23rd July 2020
How to Structure a Reference Letter or Letter of Recommendation
When someone is applying for a new job, they may have to provide a reference letter or letter of recommendation. And if they’ve asked you for a reference, you may have to write one!
But how do you structure a reference letter? Key factors include:
- Greeting – Reference letters should use the correct formal salutation.
- First Paragraph – Make sure to provide all the key details about why you’re writing in the first few sentences.
- Body of the Letter – The main part of a letter of reference should outline the why the candidate is suitable for the role in two or three paragraphs.
- Contact Details and Sign Off – To finish your letter, make sure to provide your contact details and use a suitable valediction.
We’ll look at each of these in more detail below. And after that, we’ll provide an example letter of reference to show you how it works in practice.
1. The Greeting
Unless you know the recipient well, reference letters should start with a formal salutation. Ideally, this means addressing your letter directly to the recipient, using “Dear Mr./Mrs./Ms. Surname.”
The person who has asked you to write their reference should tell you which name to use here. If they don’t, we strongly suggest asking them to check!
If you’re really stuck for a name, or if you’re writing a generic reference to be used with more than one application, use the salutation “To Whom It May Concern.” You can even omit the greeting and skip straight to the first paragraph proper, if required, but this could sound a little impolite to some.
2. The First Paragraph
The opening paragraph is where you set out the following:
- That you are writing to provide a reference for someone.
- Who you are and your professional role.
- How you know the candidate and for how long (e.g., if you are a former employer, a college professor, or even just a friend).
- The position they are applying for.
The idea is to let the reader know what the letter is about as soon as they start reading. Hiring professionals are often very busy, after all, so it pays to give them the most important details as soon as possible.
3. The Body of the Letter
The main part of a letter of reference should explain why the candidate is suitable for the role. In other words, this is where you sell the candidate!
You need to do this in two or three paragraphs, though, so be concise! Focus on information relevant to the candidate’s application, such as:
- The attributes that make the candidate a good fit for the role (e.g., if it is a management position, give an example of their leadership skills).
- Notable achievements or qualifications (e.g., awards relevant to the position or examples of how they have contributed to a past workplace).
This section should always finish by endorsing the candidate, saying why you think they will be successful or what they will bring to the role.
To help write this, gather information about candidate and the role. Hopefully, the candidate will have provided these details. If not, ask them for the job description and a copy of their resume.
4. Contact Details and Sign Off
In the final paragraph, add your contact details (e.g., email and phone number) in case the recipient wants more information about the candidate.
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And to finish your letter of recommendation, sign off with a suitable valediction. “Kind regards” and “Sincerely” are usually good choices, but there is room for variation if you know the recipient. For a physical letter, you may want to include your signature as well as your typed name.
Example Reference Letter
Dear Mrs. Parry,
I am writing to thoroughly recommend Sarah Smith for the position of staff nurse at Royal Hospital. As the ward manager at the critical care unit at St. Gwen’s Hospital, I have had the pleasure of working alongside Sarah in her capacity as a healthcare assistant for three years while she completed her nursing degree.
I am confident Sarah will make a fantastic staff nurse. She has consistently demonstrated shrewd clinical judgement combined with a compassionate bedside manner when caring for patients.
Engaging and energetic, she has been an asset to our team and she is well-respected by both staff and patients. I have no doubt that she will bring these qualities to her first position as a qualified nurse.
Please contact me on 202-555-0114 or email@example.com if you wish to discuss Sarah’s suitability for this position further.
Ward Manager, St. Gwen’s Hospital
Reference Letter Proofreading
Errors and typos look unprofessional, so don’t forget to proofread your reference letter before posting or clicking send. And if you’d like any help ensuring your letter is perfect, our editors and proofreaders are available 24/7 to ensure your writing is always error free.
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