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Applying to something new can be scary. Strangers review your work experience on a resume, read a cover letter or essays, and most feared, they may even ask for a letter of recommendation. Not only do you have to pour time and energy into filling out an application, but now you must ask someone else to speak on your behalf and flaunt your merits? For some jobs, a letter of recommendation makes the difference between a good candidate and a great candidate. When someone approaches you with that question, how can you make sure to write them the right letter of recommendation to land the job?

What is a letter of recommendation?

Let’s start with the basics. What makes a letter of recommendation? Commonly called a letter of rec, a letter of recommendation is a “letter written by someone who can recommend an individual’s work or academic performance.” They are requested by admissions officers or hiring managers, and are typically written by professors, employers, or coworkers. This letter is expected to detail qualities displayed by the candidate that make them the most suitable for the position, and give a personal side to the cold, hard admissions process. This is really an applicant’s chance to shine. If you can secure an extremely strong letter of recommendation, highlighting your strengths, commitment to quality, and personal anecdotes that make you come off as a good coworker on a personal level, that has  huge impact on the way your application will be evaluated, and may bump you through to an interview round or even straight to an acceptance. That is why it is of the utmost importance to have good letters of rec.

How can you write a letter of recommendation for someone else?

There are many tips and tricks to use throughout the letter, but the most important thing to keep in mind is to be honest. If your letter is disingenuous, it will be apparent. A strong letter conveys your real emotions and tells a story about why the person about whom you are writing is truly the most suitable candidate for the role. Do not belabor generic points, get specific on your real opinions.

Let’s get into the details. In the opening paragraph, introduce the candidate and your relationship to them. This should not take up more than a few sentences, but give some general context as to why you are uniquely qualified to write them a recommendation. Once you have established a relationship between yourself and the candidate, you can start describing their qualifications. This is also extremely important: do not simply list characteristics. Give numbers, specific examples, and stories to make clear your admiration for (or objective merits of) the recipient.

One last point to include in your letter is a counterpoint. This will give your letter (and candidate) some credibility and give you the chance to tell a great story or demonstrate future prospects. Just like in a persuasive essay, you can lay out points supporting your thesis all day, but the most convincing paragraph is always the counter argument. Here, tell the story of that time your coworker missed a deadline, but do not forget to include the merit side – how they fixed it. If the presentation was late, how did they manage rescheduling and upping the quality in the extra time? How do they work under pressure? Are they the type to reach out for help as soon as they identify a mistake, or to work overtime and fix it themself? The answers to these questions reveal important information to a prospective employer or manager.

There are many resources to be found describing the many do’s and don’ts of writing letters of recommendation. At the end of the day, if you respect and admire the candidate, that will shine through in your writing. Getting the request for a letter of rec is a privilege, and a high honor. It shows mutual respect, and should be taken seriously. Use this opportunity to pay it forward.