What is a Personal Reference?

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A personal reference, also known as a character reference, is a reference provided by an individual who knows you and can vouch for your character and abilities. When you’re applying for jobs, you’ll undoubtedly be asked for references at some point during the hiring process.

Depending on the type of position and your circumstances, personal references can be an excellent choice to support your candidacy.

If you’re a recent graduate or changing careers, character references may be able to provide insight into your work ethic and capacities specific to the position that a former employer or colleague wouldn’t be familiar with.

Make sure you read the job posting carefully or pay close attention to the hiring manager regarding the type of references they are asking for. Sometimes, the application will specify that you should provide professional references, in which case you will need to be certain that your referrals act in that capacity.

The Difference Between Personal and Professional References

There is an important distinction between personal and professional references:

  • Unlike professional references, a personal reference does not necessarily need to be an individual who you’ve worked with directly in a business setting.
  • A personal reference should be someone who knows you well enough to provide good insight into your personality and overall character.

If the terminology in the job listing is unclear and you have already established contact with the employer, it’s acceptable to ask, “Are you looking to speak with an individual who can attest to my character in general or someone who I have worked within a business capacity?”

A character reference letter will include basics like the relationship the writer has with you and how long you have known them. The letter should include a positive endorsement and illustrate your strongest skills and characteristics so that you can stand out from the crowd. In general, anyone who can vouch for your work ethic, reliability, and your ability to achieve in an employment or academic setting can give you a personal reference.

Why Have Personal References?

While it’s a good idea to have references from people who have worked with you – supervisors, colleagues, and staff – it can be helpful to have some personal references as well. This is particularly true for recent grads, who may not have a lot of paid work experience in their field, but who probably have professors or casual employers who can speak to their qualifications as an employee.

More experienced workers who are changing careers may also want to include a personal reference who can recommend them based on familiarity with a different set of skills.

Who to Ask for a Personal Reference

Business acquaintances, teachers, professors or academic advisors, volunteer leaders, religious workers, friends, coaches, and neighbors can all provide a personal reference.

You should not, however, ask a family member or spouse to provide a personal reference.

If possible, do not select someone who you’ve only had limited or casual interaction with. You need your reference to be able to provide a specific and genuine testimonial to your character. After all, the employer intends to get a comprehensive understanding of your personality and ability to succeed on the job. If your reference’s response is vague, overly general, or brief, this goal will not be met.

In some cases, you may not have a personal reference outside of your family or spouse, in which case you could ask a co-worker who knows you on a personal level. Keep in mind that when an employer explicitly requests a personal reference, they may be more interested in hearing about your interpersonal skills, reputation, and personal characteristics than your specific achievements in a professional setting.

For example, an employer would rather hear, “Jim has a strong set of interpersonal skills that made him a great asset to our sales team. He is an excellent listener, a strong but empathetic negotiator, and always ‘shows up,’ both mentally and physically.” Rather than just, “Jim was always the top salesman at our company.”

How to Get Excellent Personal References – and Use Them to Your Advantage

1. Request permission before you use someone for a reference. Be sure to contact your potential references before you give out their information to ensure that they are comfortable and willing to take on such a role.

2. Provide guidelines for your personal reference. You should be sure that they have enough information as well as the time and interest to provide a strong endorsement for your candidacy for the job. It’s a good idea to forward them an updated resume and the job posting, especially if you haven’t talked in a long while, to make sure that they can speak to the specific skills that the job requires.

3. Proofread before sending. Even the most glowing reference won’t impress the hiring manager if it’s riddled with typos, grammatical errors, or other mistakes. Proofread your recommendations before passing them along to the hiring manager, paying special attention to the spellings of names (companies, individuals, and teams).

4. Wait until the right moment to share your reference with employers. Unless specifically mentioned in the job posting, wait until you are asked to provide references to your potential employer. Make absolutely sure that you have their explicit permission before giving someone’s name as a reference.

5. Follow up with your references. Giving you a referral takes some time, consideration, and thought on the part of your reference. Sending a thank-you note or email to the person who took the time to endorse you is a nice gesture to show your gratitude.

Personal Reference Letters for Employment

Review examples of personal reference letters for employment, and use them as a starting point for your own letters.

Sample Personal Reference Letter Example #1

To Whom It May Concern,

As a nanny to my eight-year-old twins for the past three years, Heather Pleat has proven herself to be a remarkably responsible, confident young woman.

I am amazed at the ease with which Heather can fulfill a variety of tasks. She has worked for me not only as a nanny, but also as a tutor to my children and a housekeeper. She even finds time to volunteer at a local daycare for single mothers. Not once have I seen Heather become overwhelmed by a given task or assignment.

I am confident that Heather’s intelligence and maturity will be great assets in any organization. Please do not hesitate to contact me with any questions.


Janet Monroe
(555) 555-5555

Sample Personal Reference Letter Example #2

Dear Hiring Manager,

I have been acquainted with Dillon Smith for the past four years in my capacity as faculty advisor to the Spanish Club at Anytown High School. Dillon has shown himself to be a leader, serving as club president as a senior, and as treasurer during his junior year.

During the time that I have known Dillon, I have witnessed his ability to lead the group in many fundraising events and field experiences. His organizational skills made it possible for the group to finance a trip to Mexico during winter break, where the students were able to experience first-hand the excitement of delving into another culture.

I believe that this young man has the skills and maturity to excel in your organization. If I can answer any further questions, please contact me.


Colin Jones
(123) 456-7890

Article Sources

  1. CareerOneStop. "References," Accessed Nov. 15, 2019.

  2. SHRM. "Personal Reference Checks Valuable but Require Extra Care," Accessed Nov. 15, 2019.