Being asked to write a letter of reference for someone can quickly transform from a neighborly favor to an act that stimulates overwhelming anxiety. After all, the contents of that letter may very well be the single deciding factor between your friend starting down the road to a better life and, well, utter and total devastation. Okay, that’s an extreme possibility, but anxiety over being given such potential power is perfect reasonable.
Which isn’t to say that writing a letter of reference needs to fill you with apprehension. Approach the job of writing that reference from the logic of an orderly procession will relieve it of much of its inherent abstraction. Rather than thinking of the letter as a behemoth filled with the possibility of changing a person’s life, you should think of it as a puzzle to be solved one step at a time.
Step One: Acquaintanceship
Begin a letter of reference with information that points specifically to how long you have known the individual and under what circumstances. Is the person a friend, a co-worker or an employee? Are you related to the person? Don’t quibble over including that information; being related may actually enhance your opinion because the person reading the letter may assume you have seen the individual at their worst more often than a friend.
Step Two: Suitability
Once you have established that how long you have been acquainted with the person you are referencing and the circumstances of that acquaintanceship get right to meat of the matter. Provide a logical evaluation of what makes the subject of the reference letter suitable for the position under consideration. Highlight the positive aspects of their character that would directly impact the goal in question. Keep to the point and don’t distract even with examples of greatness on the part of the person that would have no potential impact on their ability to do the job or get what they are after. You don’t have to avoid negative aspects completely if you can work them into a positive light. A letter of reference that uses factual information to back up your view of how a negative episode resulted in a positive change actually may be more impressive than a glowing list of positivity.
Step Three: Honesty
Be honest. Unless you volunteered the write the letter of reference, you are not required to write a letter of reference that states in no uncertain terms your feeling that the subject is deserving of meeting their goal. Volunteering to write such a letter is an implicit and possibly even unstated agreement to write a letter that holds nothing back. Being asked to write such a letter carries no such agreement. If you do not believe that the subject of the letter is qualified to meet the goal, then you should be honest enough to say so and reject the request outright. There is absolutely nothing wrong with writing a letter of reference that ends with a recommendation that is not exactly overwrought. It is perfectly okay to end the letter of reference with a statement that says something along the lines of you respect this person in general terms, but are not 100% sure they are the best possible candidate for the goal. A lukewarm recommendation is better than no recommendation and you have every right to end the letter on such a note if you have been drafted into the position of writing it.