At the end of last year, one of my former interns asked me to write her a letter of recommendation. I was so excited and thrilled that she thought of me (I know, weird, right?). But to me, it meant that she trusted me to write something engaging, and thought that I would be able to help her get the job/internship of her dreams. Who wouldn’t be flattered by that?
[Related: How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation]
After the excitement wore off, I realized I had never *actually* written a letter of recommendation before, and I had no idea where to begin. I didn’t want it to be stuffy or formal or any of the things that all these websites were telling me to do. I wanted it to have personality, yet still show off what a great candidate she would be for any of the opportunities she was considering. So, I turned to a few career experts for their best tips on writing a winning recommendation letter.
1. Don’t start with “To Whom You May Concern.”
Someone will be reading your letter, so find out who that person is, and then Google them, says Becky Blanton, author of The Homeless Entrepreneur. “Structure your letter around the reader’s role, power, and position,” she adds. “You write differently to HR than you do to a CEO, for instance.”
2. Use the CAR format.
CAR stands for Challenge-Action-Results, and getting yourself in this mindset can help you write something authentic about your mentee. “This approach eliminates the generic, one-size-fits-all feel and truly personalizes the recommendation by highlighting a specific accomplishment or achievement,” says Cachet Prescott, a career and life coach who specializes in life transitions. So as you’re writing, think: What was the challenge, what actions did she take to address the challenge, and what were the results of her efforts?
3. Include facts, avoid claims.
Jackie Kellso, president of PointMaker Communications, says that this is the best way for you to build credibility. She breaks it down:
Wrong: Jane Doe did an awesome job as our editorial intern. Everyone loved her. This is why I’m recommending her for the position.
Right: Jane Doe’s positive attitude and willingness to learn made a huge contribution to our editorial team. She took it upon herself to launch a new franchise that promoted one of the team’s new products, which ultimately led to reaching our goals. She was a valued member of the team.
See the difference?
4. Quote a client.
Strength in voices will add even more personalization, says Lauren Milligan, a career advancement coach at ResuMAYDAY, who uses the strategy herself. “I go into [the former employee’s] file to see if there are any notes from happy clients,” she says. “When there are, I always try to use a direct client quote for added validation.”
5. Tell a story.
“Employers don’t care about a person’s work ethic unless they understand how the person works hard,” says Danny Rubin, communications expert and author of Wait, How Do I Write This Email? “A short story about success on the job will impress them more than anything else.” So, don’t just say the person is motivated, driven, and hardworking. Show that by describing a time when they maintained a great attitude throughout a tight deadline, or organized the supply closet without being asked.
Photo: David Lees / Getty Images