If you’ve decided to write a recommendation for someone, you’re awesome. The best kinds of people are the ones that spend their time and energy helping other people advance. I’ve helped thousands of people get into their dream MBA programs or hired into their dream jobs. That means I’ve seen thousands of recommendation letters, and let me tell you, they ain’t all pretty.
But writing great recommendations isn’t rocket science. If you just keep a few principles in mind, you too can be a ninja recommender.
Here is my complete guide. Use it in good health. Your colleagues and the universe will thank you.
TL;DR? Download the awesome recommendation cheat sheet. Go get it here.
The sad story of Joseph (not his or her real name)
As an MBA coach, I didn’t always insist on reviewing my clients’ letters of recommendation, but my experience with Joseph changed all that.
Joseph was a really strong MBA candidate. 750 GMAT, strong GPA, 5 years of impactful engineering and product management experience, interesting hard luck back story. To my eye, he’d be a strong fit for schools consensus ranked 5-10. Booth and Michigan were his top choices. He put together great essays that showed his drive and compassion, prepped for interviews, and solicited letters from his two top choice recommenders.
Despite his strong candidacy. He didn’t get any interview invites in the first round. As we prepped for Round 2 applications, we solicited his direct supervisor’s recommendation, and much to our dismay, the mystery was immediately solved.
Here is essentially what the recommendation looked like, though of course this is not the actual text.
In what capacity have you known the applicant?
I’ve known Joseph for 3 years since he joined my team.
What are the applicant's most outstanding abilities or characteristics?
He’s dedicated to excellence. He always goes beyond the scope of his role to think about the rest of the team.
What is the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the candidate?
Though his communication skill is good, sometimes he asks too many questions instead of validating assumptions. He cares about advancement, so he immediately implemented this feedback.
A recommendation like this – devoid of any real investment or point of view on behalf of the applicant will amount to an immediate disqualification from consideration for any graduate program or job.
The tragedy here is that Joseph’s manager had meant well. He supported Joseph’s candidacy. The problem was he didn’t understand the job he had been asked to do, and he thought that point-blank answering the questions with no color or personal insight was the right way to complete the recommendation.
Joseph’s story has a happy ending. I worked with his recommender to add more color and robust detail to the letter, and Joseph was admitted to a different top 10 school and now has an illustrious career in his dream industry.
But that experience taught me a very valuable lesson: good intentions get zero credit when you are making a recommendation. You have to do that job right if you really want to help the candidate, and your failure to do so may have devastating consequences for them.
This article is designed to go beyond the obvious and help you do the absolute best you can possibly do on your colleague’s behalf if you are given the honor of recommending someone for graduate school, for a promotion, or for a job.
Recommendations will make or break a candidate
Plain and simple.
“If you asked me ‘could I make a decision on an application without essays?’ I would say ‘absolutely’, but ‘could I make a decision without recommendations?’ ‘No way.’ To me the recommendations are more important than the essays.”
– Derrick Bolton, Former Director of Admissions at Stanford GSB
I think this is true for three reasons.
As a candidate, your incentive is to get in. That will lead you to say the right things, or at least the things that you think are the right things. It will also lead you to present yourself in the most favorable light. Even without lying or hyperbole, your perspective needs a sanity check. You aren’t the final authority on how awesome you are. The gatekeepers need a second opinion. This is the whole point of social proof.
Sure, you think you are great – but you’re just a kid. Or anyway you are just as experienced as you are. You don’t have the perspective of having managed a lot of people at your level, so even if you could be entirely objective about yourself, you don’t have a good basis for comparison. The decision maker needs to hear from an authority who can benchmark your awesomeness against at least a few and preferably many others.
Ultimately, relationships fuel career success more than any other aspect of your life. If you don’t know how to play well with others, collaborate, and take feedback, your prospects are severely limited. People evaluating you for admission or hire need to know how you manage relationships. Any testimonial from someone with whom you have a professional relationship will give them deep insight into this aspect of your character.
