What Is a Character Reference?

A reference letter template provides a guide for you to follow when you write a reference letter

Paul Hart / E+ / Getty Images

What is a character reference, when do you need one, and whom should you ask to give you a reference? A character reference, also known as a personal reference, is a recommendation provided by someone who knows you outside of work.

Rather than speaking to your work experience and skills (as an employer might), personal references attest to your character and abilities. This type of recommendation showcases your personality and people skills.

When Character References Are Required

A character reference may be required as part of the job application process, particularly for jobs requiring a high level of ethics and trustworthiness. Also, you may be asked to include character references as part of a school application, an application for certification, or membership within a professional organization.

If you don’t have a great 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.

Unlike a job reference letter, a personal reference letter will speak more to your character than your skills in the workplace. 

Who to Ask for a Character Reference

© The Balance, 2018

Character references can be provided by neighbors, business acquaintances, family friends, teachers, and clients. If you volunteer, a leader or other members of the organization can be used as personal references. However, don't ask a family member to give you a reference.

When you ask someone to be your personal reference, be sure to provide them with background on the position, so your reference can tailor the letter to the job.

If you are a member of a club or other group, you might ask the leader of that organization.

Below are some tips on whom to ask for a reference:

  • Choose a current reference. Someone you've interacted with recently will provide a more meaningful letter than an acquaintance you haven't seen in a decade.
  • Choose people who know you well and think highly of you. This will help ensure that the letters are positive and personalized, and read sincerely. 
  • Be practical in making your reference request. Avoid asking friends who tend to be slow to respond to emails or phone calls.
  • Select a diverse group. If you are asked to provide more than one reference, try to select a diverse group. For instance, you may want to include a friend who has known you for years and can speak to your core personality and strengths. You might also choose a colleague who can speak about your on-the-job conduct and more work-related skills.

How to Ask Someone for a Character Reference

After you have decided whom to ask for a character reference, you need to think about how you will ask them. Read below for tips on how to ask for a character reference:

  • Consider the method. The best way to request a character reference is by email because it gives the person time to consider their response. Howeveryou might also ask for a character reference over the phone, or even in person. This makes sense especially if you are particularly close to the person.
  • Phrase the question carefully. Rather than saying, “Can you write me a character reference,” ask the person, “Do you feel you can write me a strong character reference?” 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 strong recommendations, so this helps you avoid receiving any unenthusiastic references.
  • Provide information. Give the person all the information they need to write you a reference letter. Tell them what job or role you are applying for, how to submit the letter and the deadline for submission. You might even include the job listing. Also send them any material that might help them write the letter, such as your resume.

What's Included in the Letter

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 strongly 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 into the area in 2018."

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, an email or phone number should be provided, in case the letter reader has follow-up questions.

Character Reference Examples

Review these examples of character and personal references to get ideas for your own letters.

Follow-Up With a Thank-You Note

Be sure to send a thank-you note afterward to anyone who writes you a character reference. In your note or email, emphasize how much you appreciate them taking the time to write you the reference.

If you get the position, be sure to let your reference provider know that too.

Key Takeaways

You May Need a Character Reference. Employers, educational organizations, volunteer groups, and professional associations may require a reference.

Who to Ask for a Reference. Anyone who can attest to your abilities and strengths can provide you with a reference.

Help Your Reference Writer. When you ask for a reference, be specific about the purpose of the letter and what you need.

Article Sources

  1. CareerOneStop. "Create a Job Search Plan." Accessed March 7, 2020.