Tips for Writing Stellar Letters of Recommendation

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by Maureen Crawford Hentz

The most important rule in writing letters of recommendation is to just say no if you can’t write a glowing letter. It is difficult to say no to an eager job-searcher and will require all of your best assertiveness skills, but it is better for the searcher to know that you can’t effectively endorse him/her. If you can’t write a glowing letter because the person’s performance has been less than stellar, it’s important for him or her to know.You can break the news in this way: “John, I don’t think that I am the best person to be a reference for you at this time. Have you thought of someone else you can use?”

Most important is to understand what aspects of the candidate you should highlight, which is best done in conversation with the candidate. Great references include specific information related both to the position and to the candidate’s extant skills. For graduate school, focus not only on potential contributions to the future field, but those the candidate can make in the classroom community as well.

Find out if the letter should be a general one or for a specific position. Ideally, with some addition of specifics, the general letter can be used for a position-specific recommendation later.

For position-specific letters of recommendation (or phone references), ask the candidate for a job description of the position for which they are applying. In this way, you can include some specific details about how the candidate would be a good fit.

The letter is not about you. A brief mention of your relationship to the applicant is all the information about you that is necessary in the letter.

Truly great letters of recommendation feature the candidate’s knowledge, skills and attitude. In addition, stellar letters seek to distinguish a candidate from the pool. Phrases like “the strongest intern I’ve supervised in 10 years of professional practice” and “one of the top 10 staff members with whom I worked” distinguish your candidate.

Include contact information. At the end of the letter, include email and phone information in case the hiring committee needs additional information. End with a restatement of your endorsement of the candidate. A strong way to close would be “I highly recommend Mark for admission to your program. I have no doubt that he will be an outstanding lawyer, and I look forward to her contributions in our profession.”

For general letters of recommendation or letters for an applicant’s file, give the candidate one copy of the letter and one copy of the letter in a signed, sealed envelope. Many grant/fellowship/graduate school applications require this kind of letter.

Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.

Maureen Crawford Hentz Regular QuintZine contributor Maureen Crawford Hentz is manager of talent acquisition, development and compliance for OSRAM SYLVANIA Inc., a Siemens company. She is a nationally recognized expert on social networking and new media recruiting. With more than15 years of experience in the recruiting, consulting and employment areas, her interests include college student recruiting, disabilities in the workplace, business etiquette, and GLBT issues. Crawford Hentz has been quoted by The New York Times, NewsDay, The Boston Globe, and National Public Radio, among others. In addition to her work for QuintZine, she is a contributor to the HR blog. She conducts workshops, keynotes and conference sessions nationally. Crawford Hentz holds a master of arts degree in college student personnel from Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, OH, and a bachelor of arts degree in international studies from The American University, Washington, DC. She lives outside Boston, MA.

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