Everything You Need to Know on How to Write a Reference Letter

Everything You Need to Know on How to Write a Reference Letter
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Updated on 1 September 2017

You’ve been asked to write a reference letter—nice! Being asked likely means you’ve come far enough in your career that your endorsement is meaningful. At the very least, it means that someone you know personally values your opinion of them.

Reference letters are a staple of modern communications. At some time or another, almost everybody needs one for things like job applications, internships, college or grad school applications, or even volunteer opportunities. It pays to know how to write them. Fortunately, letters of recommendation follow a standard format.

Before You Write a Reference Letter

There are a few things to consider before you sit down to recommend someone. While it’s flattering to be asked, keep in mind that your endorsement may become part of a personnel file, so it’s important to be sure it’s something you’re willing to stand by for the long term. Also, some companies have policies forbidding employees from granting references. Before you give someone your stamp of approval, be sure your company approves of the practice.

Here’s a tip: You’re doing the reference seeker a solid, so be sure to ask for things that will make the process easier. Have them provide a copy of their resume or a fact sheet so you don’t have to look up things like job titles and employment dates. Information about the position or program the person is applying for will also help.

Turning Down a Reference Letter Request

What should you do if you need to turn down a request for a reference letter? The answer depends on the situation.

When You Can’t Honestly Recommend the Person

What happens if you’ve been asked to provide a reference for someone you don’t feel comfortable recommending? Let’s say their work ethic or the quality of their work isn’t up to your standards. It’s acceptable to decline politely with a generic response like, “I don’t think I’m the best person to write you a reference.” There’s no need to give specific reasons.

When You Don’t Know the Person Well Enough

Do you really know the person you’ve been asked to recommend? If you don’t know enough about the quality of their work to say glowing things about them, it’s best to turn down the request. Simply say, “I’m sorry. I’m flattered that you asked me for a reference, but I don’t feel I’m familiar enough with you or your work to write one.”

How to Format a Reference Letter

Most letters of recommendation follow a standard business letter format. Although you’ll have to fill in all the blanks, having a template to follow makes the process a bit easier. Here’s what a reference letter should include.

Your contact information and greeting. It’s a good idea to include your title, phone number, and (if you’re not emailing the recommendation directly) your email address. Open your letter with a formal greeting.

An opening paragraph introducing yourself. Tell the recipient who you are, and why you’re qualified to recommend the person you’re writing about. Include things like how long you’ve known or worked with the person, and in what capacity (as a supervisor, advisor, etc.).

Details about the person you’re recommending. Talk about why this person is qualified. What personal attributes make them a good worker or student? What skills do they bring to the table? What accomplishments have you witnessed or been a part of? If you can include a brief example to illustrate the person’s qualifications, all the better.

A closing and signature. Your closing should reiterate why the person has earned your endorsement. If you’re open to being contacted with further questions or for a verbal recommendation, indicate that. Sign off formally.

Reference Letter Sample

Wile E. Coyote has been asked to write a letter of reference for an intern he directly supervised. Here’s an example of the correct format for a hard copy (or pdf attachment) letter of recommendation.

Wile E. Coyote Director of Manufacturing Acme Corporation 1234 Mesa Loop SW Albuquerque, NM 123456 (123) 456-7890 | wile_e_coyote@acmecorp.com

Elmer J. Fudd Fudd Mansion & Yacht, Inc. 5678 Wabbit Season Way Hollywood, CA 90123

Dear Mr. Fudd,

It is my pleasure to to recommend Road Runner for a courier position with your company. Road worked as a courier intern in Acme Corporation’s Albuquerque office from March to July 2017. During this time he was under my direct supervision.

In his brief time with Acme, Road demonstrated exceptional speed and agility as a courier. His deliveries are timely, and he is always polite and professional. His remarkable ability to think on his feet has gotten him through many high-stress situations. He is always calm, even under pressure. He has shown willingness to take calculated risks and go the extra mile.

Although Road is generally quiet, he has a courteous manner and is excellent with customers and colleagues alike—he truly never bothers anyone. I believe he takes great joy in his work, because he always seems as though he’s having fun. I’ve enjoyed having him greet me daily with a cheerful “Meep meep!”

I believe Road would be an asset to any employer. I do not hesitate to give him my wholehearted recommendation. I look forward to closely following his career trajectory. I’m certain he will go far. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Sincerely,

Wile E. Coyote

A Note About Email Reference Letters

When you’re sending an email reference letter, it’s not necessary to include your address or the recipient’s contact information. Instead, include a subject header like:

Letter of Reference: Road Runner

Place your contact information below your signature, like this:

Sincerely,

Wile E. Coyote

Director of Manufacturing

Acme Corporation

(123) 456-7890

If you need more inspiration, visit The Balance for samples of different types of reference letters.

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