Wondering whether the reference letter you’ve been asked to write is going to help that person you know, respect, and wish the best for? Good, they put their trust in you, and it makes sense you want to do right by them.
Anybody can write a ho-hum letter that a hiring manager will glance at and never think about again. In fact, we know that most people do.
But you want your letter to stand out and do what you intend: get someone hired. That’s what we’ve written this guide for.
We’re going to lay out a few simple rules you can follow to avoid the common mistakes that make for a humdrum reference letter and instead write one that has great impact.
A recommendation letter is usually one of the very last parts in a job search. Congrats if that’s where you are, you’re on your way to reaching your career goals!
But if you’re looking ahead and want help with some of the crucial earlier steps toward career success, check out our career counseling service.
We’ve helped thousands of people along the way succeed in their job search, prep for interviews, negotiate the details of their contracts, and otherwise hit their career targets. Get in touch with us If you want to do a deep dive on informational interviews, or if you're curious about other ways to better navigate your career path.
Recommendation letter template
Recommendation letter sample
There you go, a template and a sample you can use to write your own reference letter! Just copy and paste it into your word processor and make the changes you need to suit the candidate it’s for.
If you plan to copy and paste one of our examples, remember these formatting tips, too:
- Use standard margins (between 1 - 1 ½”)
- Single spacing for the paragraphs with an extra space between them and each of the address sections
- Use a clear and readable font, like Arial or Cambria, at 11-12 point
- Combine these so it doesn’t look cramped and so everything fits on 1 page
What is a recommendation letter
A recommendation letter (aka a ‘reference letter’ or a ‘letter of reference’) is a letter written by a person of standing or authority (the referee) in support of a candidate’s qualification and suitability for a specific job. It should go without saying, but it’s pretty important: the referee should know the candidate personally and have a high opinion of them.
It’s also expected that the referee should have some respectability and clout. They’re usually in a position of seniority, like at the level of a team lead, manager, or professor, depending on when and where the candidate worked with or for them.
And lastly, the author of the reference letter should read the job ad so they can describe how the candidate’s work or academic experience, skills, and performance are relevant and make them a great fit for that job.
And that’s the upshot: a reference letter is a written personal reference in support of someone for a job.
How to write a recommendation letter
A great reference letter will use the format we showed you at the top of the article. There are four basic elements and they should be presented in order for best effect:
- Open with a show stopping Intro
- Establish your relationship with the candidate
- Include job-specific supporting details
- Close with a call to action
Step 1. The intro
The intro is super important. It will literally make or break the reference letter.
A hiring manager gets a pile of reference letters for every round of hiring, and if you don’t grab their attention in the first couple of sentences they’ll set it aside and forget about it. You need to be the person who stops them in their tracks.
Most reference letters start out in similar ways. The most complimentary way to describe them is: unengaging.
They might say something like:
This won’t lose anyone the job, but compared to what we suggested in our sample, it’s not turning any heads, either. Judge for yourself.
See the difference? If you had someone writing a reference letter for you, which would you rather?
Don’t limit yourself to just that option, though. What you mention in the intro for a letter of reference can be anything attention-grabbing, including:
- Phrase the opening in a novel or unexpected that will make them want to know more
- Say something amazing about the candidate's qualities
- Include an impressive fact about the applicant
- Describe accolades or awards the candidate won
Step 2. Your relationship
Here’s where a good reference letter establishes not just what the relationship was, but how it went. And FYI, it should have gone well!
A typical reference letter will say something like:
We think you should amp things up a bit, though. Tell the hiring recruiter in the most emphatic and engaged way, while still being honest, how you worked together but ALSO how well it went.
Here’s what we mean, again from our sample above:
If you’re writing a reference letter, the assumption is it went well. So let them know it did in an honest and human way, not just using cold, professional, business-talk.
Step 3. Job-specific support
This is where it’s going to be key that you read the job ad you’re writing in support of. You want to target one or more parts of that job and show how they’d be great at it.
