How to Write a Reference Letter

by WriteExpress Staff Writers

Write a thoughtful, sincere reference letter and help a friend! Say the wrong things and you're a goat!

  1. Explain how you know the applicant.
    How long have you known the person, and in what relationship or circumstance?
  2. State your qualifications for writing the reference letter.
    Why should the reader be interested in your reference? How many other people of the applicant's caliber have you known, and why does the applicant stand out?
  3. List the applicant's exceptional qualities and skills,
    especially those that are specific to the applicant's field of interest or job requirements. For example, competency in his/her field or prior experience, organizational and communication skills, academic or other achievements, interaction with others, sound judgment, reliability, analytical ability, etc.
  4. Emphasize key points that you want the reader to note on the applicant's resume or job application.
    Be sure to elaborate meaningfully; don't simply restate.
  5. Give your judgment of the applicant, his/her qualifications and potential.
    Why should he/she be considered over other people? How does he/she compare to other people you have known? Do not state weaknesses. If you can't write a positive letter of reference, you should respectfully decline.
  6. Give specific examples to back up what you have said about the person's qualifications and character.
    Remember, generalized praise is a waste of space.
  7. Avoid discrimination
    Unless it is absolutely relevant, do not state (directly or by implication) the applicant's race, religion, national origin, age, disability, gender or marital status.
  8. Don't be too brief.
    One or two short paragraphs are death to a reference letter. On the other hand, be succinct. Make every word count. Here is a rule of thumb: a letter of reference for employment should be one page; a letter of reference for school should be one to two pages.
  9. Make the ending statement strong without overdoing it.
    Undue praise can be viewed as biased or insincere.
  10. List your contact information
    if you are willing to field follow-up correspondence.
  11. Proofread!
    The letter of reference represents both you and the applicant.

Reference Letter Tips

  • Make sure you know the person and the person's capabilities. If you are a relative, you are not a good choice.
  • Be sure to ask for enough time if necessary (7-10 days, if possible) to write the reference letter.
  • Ask for their goals and advice on what you might write to help achieve those goals. Be specific; general praise is a waste of space. Don't be shy. A reference letter is a sales letter to sell another. Now is the time to brag!
  • Ask for a review of your conversation. Get suggestions for your reference letter. You may need ideas to help you write.
  • State your connection with the person you are recommending, why he or she is qualified and the specific skills the person has.
  • Write only complimentary, yet factual, observations. Avoid unflattering or derogatory remarks. If you cannot do this, you should decline to write the letter.
  • Remember that potential employers are good at 'reading between the lines,' and any negative implication may destroy a person's chance at getting the new job.