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Recommendation Letters

If you want to request a recommendation letter or have been asked to write one you should consider these questions:

A letter of recommendation has relevant information that is truthful and positive and provides a straightforward opinion of a person’s abilities and potential. It can describe personal characteristics, performance and experience, strengths, knowledge and capabilities.

According to “Instant Recommendation Letter Kit – How to write Winning Letters of Recommendation”, there are different kinds of letters that serve different purposes:

  • Letter of Recommendation – college/university related (scholarship)
  • Recommendation Letter – job related
  • Reference letter – job and community related
  • Commendation letter – employment and community related
  • Performance evaluation letters – employment related
  • Character reference – employment related but focuses on personal qualities instead of professional competencies.

A letter of this nature can help an employer, scholarship committee, or post-secondary program selection board make decisions about an applicant.

Recommendation letters are usually used when applying for an academic award (scholarships), or a post-secondary program. But, if you are job hunting, a recommendation letter from a past or current employer is great to have in your portfolio. Recommendation letters are concrete proof of your accomplishments and abilities.

There are two ways to present a recommendation letter to a prospective employer:

  • One way is to write the following at the bottom of your resume: “Recommendation Letter and References are Available Upon Request”. Then take your recommendation letter and reference sheet to your interviews, and have it ready if the employer asks for them.
  • The second way to submit a recommendation letter is to send it with your resume during initial mailing. Send no more than two recommendation letters. Don't overwhelm a potential employer with a lot to read. *Remember * send copies not the original.
In some cases a recommendation letter is a convenient substitute for work references that neatly sum up a past or current employer’s opinion of you and can allow prospective employers to avoid the sometimes awkward and vague conversations that can happen while checking with your reference over the phone about you and your capabilities. They are also helpful if your prospective employer is having trouble reaching your references.

If you are new to the world of work and don’t have very many contacts, a character or a personal reference letter from people who know your skills and attributes can also be used. If you have little or no work experience, a teacher that you have worked closely with is a good prospect to write a recommendation.

Letters can be written by people you know through employment settings:

  • Executive Director
  • Vice President
  • Supervisors
  • Co-workers
  • Customers
  • Subordinates

Letters can be written by people you know through academic settings:

  • Professors
  • Teachers
  • Principals
  • Counsellors
  • Coaches

Letters can be written by any other professionals who know you:

  • Doctors
  • Lawyers
  • Ministers
  • Community Leaders
  • Etc.

Letters can also be written by:

  • Neighbours
  • Relatives
  • Friends

If you need a letter of reference think carefully about who you will ask. Asking the appropriate person will ensure the most relevant information is covered. Once you know who you will ask, plan out your timing and approach. Don’t just leave a voice mail or send an email. It is to your advantage to ask the person face-to-face. Not only does this allow you to clarify any doubts about the request, it automatically conveys to the recommendation writer just how important the letter is to you.

Explain what type of letter you would like and why. Then make sure you find out if they feel they know you and your abilities well enough to write you a good recommendation. That way they have an easy out if they are not comfortable writing a letter and you can be assured that those who say “yes” will be enthusiastic about your performance and will write a positive letter.

Give your letter writers a minimum of two weeks, and preferably a month or more, to write letters. Don’t forget they have other responsibilities and deadlines, and you don’t want them to do a shoddy rush job or to resent your request.

Always remember this person is doing you a favour. If they say no, thank them for their time and tell them you understand. If you feel comfortable you may want to ask them why they declined and if they can provide honest and candid feedback.

If you change employment, make a point of asking for a reference letter from your supervisor. It will save time compiling references later on. As time passes and people move on, it’s easy to lose track of previous employers, so with letters in hand, in advance, you’ll have written documentation of your credentials to give to prospective employers. The best time to ask for a letter of recommendation from an employer is a couple of days after you have given notice and before you leave.

If you have been laid off but left the company on good terms, a letter of recommendation will provide prospective employers with a credible, thorough account of why you had to leave the company, for instance, if the layoff was part of a general downsizing.