It’s the kiss of death in a reference letter when the author gives some generic words of praise. It’s like manager-code for “Meh, he was alright, not my problem anymore…”
Look at what a regular recommendation would say:
This is all well and good. But it’s literally the basics that anyone in the role is expected to do, which is not going to make your candidate stand out.
Compare that to how we suggest you describe their qualifications:
If you were reading about these two candidates, which one of them shines brighter to you than the other. It’s a no-brainer.
The little bit of extra effort to remember a few accomplishments and how they apply to the new role will make a huge difference. You can even ask the candidate themselves to supply a few choice tidbits to make remembering easier.
Step 4. A call to action
Signing off in a recommendation letter is the last chance you have to leave an impression on the hiring manager. Use the opportunity to the fullest to accomplish what you’ve set out to do.
A typical reference letter would close with a simple and standard valediction. Something like:
Again, there’s nothing going on in that example that’s bad. But, there’s nothing great there either.
Make the most of these last few words to impress on the Hiring Manager that you believe in the person you’re writing about, that they’re worth your time, and that they’re worth theirs too.
A call to action can make this difference by showing that you’re ready to spend more time on this, and it sets the stage for the next step. See for yourself:
In this case, it’s clear that you’re behind the candidate 100% and that they’re really noteworthy among all the other applicants. Why else would you be willing to take the time out of your day for their benefit?
Following these 4 simple steps will make sure that the next reference letter you write for someone will have all the hallmarks needed to be sure they get that job.
But, in case you’re reading this because you’re in the job search stage and started thinking about how to ask for a reference letter when the time comes, we can help with that too. If so, this is also a great time to make sure you know what to put on your resume and what a great cover letter looks like.
Writing a LinkedIn reference
At the bottom of everyone’s profile on LinkedIn, there’s a spot where people can write brief endorsements, like little reference letters. They’re kind of like online reviews, but instead of letting everyone know how that restaurant kept you waiting so long for appetizers, you say good things about a person you worked with!
These references aren’t nearly as important as writing a good resume or a strong cover letter, but recruiters and hiring managers will often peruse them when they're considering a person for a job. They can offer just that little bit of personal insight and support that makes the difference between candidates.
When you decide, or someone asks you to write one of these, LinkedIn will prompt you to write about:
- Your relationship. As in, whether you were their manager, coworker, or another one of the options they offer in the drop-down.
- The person’s position when you worked together.
- Your recommendation. This is the brief note (no more than 3,000 characters—but less in more here) about the person’s work habits, qualifications, general awesomeness.
That last one, the recommendation, is really the key part. But that blank dialogue box can be intimidating.
Keep the following 5 points in mind, though, and you’ll write a knock-out reference that’ll impress whoever reads it.
Start with a great hook
Use the first line to hook the audience and get them wanting to know more.
Describe your relationship
Give the reader some context on how you know the person, and how that went - provided it went well. There’s no need to stick to cold, clinical descriptions here, be honest and human, just like we suggest for reference letters.
Let them shine
Since you’re recommending them, you probably think well of them. Take a couple of sentences to share a standout trait of theirs that everyone would appreciate.
Include a personal touch
We say it a lot here at Enhancv, employers don’t hire skills, they hire people. That is, most people want to work with someone they enjoy AND who gets the job done, so say something that lets everyone know the person is great to work with, not just great at their job.
Close with a crystal clear recommendation
Don’t underestimate the impact of a clear, unambiguous recommendation. Sign off with a final line that makes it clear that you give your unequivocal support to the person.
- A recommendation letter is the same thing as a’ reference letter’ or a ‘letter of reference/recommendation’
- It’s a 1-page letter outlining why you think a candidate would be a great fit for a job
- A great opening line is key to grabbing the hiring manager’s attention
- Let the person you’re writing for really standout - use positive, human language, not clinical business-talk
- Share specific examples of how what they did for you proves they can do the job they’re applying to
- Always close with a call to action that shows the candidate is worth your time
We’ve helped 1000+ people just like you find success in the hiring process through our career counseling service. Whether you need help on the job search stage, prepping for interviews, or while you’re trying to negotiate the details of the job or compensation, we’ve got experts that are ready to give you advice and help you strategize your next move.