There are reference letters -- and there are good, strong reference letters. The two are not the same thing. The reader is going to know the value of the letter about you -- therefore, so should you. A weak letter of reference has the potential to do the opposite of what you need it to do -- it may tell the reader that whoever wrote it doesn’t recommend you after all.
A reference letter should be addressed to the person who will be reading it -- just like any other business communication -- when possible. So it should read something like, "Dear Mrs. Jones" and not "To Whom It May Concern." Following salutations, the letter should begin with some brief information about the letter writer to establish credibility. The letter should explain the connection between the letter writer and the person being recommended. It should include the capacity and duration of the connection, and explain why the letter writer is qualified to give a recommendation.
Confirm Any Facts
A reference letter can and should confirm any facts or information that will be included elsewhere, with the letter. For example, it should confirm employment, job title and dates. It should also support any background information about the person, such as key qualities or accomplishments. A reference letter is much more effective when the letter writer knows what exactly the reader will need to know. Projects, skills, tasks, strengths and characteristics should match up, between the personal statement and reference letter.
It's Judgment Time
The letter should include the writer's judgment. It might say that he would gladly re-employ you, or that you will be missed. Clear and concise examples of successes or strengths are helpful to the reader. For example, the letter should include information about relevant superlatives such as being intelligent, good natured, self-directed and tenacious. Praise that is believable and supported with examples will carry quite a bit of weight and is what will set this letter apart.
When Saying Less Is More
When a reference letter is a result of formality and nothing more, the content may be limited. A reference letter should be honest. An employer may think it is unethical to write a reference letter that says anything better than what she actually thinks. Or a letter writer may not know the person well enough, therefore having little to say. In such cases, it is best to say less and keep it positive. In some cases, it can be a greater favor to decline the request rather than write a weak letter of reference.
- Naylor: How to Write a Great Letter of Reference
- Penn State: A Faculty Handbook – Chapter 4: Style for Recommendation Letters
- University of California, San Diego: A Student Guide to Obtaining Letters of Recommendation
- Minnesota State University, Mankato: How to Write a Nomination or Reference Letter
- Family Force: Reference Letter Structure/Template
- Daily Writing Tips: Writing a Reference Letter (With Examples)
- Live Career: Gathering Strong References and Recommendation Letters
- Natalia Lukina: Collection of Useful Phrases
- CollegePond: Phrases That Can Be Used in Recommendation Letters
- Creatas Images/Creatas/Getty Images