The opening should consist of two brief paragraphs. The purpose of the opening is to indicate your initial recommendation about the applicant and to explain who you are and how you know the person for who you’re writing the reference letter.
The first paragraph (usually consisting of a single sentence) should state the purpose of the letter. Referred to as the “opening line”, you would simply state that you are providing a recommendation for the applicant.
Choose your words carefully, particularly at the beginning of the letter. The all important first sentence will set the tone for the remainder of the letter.
The opening is often the most important part of the entire letter. When you consider that the reader is a busy individual with many different letters, resumes, and transcripts to review, it is safe to assume that they will not devote much time to reading each and every reference letter from beginning to end. As such, then, the very first impression they get is critical and often lasting. Given this, it becomes quite clear that your overall opinion of the applicant must be made very early in the letter. A great reference letter should always communicate most, if not all, of your honest, overall opinions in the first sentences or two.
It is very important to understand that the message contained in the opening of your letter must match the tone of the rest of your letter, as this is where many readers will form their first and often lasting impression of the applicant.
The second paragraph should explain how you know the individual. Indicate the context of your relationship and how long you have known them. Be very clear about what your relationship is to the applicant. In other words, are they your subordinate, a co-worker, a student, a peer, a family member, a close friend, etc.
The body of the letter should comprise the majority of the text. This is the section where you should “sell” all of the great qualities of the person. You should also describe your past experiences with the applicant and provide specific details and examples of their good qualities. These qualities should of course be applicable to the situation to which you are making the recommendation. If the reference letter is intended for someone seeking employment as an accountant, the details and examples you provide should reflect that person’s skills as they relate to accounting, even if they have excellent knowledge in other, unrelated areas. For example, maybe the person is a wonderful artist or has a nursing degree. Although these are wonderful talents and skills, this information would not be useful to the person seeking to hire a good accountant. In other words, stay on topic.
The body of the letter is usually several paragraphs in length (two to six), with each paragraph normally consisting of two to four sentences.
The first paragraph should summarize the applicant’s specific favorable attributes. Use this paragraph to characterize the individual in “general” terms; it should serve as an “introduction” of sorts.
The next several paragraphs should address in detail each of the specific attributes that you summarized in the first paragraph. Include personal stories whenever possible to back up your assessments. Use specific examples to characterize each attribute. Each specific attribute should be dealt with in a separate paragraph. Address each of the attributes or qualities in their order of importance as it relates to the situation.
The final paragraph of the body should include reasons why the individual is seeking a new assignment (if relevant). For example, if they were laid off, you would want to mention the reason the individual was laid off (i.e. company downsizing, plant closure, poor economy, etc.)
The close of the reference letter should be one or two paragraphs of a couple of sentences each.
The close is designed to reinforce your belief in the applicant. This is where you should reiterate and express your level of confidence in the individual.
The close should also contain your personal recommendation regarding the situation for which the letter is being used. You should explain the degree to which you believe the individual is suited to the job, position, or program being sought.
At this point, you should also encourage the reader to contact you for additional information or with any questions they may have. Include the best method for them to contact you. This would usually be your phone number or email address.
Always end the close by personally signing the letter in your own hand. Do not have your assistant sign the letter, and never “rubber stamp” it. The reader should feel that you at least think enough of the applicant to take the time to personally sign the letter. This is particularly important if the letter was prepared by the applicant themselves.