At some point in life, you’re almost certainly going to have to write a reference letter for someone. It might be a former employee or student, or even a family friend. Here’s what you need to know about the purpose of reference letters and how to write the most effective letter possible.
Note: I will be using “candidate” to refer to the person who the reference letter is about, “you” to refer to the person writing the reference letter, and “recipient” to refer to the person receiving the letter. I’ll emphasise here, though, that reference letters are not only for job or academic “candidates”, it’s just a handy term to use to keep this article straightforward!
What is a reference letter and when are they used?
A reference letter is usually written to testify to a person or (occasionally) a company’s skills, character and/or achievements. Sometimes a reference letter is known as a “recommendation letter”. It is a formal document, and should be typed and written in a serious and business-like style.
Reference letters are used in a wide variety of situations; there is no definitive list that covers all possible scenarios. The most common examples are:
- When a candidate applies for a job, they may need a reference to support their application.
- If an interviewee is given a job offer, they may need to supply a reference letter before the contract can be signed.
- A student applying for an academic course often requires a reference letter to support their application.
- A student applying for funding will often need to supply reference letters.
- Companies may use reference letters as testimonies to their trustworthiness and ability to carry out a job well.
- Prospective tenants may need to provide their landlord with a reference letter, testifying to their good financial status. (This could be from a prior landlord or from a current employer.)
Who should write a reference letter?
If you are approached and asked to write a reference letter for a job candidate, a student or a company, consider whether you can legitimately do so. A reference letter is a formal document, and it is crucial that you do not lie or fudge the truth in it, or there could be legal repercussions. If someone wants a reference letter from you:
- The candidate should be someone you know reasonably well. For example, you cannot provide any authoritative comment on the academic ability of a student who’s only been attending your lectures for a week.
- You should know the candidate in a capacity which gives you the ability to write a meaningful reference. For example, if you have worked with the person, it would be appropriate for you to write a reference letter to a prospective employer for them.
- You should be able to provide an honest and positive reference. If you truly feel that the candidate has no good qualities for you to emphasis, or if you have had a personality clash with them in the past, you should tell them to seek a reference letter from someone else.
What goes into a reference letter?
The exact structure of a reference letter will differ slightly depending on the type of reference it is, but this is a good basic outline:
- Start using the business letter format: put the recipient’s name and address, if known, and address them as “Dear [name]”. If the recipient is currently unknown (this would be likely on an academic application, for instance), then use “Dear Sir/Madam” or “To whom it may concern”.
- It is often helpful to introduce yourself in the first couple of lines of your letter. The recipient will not need your life history: just give a brief sentence or two explaining your position and your relationship to the candidate.
- Your next paragraph should confirm any facts which you know the candidate will be supplying along with your letter. For example, if you are writing a reference for a job applicant, some or all of these details may be appropriate:
- The person’s job title, and role within the company.
- The person’s leaving salary when they were last employed by you (or your organisation).
- The dates which the person was employed from and until.
If you are writing a reference letter for an academic course, you will need to confirm the person’s academic grades.
- In your third paragraph, you should provide your judgement upon the candidate’s skills and qualities. It is often appropriate to state that you would gladly re-employ them, or that their contributions to your college class were highly valued. Single out any exceptional qualities that the candidate has – perhaps their drive and enthusiasm, their attention to detail, or their ability to lead.
- Where possible, use your fourth paragraph to give a couple of concrete examples of times when the candidate excelled. (You may want to ask the candidate to tell you about any extra-curricular projects they’ve been involved in, or invite them to highlight anything they’d particularly like you to include in the reference letter.)
- Close your letter on a positive note, and if you are willing to receive further correspondence about the candidate’s application, make this clear. Include your contact details too.
- As with any business letter, you should end appropriately; “Yours sincerely” when you are writing to a named recipient, and “Yours faithfully” when you do not know who will be receiving the letter.
Things to avoid
Make sure that you avoid:
- Mentioning any weaknesses the candidate has.
- Saying anything that could be construed as libel.
- Writing in an informal manner: keep the letter business-like. Jokes, slang and casual language are not appropriate and may harm the candidate’s chances.