Being asked to write a recommendation is a sacred trust. Doing it well will help your colleague tremendously. Doing it poorly will hurt them. So let’s talk about how to do it well. But first…
Should you do it in the first place?
If someone asks you to write a recommendation on their behalf, you have a choice. You can say no. I recommend you say no if you cannot answer yes to all of these questions:
- Do you have genuine affinity for this person?
- Are you enthusiastic about their abilities, strengths, and potential?
- Do you want them to get into the program, team, or job they are applying for (even if that’s bad news for you because they will leave your team or organization)?
- Are you willing to do the work yourself (and not ask them to write it for you)?
If you answered no to any of those question, then you might be doing a disservice to the candidate if you agree to recommend them.
Please do not ask them to write it themselves.
Let me debunk a myth of recommendations here. A lot of well meaning individuals will agree to “submit whatever you want me to say, so just write it up and I will submit it.” Particularly, busy senior folks do this, and it’s entirely understandable. But it’s a bad idea.
If you think back to the three reasons above that recommendations matter: Incentives, authority, and relationships, you can see that the candidate herself is not going to be able to do a very good job of recommending herself, because…
She doesn’t have the perspective you have on her performance and that of others like her.
She won’t be able to effectively simulate your authority and write from the perspective – with the priorities, observations, and insights – of someone with your level of seniority.
She also won’t be able to depart significantly from her own voice. Whatever she writes will sound like her, not like someone with many years more experience.
It will be impossible for her to speak as highly of herself as a genuine admirer would. We humans are all innately humble (or at least want to appear that way). In my experience no candidate has ever written as strong praise for herself as her recommender does.
Perhaps most importantly, only YOU can provide insight into your relationship with her from YOUR perspective. The decision maker needs to understand how you view the candidate and how you value your relationship with her. She simply cannot speak to that, and any attempts will ring hollow and false.
I speak from personal experience on this one. I wrote all my own recommendations for business school because that was the norm in the culture I was coming from, and looking back, they were absolutely terrible.
Towards the end of this article, I outline an effective and simple process to write a stellar recommendation with minimal work and effort. You’ll see that a great one doesn’t have to take more than an hour or two of your time. If you aren’t willing to put in even that much work to write the recommendation yourself, then it might be a good idea to say no in the first place.
Sidebar for nonnative speakers: If you are asked to write a recommendation for someone in a language other than your mother tongue, it is OK to write imperfectly. The candidate isn’t judged on your communication abilities, she in only judged on the content of her character. If you can illuminate that even with grammatical errors, it will be worth far more than a letter written perfectly by the candidate herself. In fact, some of the best recommendations I have ever seen came from nonnative speakers who cared so much about the candidate that they had the courage to write from the heart even though they risked exposing their mediocre English.
The 4 components of an awesome recommendation
Let’s let Harvard (and most other MBA programs) show us the way here. Reading between the lines of their recommendations, it’s easy to see what qualities are most highly prized for business leaders and therefore, what makes a strong recommendation. This is relevant even if the candidate is applying for a job.
Here are the three primary questions on the HBS recommendation form:
- Please provide a brief description of your interaction with the applicant and, if applicable, their role in your organization.
- How do the applicant's performance, potential, background, or personal qualities compare to those of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? Please provide specific examples.
- Please describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant's response.
Let’s extrapolate from these questions what is really needed provide a stellar recommendation.
Question 1: Please provide a brief description of your interaction with the applicant and, if applicable, their role in your organization.
Here we need to establish context and the authority of the writer. How well do you know the candidate and what basis do you have to compare him or her to others? This is also where you want to make your first strong statement advocating for the candidate.
Question 2: How do the applicant's performance, potential, background, or personal qualities compare to those of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? Please provide specific examples.
Since this is a POSITIVE recommendation, your comments on the candidate’s performance should focus on her unique strengths, positive personal qualities, and value adds. You have creative license to concentrate this section only on the few qualities you feel truly make the candidate great.
Getting into the subtext, Harvard Business School is for leaders. If you are applying, you surely aspire to business or community leadership. As such, leadership potential is a key driver of admissions success. This is true at all business schools.
