Writing Letters of Recommendation That Are Effective and Personal.

Tips on writing effective letters of recommendation for your employees, students, and other applicants.

Writing a good letter of recommendation can go along way toward helping someone to get a better job, attend a great school, apply for financial assistance, and other unique opportunities. It's important to practice your letters of recommendation, just as any other forms of writing require practice.

The main "trick" to writing a good recommendation is to do your best to avoid "cookie cutter" stock letters, with simple name changes. It should be personalized and unique to the individual. This can be difficult at times, but there are some tips that can help with the process.

First, don't be afraid to lend some support to back up your statements. If you think it will help, put a paragraph in there describing who you are and why you're credible, especially if your position somehow relates to what the letter is being recommended for. If you're a teacher, discuss your years of teaching experience, your degrees and special projects, the number of total students you've taught, etc. If you're a human resources executive, discuss how many people you've helped find positions, your years of experience, and such. Ultimately, this won't help the person you are writing for, but it might convince the reader to go ahead and read the rest of the letter. The key is to try to build trust and credibility with your reader, so the more the reader can relate to you, the better.

It's important to remember that a letter of recommendation isn't just about the person you are recommending. If you're writing a letter of recommendation, you hopefully know the person pretty well, but you don't really know that person enough to educate others about them - you're not their autobiographer.

Discuss what you know. You should not be writing about that person, so much as you should be writing about the professional relationship you have with that person. You know about your interactions with them, the work you've done with them, the conversations you've had, the observations you've made. Write from your own perspective, discussing your opinions, your observations.

Always be specific. It's tempting to fill a letter of recommendation with buzz words and catch-phrase and general compliments, saying things like "he's terrific with customers" or "she's bright and cheerful". These are where it helps to not think about the person in general terms, but focus on your relationship. How do you know she is bright and cheerful? What has she done to show this to you? Be specific.

As briefly as possible, try to tell a story or two with your letter. There's a phrase in writing, "show, don't tell". If you want to say, "he's terrific with customers" give an example that lets the readers come to this conclusion themselves based on the story your writing about your relationship with the person. The reader doesn't know you and has no reason to believe in your conclusions about the person's character, so your goal is to help the reader draw their own conclusions from your examples.

Try to focus on examples and stories that will be relevant to the reader. Take a moment and picture yourself in the reader's perspectives. What kind of employee or student do you want? Who do you want to give the grant money or the exciting vacation to? Why am I reading this letter and what do I hope to gain from it? Answer each question in turn before writing the article, and try to narrow down one or two qualities or traits that would help answer these questions. After that it's about telling the story.

This requires an exercise in brevity. When I say "tell a story", we're talking about taking a narrative snapshot of a single instance in a day, that somehow portrays an important characteristic about that person. This should take only one or two paragraphs. Don't tell a story that takes awhile to setup or to explain. Remember what I said earlier, this will take practice like any other form of writing -- don't put it off.

You'll find that if you practice this "show, don't tell" style of writing letters of recommendation, these letters will be unique and personal, emotionally charged, effective, and easier to write.

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Glenda Fabillar
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Posted on May 2, 2012