At some point in your professional career, you will likely be asked to write a letter of recommendation for a formal employee, student, coworker or even your boss. The letter is very important to the person who asked you to write it, so don't take the task lightly. Follow these tips to write a polished and professional recommendation letter.

Getting Started

Make sure you really know the person. You should have spent a considerable amount of time working with the candidate—and you need to feel confident in the person's capabilities. Remember, you are putting your name on this letter, and your recommendation reflects on you personally, so if you are uncomfortable vouching for someone, politely decline the request to write the letter.

Do your research. Ask the candidate to provide you with a description of the job, school program, award or other circumstances for which you are writing the recommendation. Also, speak to the candidate and ask him or her to indicate anything you should cover. That way, you can tailor the recommendation to suit the job, program and so on, and you ensure that you meet the candidate's goals for the recommendation. Both will make the job of writing the letter easier on you since you'll have some parameters to follow.

Watch what you say. Don't include any personal information that is not relevant to the application. You shouldn’t mention the candidate’s race, political stance, religion, nationality, marital status, age or health unless specifically requested.

Strike a professional note. Use a business letter format. Include the date and both yours and the recipient's name and address at the top of the letter. If you know it, include the recipient's name: "Dear [name]." If you don't know the person's name, use "Dear Sir/Madam." Stay professional, opting for a formal tone over casual language, and stay away from jokes. Also, type and carefully proofread the letter to remove any grammar issues or typos.

Clarify method of delivery. Sometimes an employee will ask you to write a general letter of recommendation for their records; other times you will be writing a recommendation for a specific program that requires you to submit your recommendation directly to the evaluator (either by logging into an online portal or by sealing your recommendation in an envelope). Be sure to understand these submission requirements beforehand.

Composing the Letter

In most cases, you should make the letter about one page long. If it’s too short, it won't look like you care enough to elaborate. If it's too long, recipients may skim it and miss important information.

Briefly introduce yourself. In your introductory paragraph, take two or three lines to explain your relationship with the candidate as well as any credentials—career level, degrees, years experience, etc.—that prove your recommendation is meaningful. In that first paragraph, also include one key point that summarizes the person. Example: "I was Jane Doe's manager for six years at XYZ Corp. In 20 years of management, I have worked with few people as devoted as Jane was to her job and to the quality of her work."

Provide examples of success. Spend most of your time drafting this section because this is where you will showcase the person's strengths; the recipient will make his or her decision largely based on what you write here. Write one or two paragraphs that provide evidence of how the employee excelled, including any promotions, rewards or awards the employee received. Mention key projects the person was an integral part of, any great ideas the person had and helped implement, or specific instances where the person exemplified teamwork, tenacity, creativity or resourcefulness. Avoid discussing any weaknesses. Again, if you aren't comfortable offering a glowing review of the person, don't write the letter.

List facts about the person. Next, spend only three or four lines confirming any facts you know the employee will be sharing with the recipient. For example, if you are drafting a reference letter for an employee who is applying for a job, list the employee's job title and role with your company. Share the dates of the time period the employee was working for your company, and in some cases, you may include his or her beginning and ending salaries (divulging salary could be illegal or require an employee’s permission, so be sure to read about the legal implications here).

Share your opinion of the person's skills and qualities. Express your sincere judgment of the person. Describe not only their job skills (e.g. design, writing or technical experience), but their personal skills as well. If the employee worked for you, state that you would rehire him or her if you had the chance, or talk about how much you valued the person's contributions when you worked together. Example: "Jane Doe was an exceptional teammate who was always willing to do whatever it took to ensure that we met our goals. I would rehire her in a heartbeat, and anyone who does hire her will truly benefit from her determination to perform at the highest level."

Close by offering to speak to the recipient. Give the recipient permission to call or email you with additional questions. This shows recipients that you are willing to support what you say even further and is a solid testament to your positive opinion of the candidate.