But even if your colleague isn’t applying to business school, employers want leaders. They want people who take initiative and ownership, generate innovative solutions to problems, mentor and develop others, have the essential qualities of confidence, empathy, and humility, and are willing to step up and be accountable for outcomes. So these themes should be in the subtext of everything you write and should drive your choices of what to focus on.
In addition, we need examples. More on this later.
Question 3: Please describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant's response.
This question is designed to get at the candidate’s coachability and growth mindset. The most successful people are those who use their environment to learn. How has this candidate engaged you in her growth and used your input to improve. Please note, this question is not about weaknesses. You might talk about a past weakness, but the question is designed to deliver insight into how the candidate has moved beyond it.
So to bottom line all of this, every great recommendation needs to:
- Provide a window into your relationship with the candidate
- Clarify your personal perspective on a few of the candidate’s greatest strengths and potential to lead
- Include vivid illustrations and examples (showing not telling, so to speak)
- Illustrate the candidate’s coachability and desire to grow through feedback
Now let me illustrate each of these with a few examples. I’ll borrow from Joseph’s “before” example to illustrate the failures and then ameliorate them. All of the examples here are made up but illustrate the kind of content you want to aim for.
1. Provide a window into your relationship with the candidate.
On an MBA recommendation, there may be a specific question to this effect. But any letter of recommendation should start by establishing the context of the letter and the nature of your relationship with the applicant. So this would be the opening paragraph of a longer letter.
Recommendation fail: I’ve known Joseph for 3 years since he joined my team.
A subtler fail: I am the director of the product team at WebCo, responsible for new releases and updates to AwesomeApp game platform. I studied computer science at Amazing School and got a graduate degree from Cool U. I have been programming for 30 years since I was 15 years old and have worked for Google and Apple before joining WebCo. My team churns out 5-6 new smartphone games a year for our Android and iPhone platform, and each launch typically yields 3,000 new customers and $100K or more in revenue. We have very tight timelines and a very ambitious growth plan. Joseph joined our team 3 years ago to help us meet our goals.
TL;DR This is more than 100 words about the recommender and the company but it provides zero insight into the candidate. Keep the context relevant to the reader and focused on your relationship with the applicant.
Recommendation success: Joseph joined my team 3 years ago, and I have been his direct supervisor on three long projects that spanned a total of 17 months. Though we brought Joseph onto the team as a senior software developer, he quickly rose to take on the responsibilities of a product manager. Anytime Joseph was staffed on my projects, I could always count on us finishing on time, and under budget because he delivered so much value above his paygrade. Having worked in programming for 30 years, including at Google and Apple, I am well equipped to say that Joseph has the potential to be a leader in this industry.
Notice how the successful version starts right out of the gate advocating for Joseph. This is not a neutral statement of fact – it includes the personal testimony that this manager relies on Joseph, trusts him, and that his work has added greater than expected value to her team.
Also notice that the recommender is not saying that Joseph is the best person she has ever worked with. It’s best not to resort to hyperbole or truth stretching in these things: you have your own professional reputation to maintain and hopefully that includes a certain level of integrity. So if Joseph is NOT the best person you’ve ever supervised, then don’t say that. Here the recommender chose to say that he “has the potential to be a leader in this industry” – still a VERY strong positive statement, but one that does not require bending the truth.
2. Clarify your personal perspective on a few of the candidate’s greatest strengths and potential to lead.
Recommendation fail: He’s dedicated to excellence. He always goes beyond the scope of his role to think about the rest of the team.
A subtler fail: Joseph has 3 strong qualities that I appreciate the most. He’s punctual, he’s organized, and he’s kind. I believe these are the three qualities that makes someone successful in this field and I can attest that Joseph has them is spades. In my opinion, employees that can do what is required of them through organization skills are essential to the success of the tech industry. And on top of that, kindness is the most desirable quality in a colleague. So I am happy to say that Joseph is impressive in these three dimensions.
