Make it as little work as possible for the person writing the letter. Tell them why you’re asking them, including the experiences and skills you’d like them to highlight – and even offer to write a draft if they’d like. People are busy.
Here's what an outline for a letter of recommendation should look like:
- The Introduction: How you know this person and how strongly I recommend them.
- The Body: Three paragraphs with an introductory sentence specifying a skill or attribute, an example of how you saw that person employ that particular skill or attribute, and a sentence on how it’s relevant.
- The Conclusion: Summarize and restate the recommendation.
If the person has written a recommendation for you before and you’re using that past letter as a template for a new recommendation, use track changes so they can see how you changed it.
It may differ depending on the context, but generally keep it to one page, single-spaced. If someone provides you with a sample letter of recommendation and requests that you write based on that format, actually use it.
Personally, I prefer drafting letters of recommendation for a person I’m requesting it from because often I’ll remember an experience or project that was noteworthy while they won’t. Sometimes, it’s not about the thing you did but your attitude or approach to the thing that’s unique.
My law school career services told me that a professor's letter of recommendation was the best and most complimentary they’d ever read. I’d written the first draft. I let her add superlatives, but the specificity about moments and papers she would’ve been unlikely to remember on her own.
Finally, thank anyone who takes the time to write a letter for you and tell them what happened with your application.
It’s also generally good to keep people updated. I send updates approximately every six months as a way to maintain your relationships and keep people apprised of what’s going on with you at a time when you don’t need anything.
And if you're looking for an example of a letter of recommendation, here are two examples:
Recommendation from a Prior Job or Internship
To Whom It May Concern:
As a [TITLE] in the [OFFICE], I have had the opportunity to work closely with a number of interns. I can recommend [FULL NAME] for any position of employment with confidence and pleasure. I worked with [FULL NAME] during the 2011 summer and enjoyed [HIS/HER] presence in the office on both a personal and professional level.
[STUDENT’S FIRST NAME] is an inquisitive young [WOMAN/MAN] who utilizes every opportunity to learn from both [HER/HIS] superiors and colleagues. I saw this first-hand as [SHE/HE] engaged in conversations with and asked questions of myself, attorneys, law clerks, and the other interns in chambers. [SHE/HE] also took the opportunity to watch trials whenever possible and would discuss the strategies of the lawyers and the nuances of the law with me as well as any one else who could help provide insight. In this way, [SHE/HE] maximized the potential of [HER/HIS] time working with me this summer.
[STUDENT’S FIRST NAME]’s ability to manage and take on a variety of tasks and efficiently complete all assignments despite [HER/HIS] lack of legal expertise made [HER/HIM] a valuable asset to the office. This summer, [SHE/HE] contributed to the research and writing of an article for a law journal, synthesized information to fill in the template for sentencing, and summarized letters from mentally ill prisoners. [SHE/HE] handled these tasks with professionalism and made sure [SHE/HE] fully understood both the content of the particular case as well as the context of the law. [HER/HIS] effort to fully understand [HER/HIS] assignments gives [HER/HIM] a comprehensive understanding of the work that’s happening in the office and allows [HER/HIM] to translate that knowledge and apply it to new projects with minimal instruction.
On a more personal level, [STUDENT’S FIRST NAME] was a joy to have in our office. [HER/HIS] intelligence and self-confidence made [HER/HIM] a strong presence in the office. We had lunch together almost every day and I enjoyed the opportunity to share my experiences with [HER/HIM] and to learn about [HER/HIS] views. [SHE/HE] asserted [HER/HIS] opinions with respect and logical reasoning but remained open to new ideas. [STUDENT’S FIRST NAME] enjoys conversations in a wide variety of areas and is always happy to learn something new, regardless of its perceived relevance.
It is my belief that [STUDENT’S FIRST NAME]’s intellectual curiosity coupled with [HER/HIS] ability to multi-task and self-confidence will allow [HER/HIM] to thrive in any setting. I would strongly endorse [STUDENT’S FIRST NAME]’s candidacy for any position for which [SHE/HE] feels qualified.
[TITLE] [RECOMMENDER NAME]
Recommendation from a Professor
Dear Sir or Madam:
As a Professor of [INSERT NAME] School of Law, I can highly recommend [STUDENT’S FULL NAME] for employment with confidence and pleasure. I have taught [STUDENT’S FIRST NAME] in three classes and have enjoyed getting to know [HER/HIM] on both a personal and professional level.
It has been a pleasure to watch [MS./MR.] [STUDENT’S LAST NAME] develop both in [HER/HIS] substantive understanding of criminal law as well as the tough normative questions that it poses. I have seen [HER/HIM] draw from [HER/HIS] experience as a paralegal in the [OFFICE NAME] office to explain policies regarding charging decisions in our first-year criminal law class as well as watched [HER/HIM] thoughtfully consider the perspectives of defense-oriented students in [NAME OF CLASS]. I appreciate [HER/HIS] ability to consider different perspectives and incorporate them into [HER/HIS] opinions and beliefs.
[STUDENT’S FIRST NAME]’s ability to apply various perspectives to a normative policy gives me confidence in [HER/HIS] ability to succeed in a policy-oriented role in the [POSITION APPLYING FOR]. The final paper that [SHE/HE] wrote for [CLASS NAME] on responsible decision-making in plea-bargaining for prosecutors took the ethical considerations we discussed in class and turned them into a framework that can be used to instruct prosecutors. [STUDENT’S FIRST NAME]’s ability to turn abstract ideas into a policy framework is notable and [HER/HIS] willingness to undertake such a challenge is commendable.
Furthermore, through this paper and others [SHE/HE] has discussed with me, [STUDENT’S FIRST NAME] has made it clear that [SHE/HE] is focused on using [HER/HIS] talents to advance public discourse. I discussed [STUDENT’S FIRST NAME]’s decision not to join a journal with [HER/HIM] because [SHE/HE] was more interested in creating original work. [SHE/HE] has fulfilled this goal and was able to get the paper previously mentioned accepted for publication. [SHE/HE] is currently in South Africa conducting research for a comparative paper on prosecutions of police violence, which [SHE/HE] is also hoping to publish. [SHE/HE] received funding for that international research through the law school, although no program to fund such research currently exists, and [SHE/HE] was told that it was not possible for [HER/HIM] to receive funding several times. I believe that [HER/HIS] initiative, resourcefulness, and perseverance in pursuing [HER/HIS] goals would make [HER/HIM] an asset to any employer.
Finally, I have also seen that [STUDENT’S FIRST NAME] is an intelligent and determined budding lawyer. [SHE/HE] was struggling with health issues when [SHE/HE] was taking my [NAME OF CLASS] class, but I saw [HER/HIS] unwavering commitment to learn the material and succeed in that class. Despite the absences that were out of [HER/HIS] control, [SHE/HE] worked hard to learn the material and did well on the final exam. I believe that [HER/HIS] ability to learn complicated concepts and refusal to make excuses for challenges in front of [HER/HIM] will make [HER/HIM] formidable as an attorney.
It is my belief that Ms. [STUDENT’S LAST NAME]’s thoughtfulness and intelligence coupled with [HER/HIS] initiative and perseverance will make [HER/HIM] an asset to your office. I would strongly endorse [STUDENT’S FIRST NAME]’s candidacy for any position for which [SHE/HE] feels qualified.
Good luck out there!
Editor's note: This post originally appeared as a series of tweets. Student Lawyer was given permission to de-thread them and post them along with the sample letters.