How to write a better letter of recommendation


When you agree to write someone a letter of recommendation, you’re personally vouching for their skills, past performance and future potential. But most letters are written quickly, sometimes with valuable content, but rarely with the reader in mind.

The best letters of recommendation aren’t written for the individual being featured. They’re written for the person reading the letter, such as a potential employer.

With that in mind, here are six recommendations for making your next letter of recommendation more valuable for both the featured individual and the eventual reader.

Write for scanners
We’re all too busy, and we scan content as often as possible. With letters of recommendation, we’re trying to find signals between the superfluous content that gives us authentic clues about the individual in question. Make your letter easier for scanners to translate and understand. Avoid long paragraphs. Keep the whole thing as short as possible. Bold or otherwise highlight the main points, key phrases or statistics (more on numbers below). If the reader only had five seconds to scan the letter (on paper or on their screen), what do you want them to focus on?

Use Bullets
Highlight your most important points with short bullets. They eye will gravitate there, and it’s the fastest & easiest way to write for those scanners. I like to include one short bullet section on personal/professional attributes, and another for relevant statistics.

Include Numbers
I can’t tell you how many letters of recommendations I’ve seen for sales executives that lack a single number.  Even if you don’t have or know the right numbers to include, ask the featured individual to quantify some of the instances or examples you are already using to vouch for them.  A shortcut is to pull numbers from their resume or LinkedIn profile, particularly relevant to a time when you worked together.

Address intangibles
One of the hardest things to glean from resumes, profiles and interviews are the “intangible” attributes an individual displays on a regular Tuesday, when the you-know-what hits the fan. What kind of an employee, colleague or leader will the individual really be? Vouch for their performance and results, but also vouch for their humanity, personality, ability to collaborate and work under pressure, and more.

Include your contact info for credibility
It’s a simple thing, but it makes a difference. If you explicitly invite the reader to contact you directly if they have any further questions, you’re implying that not only is everything you said true, but you’re confident you can validate and back it all up on the fly in any kind of follow-up. Few people will actually contact you, but those that do are generally serious about the individual in question. And if you took the time to write the letter to help them land something, isn’t it worth the 3-5 minutes on the phone w/ someone to help a little further?

Offer to put, highlight and link the letter on their LinkedIn profile
When you deliver the final letter, offer to post (or update) a recommendation on their LinkedIn profile including either highlights from the letter, or an introduction to the letter with a link to the full version somewhere (could simply be a link to the Word doc on a Box account). Not only will the individual appreciate this, but it helps extend the value of your letter to more than just direct recipients.

What are some features or best practices of good letters you’ve written or received to add to this list?