Carroll College, Helena Montana

Writing Tips

Suggestions for Reference Letter Writers

In today's competitive job market, applicants are being forced to use every available tool to be successful. Writing a letter of recommendation is not a simple task and must be taken seriously because it could mean the difference between a candidate being hired or rejected. The job hunter has little control over letters of recommendation, so I offer the following suggestions on being an effective evaluator.

  1. Include affiliation/relationship to person. Were you a supervisor? Owner of the company? Advisor? Professor? It is important to indicate this because a professor may see academic skills while a supervisor may be able to identify work habits.
  2. Give honest and factual information. When approached to write a recommendation, ask yourself if you honestly know the person's qualities. If you have not had much contact you may not be able to give an accurate description. It would be better to decline to write a recommendation than to write a vague or irrelevant one.
  3. Ask for a list of accomplishments and other relevant information from the candidate. It might surprise you to see how that person has done outside your sphere of contact. A resume or a list of what s/he hopes you will address in your recommendation is helpful information to have close at hand.
  4. Concentrate on several aspects in your recommendation. Specifically identify his/her skills, attitudes, personal attributes and growth, as well as contributions to, and performance, while part of your organization. It is always advisable to include examples, where possible. It is one thing to state that someone had good ideas and another to say, "John integrated reading and writing into a language experience program with an emphasis on comprehension."
  5. Be objective. If you find it necessary to make negative comments, back them up with factual examples. It might be appropriate to say, "Martin was late seven times in the last month and called in sick on three Mondays." It would be inappropriate and presumptuous to suggest a subjective reason, like "Martin obviously does not care about his job and cannot be depended upon." While the second suggestion may be true, only the first sentence can be defended.
  6. Please type/word process your recommendations neatly and proof read for errors. The appearance of a letter is a reflection of the writer as well as the candidate. It can also determine whether or not it will be read.
  7. Add commentary to recommendation forms. Some forms ask you to rate the candidates on a scale or graph on a given form. Written comment should elaborate on the form, and not seem inconsistent to the reader.
  8. Address intangibles. The AAEE ANNUAL (American Association for Employment in Education) listed the following intangibles as important when evaluating teacher candidates:
    • Empathy
    • Native Intelligence
    • Divergent, abstract thinking style
    • High level of commitment
    • Ability to be a self starter
    • High energy level
    • Recognition that excellence is a journey, not a destination, and
    • Potential ability to lead.
  9. Don't reference characteristics which could be discriminatory. Because on can be hired only on his/her BFOQ''s (Bona Fide Occupational Qualifications), it is not advised to refer to race, color, ethnicity, nationality, gender, religion, age, appearance, disability, marital or parental status, or political point of view!
  10. Be aware of the use of "power words." Avoid bland words like: nice, reasonable, decent, fairly, satisfactory, etc. Use appropriate power words like: articulate, effective, intelligent, observant, significant, expressive, creative, efficient, cooperative, imaginative, assertive, dependable, mature and innovative.