How to Write a Reference Letter

Woman working on laptop at coffee shop
••• vgajic / Getty Images

It is important to know how to write a reference letter because almost everyone is asked to provide a reference at some time during their career. Whether it's for an employee, a friend, or someone you've worked with, it is important to be prepared to write an effective letter of recommendation.

Read below for tips on how to write a reference letter, as well as what materials to ask the candidate for, and when to say no (and how to say no) to writing a letter for someone.

Reference Letters or Letters of Recommendation

A reference letter, also known as a letter of recommendation, is a letter that speaks to someone’s work experience, skills, expertise, personal qualities, and/or academic performance. It is written by a former employer, colleague, client, teacher, or someone else who can speak positively about that person.

When You Need Reference Letters

You need reference letters, typically about three of them, when you apply to jobs, internships, volunteer positions, colleges, and graduate school programs. A reference letter is a positive endorsement of your skills and attributes, written by someone familiar with your work, character, and accomplishments.

The reference letter explains why the reader should select you, and what qualifies you for the opportunity you're applying for. 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.

What Is Included in a Reference Letter

A reference letter is a positive endorsement of your skills and attributes. It explains why the reader should select you and what qualifies you for the opportunity you're applying for.

professional reference letter is usually written by a supervisor, colleague, client, teacher or professor that is well acquainted with your accomplishments in a work-type setting. It typically includes a description of your position and responsibilities, the duration of your time at the company, and your 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 you a good candidate for the position you are seeking. It explains how the writer knows you and discusses your personal attributes as they would apply in a job setting.

What to Do Before Writing a Reference Letter

Think before saying “Yes.” 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.

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

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.

Request information. 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, and you want to 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 on the school. The more information you have, the easier it will be to write the letter.

Get all the details. Along with asking for information about the candidate, get all the information you need about how to submit the letter. Ask whom you should send the letter to, 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, you should write the reference as a formal letter. A reference letter should begin with both you and the employer's contact information (name, address, phone number, email) followed by the date. If this is an email rather than an actual letter, include your contact information at the end of the letter, after your signature.

Contact Information and Greeting: If you are writing the letter to an individual or hiring committee, include their contact information at the top of the letter and in your greeting. If you are writing a general letter, you could write to "Whom it May Concern" or simply start your letter with the first paragraph.

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."

Introduction: Explain your relationship with the person for whom you are writing the letter. You may include how long you have known the person. Then explain why you are writing the letter. 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.

Body Overview: In the body of the letter, include specific information about the candidate's personal characteristics (creativity, patience, confidence, etc.), specific skills (excellent communication skills, organizational skills, etc.). Be as specific as possible. 

First Paragraph: The first paragraph of the reference letter explains your connection to the person you are recommending, including how you know them, and why you are qualified to write a reference letter to recommend employment or graduate school. Mention the relationship (personal or professional) you have with the person you are recommending.

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. 

Recommendation Letter Length, Format, and Font

Before You Start Writing the Letter: Ask the candidate to send you his resume, transcript, CV, or any other materials that will help you accurately describe the person. You may also ask for a description of the position for which he is applying, and information about the company. The more information you have, the easier it will be to write a strong recommendation.

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.

Edit: Be sure to read through your letter before sending it. You can have someone else edit the letter, but conceal the candidate's name to preserve his 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
©TheBalance 2018 
Download the Word Template

Reference Letter Sample (Text Version)

Dear Hiring Manager,

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 a 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
melissa@abmedia.com
555-555-5555

Formatting Your Letter

If you are mailing the letter to an employer or school, be sure to follow proper business letter format. 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. Also include your handwritten signature at the bottom of a physical 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. Also be sure to have a clear, concise subject line that lists the candidate's name, the job they are applying for (if applicable), and the purpose of your letter. For example, a subject line might read: "Recommendation for Firstname Lastname - Human Resources Assistant Job."

Use a Reference Letter Template

If you're not sure what to write, use a reference letter template and personalize it to include your information. A template is a useful way to see how to format your letter, and what to include in the letter.

You can also view more sample reference letters for ideas on what to include in your own letter. However, remember to change the letter so that it applies to the specific person you are writing the letter for.