How to Format a Reference Letter With Examples

This illustration includes tips for writing a reference letter including "Explain your connection to the candidate," "Close by recommending the candidate highly and providing your contact information," and "Describe candidate's qualifications-and provide examples."

 Colleen Tighe © The Balance

A reference letter is used to endorse someone and provide an overview of their skills, ability, knowledge, and character. These letters are often required as part of a job or academic application. 

Since a reference letter is one of the few pieces of an application that isn't directly provided by the candidate, it can carry a lot of weight. Letter readers look to references for insight into a candidate. The template below shows the format of a typical reference letter.

How to Format a Reference Letter

This reference letter format shows the structure for a typical reference letter. Your letter should provide information on your connection with the person you are recommending, why they are qualified, and the skills they have.

The following format is appropriate for an employment reference or as a reference for graduate school. Use this as a guide for writing your own personalized reference letters, making sure all relevant information is included.

You should also review samples of reference letters for advice on how to word your reference letter.

When using a format or a sample letter, remember to be flexible. You can add or remove paragraphs to fit the needs of the particular reference letter.

Tips for Writing a Reference Letter

First, when asked to write a reference letter, think carefully before agreeing. Only say yes if you feel you can write a strong reference letter for the candidate.

If you do not feel comfortable writing a letter in support of a person's application to a job or school, you can politely decline to be a reference. Once you decide to write the letter, make it as specific as possible. 

What to Include in the Letter

When writing a reference letter referring a candidate for a particular job opening, the letter should include information on how the person's skills match the position they are applying for. Ask for a copy of the job posting and the person's resume so you can target your reference letter.

You can also ask the person if there are any particular points they'd like you to cover in the letter.

Similarly, when writing a reference letter for a candidate for graduate school, you should be able to explain why the student is a good fit for that particular program. Ask for some details on the program as well as a copy of the person’s resume or CV so you can target the letter accordingly.

Reference Letter Format Example

Contact Information

When you are writing a hard copy letter to be mailed, uploaded, or sent as an attachment, include your contact information and the recipient's name at the top of the letter. If you are sending an email reference, include your contact information in your signature.

Subject

If you're sending an email reference, list the name of the person you're writing a reference for in the subject line:

Subject: Reference for FirstName LastName

Salutation

If you are writing a personal letter of reference, include a salutation (Dear Dr. Smith, Dear Mr. Jones, etc.). If you are writing a general reference letter, say “To Whom It May Concern" or simply don't include a salutation.

Paragraph 1

The first paragraph of the reference letter explains your connection to the person you are recommending, including how you know them, how long you have known them, and why you are qualified to write a reference letter to recommend them for employment or graduate school.

Paragraph 2

The second paragraph of the reference letter contains specific information about the person you are recommending, including why they are qualified, what they can contribute, and why you are providing a reference letter. Be sure to use specific examples to speak to their qualifications. If necessary, use more than one paragraph to provide details.

Summary

This section of the reference letter (typically right before the conclusion) contains a brief summary of why you are recommending the person. State that you "recommend without reservation" or "highly recommend" the person or something similar.

Conclusion

The concluding paragraph of the reference letter contains an offer to provide more information. Include a phone number within the paragraph. Also include your phone number and email address in the return address section of a hard copy letter or, if you're sending an email, underneath your name in the signature.

See a sample signature for a hard copy letter below:

Sincerely,

Signature

Writer Name
Title

Reference Letter Template

Download the reference letter template (compatible with Google Docs and Word Online) or see below for more examples.

Screenshot of a reference letter sample
 @ The Balance 2020

Sample Reference Letter (Text Version)

Bob Johnson
219 Addison Road
Sioux Falls, SD 09069
555-555-5555
bob.johnson@email.com

July 9, 2020

Janice Smith
Marketing Director
ABS Marketing
10 Miles Road
Stanford, NC 11289

Dear Ms. Smith: 

It's my pleasure to recommend Linda Barron for the position of marketing manager at your company. Ms. Barron and I worked together for just over two years when she was a marketing coordinator in my department at XYZ company. 

During her time at XYZ, Ms. Barron was diligent and insightful. She was eager to both learn and implement marketing strategies. Ms. Barron mentioned to me that this prospective role at your company would involve leading initiatives aimed at growing prospect lists. She's remarkably well-suited for that task. At XYZ, with help from our whole team, Ms. Barron organized and led our e-learning campaign, geared toward getting prospects in the door. The campaign was a tremendous success. 

I recommend Ms. Barron without reservations — she'd be a stellar addition to your company. Please do not hesitate to reach out with any questions. You can reach me at this email address or at (555) 555-5555

Sincerely, 

Bob Johnson (signature hard copy letter)

Bob Johnson

Reference Letter Examples

Review reference letter samples for a variety of professional and personal circumstances to use as a starting point for your own correspondence.