From job applications to applications for graduate school and medical residency, letters of recommendation are critical to the success of the candidate. Their purpose is simple: to show a personal view of the candidate from a trusted, relatively objective, third party.
What then does the letter of recommendation need to accomplish? First, to establish the authority—and therefore trust—of the one offering the recommendation, and second, his or her unique insight into the applicant’s distinguishing characteristics. You may be the recommender whom the candidate has asked to write the letter of recommendation, or you may be the candidate whom the recommender has asked to write the letter of recommendation for him or her to sign. How do you accomplish this?
Step 1: Use a Professional Format and Layout for the Letter of Recommendation
Nothing will shape how the hiring coordinator or program director will read the letter of recommendation like the format and layout of the letter. It is your letter of recommendation’s first impression, and it will dictate whether it is more likely to be read word for word or simply skimmed or even dismissed. In the same way that the suit or dress you choose for an interview will be the one to make your first impression, the formatting and layout of your letter of recommendation will indicate how much you care about what you are presenting for consideration. The more you care about what you are presenting, the more your reader will care.
Step 2: Open the Letter by Clearly Stating Its Purpose
Once you have engaged your reader’s attention, follow through on the promise you have made with the formatting and layout of your letter by opening with a clear, direct statement introducing the purpose of your letter. Assume that the hiring coordinator or program director has a stack of 1,000 applications to read, and that what he or she will appreciate most is a candidate whose letter of recommendation does not take any more time than is necessary for him to review. Limit your introduction to one to two sentences and get directly to the point.
Step 3: Introduce Yourself and How You Came to Know the Candidate
Once the purpose of the letter is established, the next step is to establish the point of view and authority of the recommender. This is done first by stating the recommender’s title and the position in which he or she came to know the candidate. It can be as simple as “I am the lead attorney in our firm’s labor law department and first met John Rogers when he joined us for our summer internship program” or “I am an attending in the Internal Medicine Department and got to know Jenny Nguyen during her third-year internal medicine rotation.”
When introducing yourself, make sure to include important contextual details to help the reader’s understanding of your position and the environment in which you developed your understanding of the candidate. This also should be a straightforward statement, with something like “The purpose of our internship program is to give third-year law students live training in the core principles of litigation” or “Our hospital is the only Level I Trauma Center in the region.”
Step 4: Candidly Describe Specific Details of the Candidate
After the recommender has established who he or she is and the context in which he or she met the candidate, the reader will be fully prepared for reviewing the details of the recommendation. As with all other parts of the letter, these should be clearly and directly worded. The tone should be objective and professional, and the details that are described should be ones the recommender knows first-hand and are unique to the candidate.
What the recommender describes should be specific details related specifically to the candidate’s personal and professional character, and should show them rather than tell them. For example, instead of simply writing that the candidate “has a passion for teaching,” the recommender should expand on or replace this statement with a specific example, like that the candidate “would often be the first to volunteer to research a particular topic to present to the group, and the presentations were always well researched and insightful.”
This portion of the letter represents the body, or core, of the recommendation and can take as many paragraphs as the recommender needs to communicate the points he or she wishes to describe about the candidate. Each paragraph should have its own subject or theme, and there is no limit to the number of paragraphs as long as they progress the understanding of the candidate and are engaging to read.
Step 5: Close by Summarizing the Candidate’s Character and Offer to Answer Any Questions
One of the greatest challenges in writing a compelling letter of recommendation is concluding it well. However, there are two easy strategies for doing this. The first is to avoid any wording like “In conclusion,” “In summary,” etc. Instead, trust that the reader will know it is the conclusion.
The second strategy is to avoid simply repeating anything that has been previously stated in the letter. The conclusion instead should summarize the candidate’s character in a way that ties together what has been previously described using a statement that does not occur elsewhere in the letter. This will progress the reader’s understanding and give him or her something fresh to read, even if it is just one or two sentences. This should then be followed by an offer of availability to answer any questions the reader might have, without any additional commentary.