How to Write a Reference Letter

This illustration features tips for writing a reference letter, including "Write as a formal letter," "Briefly explain your relationship to the candidate," "Convey why you're writing the latter and why you're qualified to recommend them," "Include details about the candidate's qualities that relate to the individual's goal," and "Enclose your contact information and an offer to provide more information."

 Ellen Lindner © The Balance

At some point in your career, you’ll probably be asked to provide a letter of reference for an employee, a friend, or someone you've worked with. When the time comes, it will be important to know how to write an effective letter of recommendation (also known as a reference letter).

Your support may make all the difference. A good recommendation letter can help your contact achieve their dreams; a bad one is worse than no recommendation at all.

When Reference Letters Are Needed

A reference letter is a positive endorsement of a person's skills and attributes, written by someone familiar with their work, character, and accomplishments. Reference letters are needed when applying for jobs, internships, volunteer positions, colleges, and graduate school programs.

The reference letter explains why the reader should select a candidate, and what qualifies them for the opportunity for which they're applying. Letters may be requested by the organization that is considering the individual for employment or acceptance at an institution, or they may be offered by the job seeker or applicant.

Professional vs. Personal Reference Letters

A professional reference letter is usually written by a supervisor, colleague, client, teacher or professor that is well-acquainted with their accomplishments in a work-type setting. It typically includes a description of their position and responsibilities, the duration of their time at the company, and their abilities, qualifications, and contributions to the organization.

A character or personal reference letter can be written by a family friend, mentor or neighbor who can attest to the traits that would make them a good candidate for the position they are seeking. This type of letter explains how the writer knows them and discusses their personal attributes as they would apply in a job setting.

Before Writing a Reference Letter

Before agreeing to write the letter, make sure you feel that you can write a positive letter of reference for this person. If you do not know the person well or do not think you can speak highly of the person’s skills or abilities, it is fine to turn down the request for a recommendation. You can be vague when you turn down the request, simply saying “I do not feel I would be the best person to write you a recommendation.” If possible, suggest someone else they might ask.

It is better to say no to writing a recommendation rather than to write a negative reference for the person.

Request Information for the Letter

It is a good idea to ask the person for a copy of their resume or CV, even if you have known them for a long time. They may have new accreditation or achievements that merit highlighting, and you should provide as much current information as possible. This will also help give you guidelines to use when composing the letter.

If the reference letter is for a specific employment opportunity, also ask for a copy of the job posting. Similarly, if the reference letter is for a specific school or program, ask for some information about the school. The more information you have, the easier it will be to write the letter.

Along with asking for information about the candidate, get all the information you need about how to submit the letter. Ask to whom you should send the letter, when the deadline is, and what format the letter should be in. Also, ask if there are any particulars that the school or employer wants you to include in your letter.

What to Include in a Reference Letter

Unless the candidate gives you a form on which to write your recommendation, following a proper business letter format is appropriate. This includes listing your contact information, the date, and the contact information for the person receiving your letter (typically, the hiring manager) at the top of the letter.

However, if you are emailing this letter, you do not need to include any contact information or the date at the top of the letter. Instead, list your contact information after your email signature. A reference email letter should also have a clear, concise subject line that lists the candidate's name, the job they are applying for (if applicable), and the purpose of the letter. For example, a subject line might read: "Recommendation for Firstname Lastname - Human Resources Assistant Job."

How to Write a Reference Letter

To get an idea of what to write and how your letter should read, here are some general guidelines to consider before writing your letter.

Salutation

Begin your letter with "Dear Mr./Ms. Last Name." If you do not know the employer's last name, simply write, "Dear Hiring Manager." If the candidate is applying to an academic program, you can write "Dear Admissions Committee." If you are writing a general letter, you could write to "Whom It May Concern" or simply start your letter with the first paragraph.

First Paragraph

The first paragraph of the reference letter explains your connection to the person you are recommending, including how you know them, how long you've known them, and why you are qualified to write a reference letter on their behalf. Be sure to include the name of the company, job, school, or opportunity for which the person is applying. For example, "I have been James Smith's supervisor at XYZ Company for the past five years. I am pleased to recommend him for the position of head accountant at ABC Company."

Second Paragraph (and Third, and Fourth)

The middle paragraphs of the reference letter contain information on the person you are writing about, including why they are qualified, and what they can contribute. If necessary, use more than one paragraph to provide details. Be specific and share examples of why this person is a qualified candidate. If you can, relate specific instances where you observed the person successfully using the skills required for the position. Try to describe qualities and skills that relate to the specific job, school, or opportunity. For example, if the person is applying for a job as a manager, focus on the person's leadership and communication skills.

Letter Closing

In the closing paragraph, offer to provide more information and include your contact information (phone and email) so you are available to give a verbal recommendation or answer further questions if necessary. You might also reiterate that you recommend this person “wholeheartedly” or “without reservation.”

Signature

End the letter with your signature, handwritten, followed by your typed name. If this is an email, simply include your typed name, followed by your contact information.

Letter Length, Format, and Font

The style of your reference letter is almost as important as the content of the letter. Here are some tips on how long your letter should be and how to format it.

  • Length: A letter of recommendation should be more than one or two paragraphs; a letter this short suggests you either do not know the person well or do not fully endorse them. However, you want to keep the letter concise and focus on a few key points, so avoid writing more than one page. Three or four paragraphs that explain how you know the person and why you are recommending them is an appropriate length.
  • Format: A letter of recommendation should be single-spaced with a space between each paragraph. Use about 1" margins for the top, bottom, left, and right of the page, and align your text to the left (the alignment for most documents).
  • Font: Use a traditional font such as Times New Roman, Arial, or Calibri. The font size should be between 10 and 12 points, so it's easy to read. Adjusting the font size is a good way to keep your letter to a single page.

Proofread your letter before sending it. You can have someone else edit the letter, but conceal the candidate's name to preserve their privacy.

Reference Letter Sample

You can use this reference letter example as a model. Download the template (compatible with Google Docs and Word Online), or read the text version below.

reference letter sample
@ The Balance 2020

Melissa Bradley
123 Business Rd.
Business City, NY 54321
555-555-5555
melissa@abmedia.com

July 9, 2020

Jim Lee
Human Resources
Saber Marketing & PR
321 Business Ave.
Business City, NY 12345

Dear Mr. Lee,

I am thrilled to recommend Sarah Jones for the digital marketing manager position at Saber Marketing & PR. As the marketing director at A & B Media, I had the pleasure of working as Sarah’s supervisor when she was employed​ here as a marketing associate. ​Responsible, punctual and extremely bright, ​Sarah was among the best talent at A & B ​ Media​, and I absolutely endorse her qualification and her skill set.

I was continuously impressed by the knowledge she brought to the table and her dedication to staying on top of the latest in the field. Sarah​ combines sharp analysis skills with strong intuition, and I always knew I could rely on her to meet deadlines and exceed ​our ​expectations. During her two years with us, she achieved numerous accomplishments, from increasing our social media engagement by 20%, to lowering our website bounce rate by 10%, to increasing our ROI on digital campaigns by 15%. 

While Sarah’s professional acumen was immensely valuable to A & B Media, she was also a wonderful team player. Optimistic, engaging and easy to get along with, Sarah was a true joy to have in the office and fostered many positive relationships within our department as well as throughout the company.

With that said, I am highly confident in my recommendation and believe that Sarah would be a great fit for Saber Marketing & PR. If you would like to speak further about my experience working with Sarah, please email me at melissa@abmedia.com or call me at 555-555-5555.

Sincerely,

Melissa Bradley
Marketing Director, A & B Media