Get the information you need
Before you start writing, get a good handle on the information you need to generate a finished product. Is the reference letter for a specific position or academic program? If so, ask for a link and spend a few minutes getting a feel for what the job description or program is looking for in their candidates.
Do you have the name and address of the organization and a direct contact for the salutation? Will it be sent via email to the candidate or directly to the program or business? Are there any sorts of special delivery requirements (sealed envelope with signature over the seal) or is the candidate just looking for a generic reference letter that can be used for several different positions? Does it need to be on professional letterhead?
Brainstorm key attributes, powerful adjectives & brief anecdotes – 15 min.
This is always my first step in writing a thoughtful, sincere letter that helps me avoid staring at a blank screen. Grab a stack of sticky notes and a black Sharpie, and put a timer on for 10 minutes. Once the clock is ticking, write down all of the different words you can think of that describe your team member – key attributes, powerful adjectives, and any brief anecdotes you can use to support him or her. Try to keep each thought to 4-5 words. Each sticky note should have only one attribute or anecdote, so you can group them later.
Examples – stayed late on inventory night, never forgets birthdays, persistent attitude, clever, excellent communicator, wonderful at presentations, never loses her nerve, client-facing magician, punctual, never been late
Once your ideas are written down, spend 5 minutes grouping them. Each anecdotal description should be paired with an attribute it supports. Don’t worry here if you need to create a few extra stickies you missed on the first go – e.g. “never forgets birthdays” might support a candidate being “thoughtful” or a “team-player,” so don’t hesitate to add in.
Compose the introduction – 10 min.
This section should include why you’re writing, the candidate you’re praising, and why you’re an authority. Stay away from sweeping generalities and overused buzzwords. Recruiters and HR teams get letter after letter claiming that candidates are “the best employee/student,” “the hardest-working,” etc. You’ll have time to weave in stories that illustrate this later.
DO: I’m writing to provide my most enthusiastic recommendation for John Doe, a thoughtful, hardworking content writer that exudes positivity and brilliance daily. Throughout my 10-year career as a digital marketing manager for various Fortune 500 companies, I’ve met incredible writers, graphic designers, and marketers across the globe. John Doe’s creativity stands out from the crowd.
DON’T: John Doe is a wonderful employee that exhibits the best talent at my company. He’s great at writing, incredibly creative, and really thoughtful. I highly recommend him for your company and think he’d be a valuable asset to your team.
Write the body – 45 min.
This paragraph should start with how you know the candidate, then highlight what the candidate’s relevant responsibilities were. Talk briefly about how the candidate handled those responsibilities before segueing into the key attributes and anecdotes you brainstormed. Material that makes the cut for the letter should be based on the position they’re applying for, or the strongest examples that are universally valuable. While punctuality can be asset, it might not be mention-worthy if their other attributes are excellent communication skills and wizard-like task juggling. Also, try to avoid repeating the same attributes in different ways – once is enough.
DO: I first met Jane Smith when she volunteered as an English teacher for my local non-profit. She oversaw a class of 15+ adult students, developing her own curriculum and course materials, organizing after-hours events, and acting as a valuable sounding-board for other volunteer teachers. Jane was soon hired on full-time and became my go-to employee for students that needed an extra-push. She was enthusiastic, reliable, and made each and every one of her students feel comfortable and valued through her relatable nature and palpable kindness. She regularly used her personal time and energy to stay late with students, cover absences for other teachers, and lend her Spanish language expertise to our translations team when needed.
DON’T: Jane was a really helpful employee that was always punctual. She was never late for work and she really had a connection with her students. She started as a volunteer and was eventually hired on full-time. I was proud to have Jane on my team, and she always works well with others. Jane also speaks Spanish fluently.
Draft the conclusion & edit – 20 min.
The conclusion should be a brief 3-4 sentences. It should highlight some of the candidate’s best attributes, reaffirm your recommendation and your enthusiasm to further recommend the candidate. Stay away from empty/weak statements here (hopeful statements, or words like possibly or potentially). Each sentence should be a memorable punch in favor of your candidate.
DO: It is without hesitation I give Tom Jones my highest recommendation. He possesses the drive, tenacity, work-ethic, and wit to succeed in the United States Armed Forces. Please don’t hesitate to contact me at my cell phone number or email should you like to further discuss his unique background and abilities.
DON’T: Tom Jones is an excellent potential candidate for the United States Armed Forces. I’m honored to give my recommendation, and I hope this aids you in your decision. He’s a wonderful human being that will succeed everywhere he goes.
Use your final 10 minutes for editing, and voila! You’ve written a referral letter in 90 minutes!
- Word-choice is everything! Pick authoritative adjectives that have a unique, precise meaning.
- Stay away from absolute statements & superlatives:
best, always, never, everywhere.
- Decide if you’re going to write in the present or the past, and stick to it.
- A strong letter requires illustrations, not just adjectives.
- Spell-check, edit, then edit again! There’s no room for punctuation, grammar, or spelling mistakes.
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