This paragraph is failing in two big ways. First, it lacks any vivid detail. The recommender is just stating her opinion and providing no real insight into Joseph’s actual behavior or performance. I will illustrate an example that does this successfully in the next section.
But even if we did add a few specific details, this recommendation would still fail for a different reason. Consider this example.
An even subtler fail: Joseph has 3 strong qualities that I appreciate the most. He’s punctual, he’s organized, and he’s kind. I believe these are the three qualities that makes someone successful in this field and I can attest that Joseph has them is spades. In my opinion, employees that can do what is required of them through organization skills are essential to the success of the tech industry. And on top of that, kindness is the most desirable quality in a colleague. So I am happy to say that Joseph is impressive in these three dimensions. He never submits his work late, he always has answers to my questions no matter how many tasks are on his plate, and he always has a cheery, bright demeanor and is nice to everyone. This is why I’ve really liked having him on my team.
Here the recommender has added some paltry specific details, but this recommendation still fails to engender confidence in Joseph as a potential leader. Punctuality, organization skills, and basic human decency are table stakes in any field. If you can’t do those, don’t bother coming to work. But while success at this level is necessary, it is not sufficient to prove that you are a worthy job candidate or potential leader. Here is a much more successful version.
3. Include vivid illustrations and examples (showing not telling, so to speak)
Recommendation success: Joseph’s single greatest strength is a combination of two: he always keeps his eye on the big picture while also maintaining absolute focus on the small details. I attribute both of these strengths to his willingness and desire to take ownership for the downstream outcomes of his work. It’s not enough for him to just do his own tasks well, though he does that – his code is always flawless and he is the best bug catcher I’ve ever seen, helping resolve multiple obscure coding errors when others couldn’t find the problem. But more than his attention to detail, he’s personally invested in the success of the overall project, product, and the company as a whole.
An example of this happened last month when in addition to managing multiple critical path bug fixes, he followed up with the UX team to understand the drivers of their end of the project. When he learned that they were behind schedule because two other members of his own team had fallen behind, he reached out to them to help. Engaging pair programming, he worked side by side with them late nights after he’d finished his own work to ensure the team could reach our milestones on time.
Whether you even know what coding means, you can tell that Joseph is an awesome professional, teammate, and leader. This recommendation succeeds because it not only focuses on leadership-oriented strengths, but it also shows in vivid detail HOW Joseph operates, build relationships, and takes ownership for big outcomes.
Let’s look at another quick example of vivid detail:
Recommendation Fail: Last year when he was managing the launch of DSR – a VR game in first stage development, he managed to stay on top of not only the XR protocol and React.js scripts, he helped the influx control team finish their specs too.
It SEEMS like this recommender is giving a good example of the same qualities we saw about Joseph above, but the jargon in here (some of which I just made up because – let’s face it, to an outsider, you might as well make ‘em up!!) is unintelligible to someone who’s not part of your industry, organization, and team.
You do not have to speak perfect English. But you DO have to communicate the candidate’s accomplishments in lay terms that anyone can understand. You just can’t trust the reader to know what all the jargon means.
This goes double for MBA admissions committees, but even if the candidate is applying for a job within your industry, if an HR rep from the hiring firm is the first gatekeeper, he may not have the tech savvy to understand the terms. So keep it intelligible to all. When in doubt, have someone not in your field read it for a sanity check.
4. Illustrate the candidate’s coachability and desire to grow through feedback
Now comes the question about feedback. A growth oriented mindset is desirable in all fields and is absolutely essential for leaders of every stripe. So any good recommendation, whether the question is asked directly or not, should include an insight into the candidate’s coachability.
Recommendation fail: Though his communication skill is good, sometimes he asks too many questions instead of validating assumptions. He cares about advancement, so he immediately implemented this feedback.
