Employers and higher education admissions officers look at letters of recommendation to gain insight into an applicant's academic performance, experience, related skills and personal character. Consequently, academic achievement, professional competence and potential are the most appropriate areas to address in your recommendation. The following 10 guidelines, developed by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) may be helpful to you in serving as a reference:
1. When you prepare reference letters, be factual; do not editorialize. Avoid vague statements.
2. Respond to the specific inquiry about the student or job applicant. Direct the response to the particular person who requested the information.
3. If a "To Whom It May Concern" type of reference is requested, document that this is a general letter of reference and that the student or job applicant takes responsibility for disseminating the letters properly.
4. Relate references to the type of position for which the person is applying and to the work to be performed.
5. A good practice is to avoid giving personal opinions or feelings. However, if you make subjective statements or give opinions because they are requested, clearly identify them as opinions and not as fact.
6. If you give an opinion, explain the incident or circumstances upon which you base the opinion.
7. Be able to document all information you release and use examples.
8. Avoid answering questions that are asked "off the record" or over the phone.
9. State in the reference letter: "This information is confidential, should be treated as such, and is provided at the request of the applicant, who has asked me to serve as a reference." Statements such as these give justification for the communication and leave no doubt that the information was not given to hurt a person's reputation.
10. Do not include information that might indicate the individual's race, color, religion, national origin, age, handicap, citizenship status, sex (unless by the individual's name it is obvious), sexual orientation or marital status.
The following items should be included in a written reference:
1. A statement about the nature of your relationship to the candidate - professional, personal reference or academic - and how long you have known him or her. In the case of an employee or intern, indicate the job title(s), areas of responsibility held and the time period involved.
2. A review of the candidate's principal achievements.
3. A description of a candidate's academic or career growth and potential, directed toward the purpose of the letter, i.e., as a graduate student (academic ability, research ability, attitude towards study, potential as a future original contributor to the field, etc.) as a teacher (dedication to the profession, creativity, ability to engage and excite students in the learning process, etc.) or as an employee (knowledge of the discipline, ability to apply theory to practice, related general skills, originality, enthusiasm and commitment to the field, etc.).
4. A paragraph that addresses the personal dimensions of the candidate which indicate promise as a future colleague, i.e., how well he or she gets along with others, and his or her level of reliability and responsibility.
5. The closing paragraph should summarize the candidate's outstanding strengths and abilities. Also, indicating your willingness to respond to a request for further discussion of your comments is always helpful.