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.

The Difference Between Personal and Professional References

There is an important distinct between personal and professional references. Unlike professional references, a personal reference does not necessarily need to be an individual that you have worked under directly.

A personal reference should be someone who knows you well enough to provide good insight into your personality and overall character.

In some cases, you could also use an individual you have worked with - rather than worked under. 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 with in some capacity?”

A character reference will include basics like the relationship the writer has with you and how long you have known them. Ideally, the letter will be positive and illustrate your strongest skills and characteristics so you can stand out amongst 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.


Who to Ask For a Personal Reference

Neighbors and acquaintances may be willing to write a reference for you. Business acquaintances, teachers, professors or academic advisors, volunteer leaders, religious workers, friends, coaches, can also 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 had limited or casual interaction with. Ultimately, you want your personal reference to be able to provide specific and genuine testimonial to your character. After all, the employer’s intention is to get a comprehensive understanding of your personality. 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 coworker who knows you on a personal level. Keep in mind that  when an employer explicitly requests a character or personal reference, they may be more interested in hearing about your interpersonal skills rather than your specific achievements in a professional setting. 

If your reference is coming from a coworker, the personal or character testimonial should be more about how you did what you did rather than what you did. 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: for example, 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.”

Here’s more information on who you can ask for a personal reference

Ask 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. Sending a thank you note or email for taking the time to write the reference is also a nice gesture to show your gratitude. 

Here's how to ask for a reference.


  • Janine provided a personal reference for Katherine recommending her for a job at the local coffee shop.
  • Mike asked his neighbor for a character reference when he applied to the accounting firm.

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