A character reference is a recommendation provided by someone who knows you personally and can describe your attributes and traits.
Find out how a character reference works, what it includes, and how to get one—because you'll likely need one at some point in your life.
What Is a Character Reference?
A potential employer, school, landlord, volunteer group, or professional organization may ask you to provide them with a character reference. Rather than speaking to your work experience and skills, as a work reference might, a character reference attests to your character and interpersonal abilities. It's usually given by someone who knows you well enough and long enough to give the requester an idea of the kind of person you are.
Alternate name: Personal reference
If you don’t have a solid employment record, you might add a character reference to your list of references. This can help boost your chances of making a good impression on the hiring manager.
How a Character Reference Works
A character reference may be required as part of the job application process, particularly for occupations requiring a high level of responsibility and trustworthiness. You may also be asked to include character references as part of an application to a school, rental property, or a membership with a professional organization.
Often, you'll put the person's contact information on the application, and the requester will reach out to them to obtain the reference. You usually won't see it unless they choose to show it to you first.
The person then usually submits the reference in writing via letter or email, but it can be done verbally, as well. Ideally, you will have previously contacted the person who is giving the reference ahead of time, so it won't come as a surprise to them.
How to Get a Character Reference
Neighbors, business acquaintances, family friends, teachers, and clients can provide character references. If you're a member of a club or other group, you might ask the leader of that organization to give you one. However, it's usually not best to ask a family member to give you a reference.
It's wise to ask someone you've seen recently, because they'll likely provide a more meaningful letter than an acquaintance you haven't been in touch with in a decade. Also be sure to choose someone who knows you well and thinks highly of you to help ensure that the reference is positive, personalized, and sincere.
After you've decided who to ask for a character reference, think about how you'll approach them. Rather than simply asking if they can provide a character reference if they can compose one. This will give the person an option to say “no” if they do not feel comfortable writing the reference for any reason. You only want positive recommendations, so this helps you avoid receiving any unenthusiastic references.
If they agree, give the person all the information they need to write the reference letter. Tell them what job or role you are applying for, how to submit the letter, and the deadline for submission. Also, provide them with background on the position, so your reference can tailor the letter to the job.
Be sure to send a thank-you note afterward to anyone who writes you a character reference. Emphasize how much you appreciate them taking the time to give you reference. If you get the position, be sure to let your reference provider know that, too.
What a Character Reference Includes
A character reference letter will typically include the following information:
- The reason for writing: As with most letters, a personal reference will typically begin with a sentence explaining why the letter is being written. For example, "I'm writing to provide a personal reference for Jen Smith, who I recommend for any job requiring strong, consensus-building leadership."
- How the person knows you, including the length of time: For example, "Jen is my next-door neighbor and the president of our block association. I've known her since I moved to the area in 2015."
- Information on your personality and abilities, with examples: Details that match the skills required for a position are ideal. This section can read something like, "Jen's tact and sense of humor helped dissolve potential conflicts at neighborhood meetings and strengthened our community." The letter should include specific examples of times when you conveyed certain skills and traits.
- Contact information: At the close of the letter, the person should provide an email or phone number in case the requester has follow-up questions.
- Character references speak to your personal attributes rather than your work experience.
- Employers, educational organizations, landlords, volunteer groups, and professional associations may require a character reference.
- Anyone who can attest to your abilities and strengths can provide you with a reference, with the exception of family members.
- When you ask for a reference, be specific about the purpose of the letter and what you need.