Writing recommendation letters
Almost everyone is asked to write a recommendation letter at some time during their career. Whether it's for a student, colleague or someone you've worked with, it is important to be prepared to write an effective letter of recommendation. It's equally important to be ready to say "no" if you're not comfortable making a recommendation on someones behalf.
When you have nothing positive to say
It's actually in the person's best interest for you to politely decline writing a recommendation letter if you don't know them well enough professionally and/or can't provide a strong endorsement. A less than positive reference can cause as much harm as a negative reference. Employers and graduate schools are usually good at reading between the lines and will pick up on what you're not saying.
If you decline, the person can move on to another reference who may be able to provide a glowing recommendation. A simple way out is to say that you are not familiar enough with their work or background to provide a reference. That way you can minimize any potential hurt feelings.
If you're thrilled to be asked, but not sure what to say, ask the person for a copy of their resume, CV, personal statement or a list of accomplishments. This will give you guidelines to use when composing a letter. Start by describing how long you've known the person and in what capacity. Include dates and details on how you've worked with (or known) the person.
You can refer students to the References and Letters of Recommendation resources which include the materials they should provide for you and proper etiquette on how to ask for a recommendation.
Continue by describing the person's skills and performance as they apply to the position and what makes them an ideal candidate for a potential new employer or graduate program. Also include two or three outstanding attributes. End by summarizing why you are recommending this person. You may also want to provide a phone number or email address so can follow up if they have questions or want more information.
How to write reference letters
The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) provides information on legal issues regarding references and an introduction to writing reference letters including suggested guidelines for written and verbal references, legal principles and sample forms.
Here are some additional tips for writing effective recommendation letters.