What Is a Character Reference?

Ask for a Recommendation From Someone Who Thinks Highly of You

Friendly neighbors giving fruit basket
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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.

Read below for information on when you need a character reference, what is included in one, who to ask for a reference, and how to ask them.

When Are Character References Required?

A character reference is often 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 do not 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. 

What's Included in the Letter?

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 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 20XX."
  • Information on your personality and abilities, with examples. Details that match 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 strengthen 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.

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 asked to be a character reference for someone, read here for more tips on writing a strong character reference.

Who Should Provide Your Character Reference?

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.

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 reference who is up-to-date. 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's 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 Should I 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. However, you 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 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.
    • Send a thank you note. Send a thank you note afterwards to the writer. Be sure to emphasize how much you appreciate them taking the time to write you a reference.

    Read More: Character and Personal References | Requesting References | Sample Letters of Reference | Will Employers Check Your References? | Writing Reference Letters