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.

What is a Reference Letter?

A reference letter, also known as a letter of recommendation, is a letter that speaks to someone’s work experience, 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.

People need reference letters when applying for jobs, for school, and even when applying for loans. A reference letter gives the employer, school, or bank a vote of confidence about the candidate.

There are multiple kinds of reference letters, including academic reference letters and personal letters of reference (also known as character references).

What to Do Before Writing the 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.

In fact, 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.

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."

What to Include in a Reference Letter

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.

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 contains 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 skills required for the position.

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
Close your letter with a formal closing and your signature. Here's how to end a letter with examples of business closings.

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 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.

Suggested Reading: Sample Reference Letters | Reference Letter Examples

Find Your Next Job

Job Search by