- Including personal information not relevant to the application. Mentioning the candidate’s race, political stance, religion, nationality, marital status, age or health is usually inappropriate.
- Spelling mistakes, sloppy writing or typos: this letter is hugely important to the candidate, and you should take care to make it look professional.
Reference Letter Examples
There are a number of good templates for reference letters available on Business Balls. I’ve included one below, which would be appropriate for a general-purpose reference – if you were writing a reference in your capacity as the candidate’s former employer, you would need to include more specific details:
To whom it may concern
I confirm that I have known (name) for (number) years.
(State relationship – social, business, working together in some other capacity, club, activity, project, etc.)
At all times I have found (name/him/her) to be (state characteristics – eg, dependable, reliable, hard-working, conscientious, honest, peace-loving, courteous, etc – to be as helpful as possible think about what the reader will most prefer to see, in terms of satisfying concerns, or seeing evidence of relevant required skills or characteristics).
I’m happy to provide further information if required. (optional)
Yours faithfully, etc.
You can find examples of full reference letters on About.com’s “job searching” section. They list letters appropriate for a variety of different situations: here’s one from a previous employer in support of a job candidate:
To Whom it May Concern:
I highly recommend Jane Doe as a candidate for employment. Jane was employed by Company Name as an Administrative Assistant from 2002 – 2005. Jane was responsible for office support including word processing, scheduling appointments and creating brochures, newsletters, and other office literature.
Jane has excellent communication skills. In addition, she is extremely organized, reliable and computer literate. Jane can work independently and is able to follow through to ensure that the job gets done. She is flexible and willing to work on any project that is assigned to her. Jane was quick to volunteer to assist in other areas of company operations, as well.
Jane would be a tremendous asset for your company and has my highest recommendation. If you have any further questions with regard to her background or qualifications, please do not hesitate to call me.
If you are still unsure what best to include in the reference letter, imagine yourself in the position of the candidate’s prospective employer, or of the panel reading his/her academic application. What information would they need to know? What qualities would they like their candidates to have? Obviously, you should never lie or mislead in a reference letter, but you should try to focus on areas which will give the recipient the most useful information possible about the candidate.
How to Ask for a Reference Letter
If you’re in the position of requiring a reference from a past employer or from someone who taught you at school or university, then you need to approach them in an appropriate way.
“Appropriate” might be quite formal or quite informal, depending on your relationship with them. For instance, if you’re approaching a lecturer who taught you along with dozens of other students and who does not know you well, it’s appropriate to be quite formal; if you’re approaching your former line manager, who you shared nights out and weekends away with for years, then being formal would seem strangely standoffish.
In a fairly formal context, you might write something like this:
I hope all is going well (at their company / in their department).
I’m applying for (give brief details of the role or position you’re applying for). Would you be able to provide a reference letter for me? I’d be very grateful. You can send it to (add the name and contact details here)
With thanks in advance,
If you’re approaching someone who you’re on very friendly terms with, it’s really up to you to decide what to say.
Whatever the situation, it often makes sense to mention particular points that it would be helpful for the reference to cover (e.g. “The company is especially keen to know about my experience with summarising complex information quickly, as that will be a major part of the role.”)
It can also be helpful to include details that the person writing the letter may not be aware of. For instance, if you took part in significant extra-curricular activities at university alongside your studies, you may want to mention this.
Writing a Reference Letter: Quick Summary
When you’re writing a reference letter, you should:
- Ascertain why the referee needs the letter. A reference letter for an academic position will read very different from a reference letter for a prospective landlord.
- Consider whether you can reasonably provide the type of reference required. If you do not know the candidate well, or if you are unable to give them a positive reference, you should encourage them to seek someone else.
- Format your letter as a standard business letter, and briefly introduce yourself at the start.
- Confirm key facts about the applicant (e.g. how long they worked for you, and in what role).
- Provide your judgement upon the candidate’s skills and qualities. Be honest, but do focus on the things that you feel will reflect the candidate in a positive light.
If you’re asking someone to provide a reference letter, you should approach them in an appropriate way, and give them the information they need in order to write you a good reference.
Reference Letter Quiz
For each question, select the correct answer.