How to Write a Character Reference Letter

You have just been asked by someone to write a reference letter for them. What is a reference letter? Should you agree to write the reference letter or graciously decline the request? If you do agree to the request, where do you start? How do you write a reference letter?

What is a Reference Letter?

A reference letter is a letter sent to an unknown employer and is used to introduce a person and explain that person’s integrity, character, and abilities. Reference letters are important and may make the difference between a person’s acceptance or rejection by a potential employer.

Determine If You Should Accept the Request to Write the Reference Letter?

Should you agree to write the reference letter or graciously decline the request? Don’t agree to write a reference letter for someone you don’t know well enough to discuss. Don’t write a reference letter if you don’t have or don’t want to take the time to write a dynamic detailed one. A vague reference letter can do more harm than good to a person. Don’t write a reference letter if you have to fabricate information. If you would have to exaggerate or be dishonest about the person’s qualifications, education, integrity, character, abilities, etc, then you should decline the request to write the reference letter. If you are not able to write only positive attributes about that person and are unable to omit their weaknesses, then you should decline the request to write the reference letter. You should only write a reference letter for someone that you have confidence in and that you would honestly recommend for employment.

Reference Letter Format

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Always use the Standard Business Format to write a reference letter. You won’t have the specific Company information or Recipient Information since this will be given to an unknown employer.

  • Date: Make sure you include the date in the upper right hand corner of the letter.
  • Salutation: You will either need to use “To Whom It May Concern”, “Dear Sir/Madam”, “Dear Human Resource Manager”, or “Dear Recruiting Manager”, etc if you want to include a salutation. You also have the option of just omitting the salutation and go right into writing the letter.
  • First Paragraph: The first sentence of the first paragraph should be able to grab the attention of the recipient. The opening sentence can speak volumes. A good example of how to grab attention is to state that you are pleased or honored to write this reference letter. You should also include information explaining how you know this person and how long you have known them. State your own qualifications and explain why you are qualified to write this reference letter for this individual.
  • Second and Third Paragraphs: Use these paragraphs to list exceptional qualities and skills this person possesses. Put extra emphasis on the qualities and skills specifically related to their field of interest or job search. Use specific examples to reinforce your statements. Talk about their work competency, work initiative, prior experience, organization and communication skills, academic or other achievements, interaction with others, attendance and punctuality, how they react under deadlines and pressure, etc.
  • Final Paragraph: The final paragraph should reiterate any final points you feel are necessary. You should express your confidence in this person and recommend them for hire. You should make your ending statement strong without overdoing it. You should also indicate how you can be contacted for additional questions by providing your contact information and also include the best time to reach you.
  • Closing: You should end with “Sincerely”, sign your name, and then type your name underneath your signature. Include your job title or your entire professional company signature under your typed name.

Correct Reference Letters

  • Proofread: You should always proofread your reference letter. Check for spelling and grammatical errors. I would recommend having someone else proofread your reference letter after you have proofread it before you give it to the person you wrote it for. Remember that this reference letter represents you and the applicant.
  • Length: Reference letters should never be more than one page but don’t be too vague or brief.
  • Tone: The tone of your reference letter should always be professional, informative, confident, and upbeat/positive. Don’t say, “I think Mr. Smith would be a fit for…”. Instead say, “I am confident that Mr. Smith is a fit for…”. You should make every word in your reference letter count.
  • Wording: Use general attributes to describe the person. Use words like intelligent, self-motivated, responsible, dependable, flexible, skilled communicator, innovative, confident, trustworthy, etc.
  • Paper: Make sure you use good quality paper, preferably on company letterhead. Use quality ink-jet paper if available.

Incorrect Reference Letters

  • Contractions: Do not use contractions. Write out the word ‘do not’ instead of using the word ‘don’t’, etc.
  • Fonts: Don’t use decorative fonts, flashy colored paper, or unusual formats. Your reference letter should be professional and will look that way if you use the Standard Business Format on company letterhead. I suggest using Arial 10 as a font. Make sure your entire reference letter is in the same font type.
  • Wording: Don’t start too many sentences with the word “I”.Limit the use of writing in the passive voice. Avoid using clichés and meaningless or wordy expressions. Do not use exclamation points in your reference letter. Avoid using adjectives with mediocre connotations like nice, good, fair, adequate, satisfactory, etc. Also skip generic adjectives like excellent. Instead of using the word excellent, use innovative, articulate, loyal, etc.
  • Personal Information: Never refer to the person’s race, religion, national origin, age, disability, sexual preference, gender, marital status, etc.