarship. If you don’t actually feel that way, then you shouldn’t write it at all.
But you also want to avoid exaggeration. Claiming the person brings more to the table than they do can set them up for failure. While you want to be positive, don’t go overboard.
Finally, one of the biggest mistakes is getting long-winded. You need to be concise and get to the point quickly. So, how long should a recommendation letter be? Well, usually, about five paragraphs – along with your contact details, greeting, and closing – does the trick.
How to Format a Letter of Recommendation
Here’s a quick overview of the letter of recommendation format. It reflects a fairly standard order for presenting various pieces of information, allowing it to work in a variety of situations.
1. Contact Information
Putting your contact information at the top of the letter is important. It lets the reader know who is writing right away while also giving them your contact details in case they have questions.
Generally speaking, you’ll want to include your:
- Official Job Title
- Phone Number
You can put this information at the top of the letter or in the header. After writing your name, use a comma or dash before adding your job title. Then, go to a second line and list the rest of the information.
2. Date the Letter Is Written
After your contact information, you need to add the date. Why? Because it lets the recipient know that what you’re sharing is a current assessment of the person’s capabilities.
Think about it; without a date, the reader doesn’t know if this letter is one week, one year, or even a decade old. That puts the reliability and timeliness of the information into question.
3. Opening Greeting
The opening greeting is where you address the letter reader directly. If you know the name of the recipient, then this part is a breeze. Simply start with “Dear” and add the person’s name. Done.
If you don’t know their name, you might consider “To Whom It May Concern.” The issue is, that’s incredibly impersonal.
Instead, try something a tad more specific. For example, “Dear Hiring Manager,” “Dear [College Name] Admissions Committee,” or “Dear [Awarding Organization] Scholarship Committee” are better choices.
4. Introductory Paragraph
In the opening paragraph, you want to say who you’re recommending and what you’re recommending them for. No dilly-dallying.
Next, you want to give the reader a little bit of information about yourself to make them care about your opinion. So, give them an overview of how you know the person.
Finally, give them a taste of why you’re recommending the person. Reference a few key traits or skills that would matter to the reader.
5. Supporting Paragraphs
Here’s where you dig in a bit deeper. Use two paragraphs to share why the person is amazing.
How you do this can vary depending on the goal of the letter. For a job or college admissions, for instance, you might focus on two major accomplishments.
If it’s for a scholarship, it may depend on what the organization values, like volunteer work, leadership qualities, overcoming personal obstacles to achieve success, prior work in a specific field, and more.
6. Quick Summary
After you’ve explained why the person is awesome, start a new paragraph and reaffirm that you’re recommending them. Then, touch on a couple of their key traits or skills again.
7. Invitation to Contact
This paragraph can usually be a single sentence. You just want to let the reader know that they can contact you if they have questions, relisting your preferred contact details.
After you’ve handled all of that, sign off. Usually, “Sincerely,” followed by your signature, does the trick.
Example Recommendation Letter
Jane Doe – Technology Department Head
123 Main Street, Your Town, NY 12345 | 555-555-5555 | firstname.lastname@example.org
January 2, 2021
Dear Mr. John,
I’m writing to recommend John Smith for the technology project manager position at ABC Company. As the Technology Department Head at XYC Corp., I’ve had the opportunity to work directly with John for four years. During that time, I’ve been continually impressed by both his technical capabilities, as well as his dedication to effective leadership, teamwork, collaboration, and efficiency.
Recently, John spearheaded a major project for our top client. Along with coordinating the efforts of a multi-discipline team, he also worked directly with the client, ensuring their needs were fully understood. He is particularly adept at explaining complex technical topics in a way that’s easily understood, including by those with less technical expertise. Additionally, he not only contributed to the project, applying his skills directly, but he also motivated and guided his team, ensuring obstacles were overcome swiftly. Due to his diligence, the project was completed on time and exceeded expectations, all while staying within budget.
John has been an excellent addition to my department. His commitment to excellence is unparalleled, and he continually looks for opportunities to ensure that not only he but his full team excel with each undertaking. He is a strong communicator and a talented leader who isn’t just highly skilled but open to his team’s input, allowing everyone’s expertise to boost success rates.
I highly recommend John Smith for the technology project manager position at ABC Company. He’s dedicated, passionate, and effective in all that he takes on, and I believe he would make an exceptional addition to your team.
If you have any questions, please feel free to call me a 555-555-5555.
Putting It All Together
Ultimately, the letter of recommendation format above usually does the trick. Use our example to create a template, and you’ll nail everyone you write.
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