How to Write a Reference Letter

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 26 May 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

In your professional career, someone – usually a subordinate – will ask you to write them a reference letter. When that time comes, it will be crucial to understand how to write a good reference letter, also known as a recommendation letter. Your support to whoever requests you to write them a reference letter makes all the difference. An effective reference letter can help your contact get to their preferred point in their career.

In this article, we discuss the basics of a recommendation letter, including what it is and how to write one.

What is a reference letter?

A reference or recommendation letter is a document a party writes to highlight and endorse another person's capabilities. Most recommendation letters are positive letters used when applying for jobs, scholarships or university admissions. Also, the beneficiary of this letter could be a colleague, subordinate, student or acquaintance.

The writer of a reference letter, in contrast, is usually an employer, supervisor, manager or professor, or someone familiar with the individual in whose name they are writing the letter.

Often, companies or schools require applicants' reference letters to be in threes. So, if you request a reference letter, you'll need to find two more people who know you, usually in a professional or academic capacity, to write one for you.

A recommendation letter discusses why the employer should select you for the job or any other opportunity. It highlights your character, accomplishments either in your workplace or another area, work ethic and other positive attributes that would make you the best candidate.

What are the types of reference letters?

There are three types of reference letters, namely:

  1. Professional references

  2. Academic references

  3. Character/personal references

Professional references

If you have an employee looking for a new opportunity or moving to another city, they may request you to write them a professional reference. Professional references are often written by a client or supervisor who is well acquainted with an individual's accomplishments in a work-type setting.

A professional letter of recommendation typically includes a description of the individual's position and job responsibilities, the time they've spent at the company or organisation and their capabilities, qualifications and contributions to the company's growth.

Academic references

An academic reference is written by a professor, advisor or teacher. This letter discusses the candidate's academic achievements and educational background.

Character/ personal references

A character reference is written by someone familiar with the individual applying. This person might be a neighbour, family, friend or colleague. This type of reference focuses more on the individual's character and less on their job experience.

Most employers ask for character references if they want to learn more about their applicants. A character reference typically explains how you know the applicant and outlines the applicant's attributes that make them ideal for the job.

Related: What Is a Recommendation Letter From Your Employer?

Before you write the letter

If someone approaches you to write a reference letter, you need to make sure you feel comfortable writing them one. Before accepting their request, ensure that you feel you can give the person a glowing letter of reference.

If you are not well acquainted with this person or doubt their abilities or skills, it is best to turn down their request for a reference letter. Try to explain why you turned down their request by saying something like, 'I don't feel I am the best person to write you a reference letter'. Better still, you can suggest someone else who you feel might be in a better position to write the letter.

How to write a reference letter

Employers usually use written references to assess different candidates in Australia, especially those who have limited experience. Reference-letter evaluation is often an important part of an individual's application. Here are some general guidelines for writing a reference letter.

Ask for information about the individual and the opportunity they are applying for

Before you write a reference letter, you need to enquire about the individual's updated CV or resume and the opportunity they seek. For the opportunity, ask the person to provide a copy of the listing to familiarise yourself with the position's qualification and skill requirements.

The individual's resume should contain important information such as accreditation and achievements, which you can include in the letter. This allows you to give accurate and up-to-date information and show that you know about the opportunity and why the individual to whom you're writing the recommendation letter is a perfect fit.

Look at other high performing reference letter samples

If you don't know how to write a reference letter or don't know what to include in the recommendation letter, take some time to go through other examples of letters of recommendation to guide you.

Align your thoughts and draft an outline

Typically, professional recommendation letters shouldn't exceed one page. Take your time to decide what you will include in the letter, as the outline can help when you write the actual recommendation. You may want to involve the person you are referencing, to ensure you have all the crucial information in the letter.

Write the introduction

When writing the introduction, begin with an appropriate opening, such as ‘To Whom It May Concern' or ‘Dear'. You should also introduce yourself and include the candidate's name. The next step is to include a brief sentence on how you are acquainted with the person and any qualifications the individual has that set them apart from others.

Then, add any details that may lend more credibility to the letter, such as the position you hold in your company, the organisation you work for, and how long you and the candidate have known each other.

Keep the traits or skills at a minimum of three

After writing the intro, it's time to dive into the body of the letter. Here, you should identify three traits or skills that make the individual stand out. The skills should highlight why the candidate is the best selection for the opportunity. Select skills or traits that are relevant for the position the individual is eyeing.

The next few paragraphs should expand on the traits mentioned before

In the next few paragraphs, expand on the traits you mentioned above and provide the recipient company or institution with relevant supporting examples of each trait and skill you've listed. Also, try to be goal-oriented and specific.

Conclude with a summary of the individual's traits or skills

In your conclusion, summarise the skills you discussed in the letter's body. Finish with why you believe the individual would be an excellent choice for the organisation. You can also add your contact information and let the reader know they can reach you for further questions.

Proofread, edit, sign and send in

After concluding your letter, go through it for any spelling mistakes or grammar errors. Ensure that your reference letter contains all necessary information. Sign the letter and send it in the fashion requested.

What should your reference letter include?

The following are some general information that your letter should typically include unless the organisation has requested other specific things.

Salutation

Start your letter with a greeting to the recipient. If you know them well, you can start with Dear Mr/ Ms Surname. However, if you don't know the addressee's last name or aren't familiar with them, simply write, ‘To Whom It May Concern', ‘Dear Hiring Manager', or ‘Dear Admissions Committee'.

Contact information

Remember to include your contact information and the reader's contact information in the letter. The contact information includes your phone number and mail address. Your company's name and address can also make the letter appear more formal.

Introduction information

This section may include relevant information such as who you are and how you know the candidate, the relationship you have with them, and why you are writing the letter for them. Introduction information typically explains your connection to the applicant.

Conclusion

Finish your letter off with a recap of the applicant's qualification to further emphasise your support for the individual. You may also provide the addressee with additional information if necessary.

Tips for writing a killer reference letter

The following tips can help you write an effective reference letter:

Be brief

Always ensure you go straight to the point and be brief, although one or two paragraphs may not contain sufficient information. That said, your letter should typically be as long as one page. The recommended number of paragraphs are three or four, as well as a catchy introduction and closing.

Traditional fonts say more than you think

Be as professional as you can when writing the letter. To do so, use a traditional font like Times New Roman or Calibri. The font size should range from 10 to 12 for easy readability. You can keep adjusting the font as you go to keep the letter to one page.

Use the appropriate format

Always use a one-inch margin for the right-left top and bottom of the page and align the text to the left. The reference letter should be single-spaced, with one space after every paragraph.

Proofread

Proofread and edit your letter so it's free of errors and grammar mistakes. If you aren't sure about how it sounds, have someone else go through it. If you give someone else to edit the letter for you, make sure you conceal the applicant's name for privacy. Also, double-check the information to ensure all the details are there and correct.

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