It is a good idea to meet and discuss the reasons for the letter of recommendation and cover any questions. At that time the following should provide:

  • Description of the job, scholarship, or post-secondary program for which the letter is being request.
  • Any necessary forms to fill out
  • Deadline instructions
  • A Current resume and a list of any relevant skills, experiences, abilities, strengths, qualities and qualifications that may help the letter writer.
  • Information on any projects, accomplishments or organizations the candidate belongs to that may not be included in their resume.
  • Candidates goals and why they will succeed.
  • All necessary addresses and names
  • Stamped envelopes if needed

Before you start writing keep these things in mind:

  • Present the person truthfully but positively. An unrealistic picture may be discounted and focusing on negative qualities may do more harm than intended.
  • Do not write anything you would not be prepared to defend in public. Be prepared to have someone call you and ask you questions about what you have written.
  • Don’t reference characteristics that can be the basis of discrimination, such as race, colour, nationality, gender, religion, age, appearance, any disability, marital or paternal status, or political point of view.
  • If the letter has been requested for a specific job, scholarship or program, tailor the letter to cover what is important for this situation.
  • Use language that is straightforward and to the point. Avoid using jargon or language that is too general or overenthusiastic.
  • Use letterhead that reflects your relations with the candidate (department stationary, house stationary, etc.).
  • Assemble and review all the information the candidate has provided.
  • The letter does not need to exceed one page in length and should consist of an opening, body and conclusion.
  • Address the letter to the name provided or to a general but appropriate title such as Scholarship Selection Committee, Human Resource manager, Recruiting Manger, etc.
  • Begin the letter by describing how you know the candidate and the specific contexts upon which you are basing your evaluation. Include the type of experience, length, and time period during which you got to know the candidate. Also explain why you are writing the letter.
  • The body of the letter should provide specific information about the applicant based upon the observations of the writer.
  • Concentrate on several different aspects of the applicant. Specifically identify his/her skills, attitudes, personal attributes and growth, as well as his/her contributions and performance.
  • It is extremely important to include concrete examples where possible rather than generalizations. It is one thing to state that someone had some good ideas and another to say, “John consistently used his creativity in designing eye-catching promotional materials which translate into higher numbers of residents attending his programs.”
  • Also, if you do make negative comments, back them up with evidence of the ways in which the candidate is dealing with the problem.
  • The closing of the letter should briefly summarize previous positive points and clearly state that you recommend the candidate for employment, school, scholarship, etc. Finally include your contact information in case they want to contact you directly.
Just incase you are experiencing writers block this link will take you to some Example Letters

The letter is not just a reflection of the candidate. It is also a reflection of you. Typed letters are best. Make sure when you are finished it is presented neatly and has no coffee mug rings on it. Don’t forget to watch for grammatical and spelling errors.

It is a good idea to keep track of when you send a letter and to keep a copy of the letter on a disk or on your computer for future reference. If you get a call and then can’t remember what you wrote it may reflect poorly on your credibility. Besides, it is a good template for the next time you write a letter.

Agree to write the letter only if you know the person and their work/skills and can honestly write a supportive letter. If you are not familiar enough with their work and skills or cannot portray the individual positively, decline to write the letter. It’s actually in the candidate’s best interest for you to politely decline writing a letter if you can’t provide more that a wishy-washy endorsement or even worse and irrelevant one.

You may also decline if you do not have time to put in the effort to create the letter they deserve by the deadline it is required. Ask upfront if the candidate can be flexible on the timeframe.

If you are refusing because you do not have enough information maybe setting up a meeting will be all you need in order to write the letter

If you do decline be honest about your reasons. Honesty may provide the opportunity for growth and can, if done with grace and tact, be quite productive for the candidate in the long run.

Do not promise you will write a letter with no intention of doing so. This will only hurt both you and the individual in question.

After the process is over take the time to contact the person who wrote a letter for you, either by phone or thank you card, to let them know how things turned out. Not only is taking such trouble simple courtesy, but it will let your writers know whether their effort helped you succeed.

Try to keep close contact with the letter writer as you may need their help again down the road. The letter writer can also be a great networking tool to track down job leads.

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