Forget the grammar foible, this answer gives no insight into the process by which Joseph took the feedback on board and acted on it. Nor does it even show what precisely the feedback was, for that matter. Consider this better example:
Recommendation success: Joseph always seeks to add value beyond his mandate, but in his earlier days he struggled to communicate with as much impact as possible. His innate curiosity and intelligence led him to ask a lot of questions so that he could understand everything – a great habit because it enabled him to really master his tasks and understand the big picture, but it sometimes stressed out his managers and team and it also failed to reveal his proactive nature. After I suggested that he shift his approach and instead of simply asking questions, go further to propose answers and validate them, I was really impressed with how his behavior changed.
I was delighted to see first of all that he thanked me for the feedback and took the time to ask follow up questions so that he could fully understand my advice. But then I noticed an almost immediate shift in his strategy. The next week he brought me a list of five assumptions he was making about his deliverables so that I could validate them and provide additional insight. Four of the five turned out to be correct, giving him the chance to prove his management savvy, but also saving me time and increasing the leverage I could provide by going deeper into his ideas rather than simply answering questions. I can definitively say that Joseph has been extremely coachable and proactive in developing himself with the help of myself and the rest of our senior team.
This example illustrates in a vivid and specific way how Joseph used the feedback to improve. The more elaborate discussion of the issue further demonstrates a couple of exceptionally valuable skills – Joseph’s ability to take on constructive feedback and change and his willingness to proactively solve his own problems, seeking the manager’s input only to check his work.
How to write a great rec under time pressure
We’re all busy, so let’s get ‘er done with minimal drama. Here is a process I recommend:
Step 1: Brainstorm a list of the person’s key strengths related to their leadership potential. Then choose 3-4 to focus on in your letter.
While I strongly suggest that you not ask them to write the recommendation, this is the one place that they can provide some useful input. Ask them what top 3-4 qualities they would like you to highlight given the opportunity they are applying for. Here is a list of ideas to get you started.
|Taking Initiative||Insightful project management||Driving for a high level of quality in their work|
|Creative problem-solving||Culture building||Influencing others with or without positional power|
|Innovative thinking||Proactive personal development||Motivating teammates|
|Taking ownership of solutions||Seeking challenging opportunities||Effective mediation; resolving conflict|
|Effective collaboration||Tackling ambiguity with grace||Curiosity and intellectual appetite|
|Mentoring and developing others||Engaging beyond their mandate||Challenging the status quo; seeking better ways of doing things|
|Performing skip level work||Delivering deep insights||Raising the bar for others through example|
|Nurturing fruitful relationships||Engendering trust with diverse stakeholders||Balancing a large and sophisticated workload|
|Delivering results beyond expectations||Facilitating cross-functional collaboration and communication||Diffusing delicate political situations or navigating political complexity with grace|
Step 2: Recall your past experiences with them and decide on the specific examples of their work and behavior you will cite as evidence of these top 3-4 qualities.
Step 3: Organize your thoughts into an outline.
Here is a foolproof one.
Paragraph 1: A VERY BRIEF description of your role, the context in which you have known the applicant, any information that establishes your authority in comparing this candidate to others, and a firm statement of how awesome the candidate is. (~100 words)
Paragraph 2-5: Delineate each of the 3-4 key strengths you want to focus on in subsequent paragraphs including vivid, rich examples. (300- 500 words total)
Paragraph 6: Describe the candidate’s coachability through one clear example of feedback. (~250 words)
Paragraph 7: Add your closing words, including strong positive endorsement and advocacy. (50-100 words)
Step 4: Do not skip this step. After you have written it, go back and make sure each paragraph checks these four boxes and ameliorate them if they don’t:
- The lion’s share of word count focuses on the candidate, not you, the project, or the organization.
- It’s free of jargon or internal terminology that a person with nothing more than basic high school education wouldn’t understand.
- There are specific details about the person’s actions and choices (this is optional in paragraph 1, but essential in all the others).
- You are making unequivocally positive statements about the candidate, his contributions, and leadership potential.
If you know the candidate well, you should be able to do all of that in an hour or two at most. If you want to download this in an easy-to-use checklist, go get it here!!
Thanks for helping the people in your life get ahead. That makes you one of the good ones.