How to Write a Reference Letter

Writing an effective reference letter has the power to help a candidate. Whether it is a job applicant or a prospective renter, a well-worded recommendation can make the difference between success and rejection.

What is a Reference Letter?
In simplest terms, a reference letter puts the weight of your personal or professional reputation behind an applicant. It shows that you are unafraid to have your character and professional affiliation connected to the individual who is requesting the reference. Not surprisingly, writing this type of recommendation is something that you should consider with care.

Are You the Right Person for the Task?
While it is flattering to have an applicant approach you with a request for a written reference, ask yourself if you are really the right person to do so. For example, when a job applicant needs a letter attesting to her or his personal conduct around confidential documents or money, you may not be able to comply if you have never worked with the individual in this type of setting. Since this letter states that you vouch for the person in a particular setting, you must have first-hand knowledge of the facts before agreeing to put together the document.

When Would You Write a Reference for Someone?
The most common situation is to write the letter for a job applicant. When this applicant needs a boost behind a good resume, an effectively written reference can make a huge difference. Someone may ask you to write a letter if you have worked with the person, acted as a supervisor or were the actual employer.

Sometimes, property owners or managers require prospective renters to furnish personal references. They offer the rental manager an opportunity to learn a little about the individual before considering the application to rent an apartment, house or other property.

A third reason why you may find yourself in a position to write a reference letter is when a student or recent graduate approaches you. It is frequently a professor or teacher's letter that allows this person access to an internship position, an advanced placement course or an entry-level job.

What Should You Say?
There are three things that you should never put into this kind of letter.

  1. Guarantees. Do not offer up a personal guarantee that the applicant will be a successful intern, excellent employee or quiet renter. Since you have no control over the individual, putting such guarantees into a letter actually detracts from your message.
  2. Personal information. Religion, race, sexual orientation and political leanings have no place in a reference letter. The same is true for the applicant's age, marital status or any health issues.
  3. Minor issues. Although it is good to give specific details, it is a mistake to focus on one or two minor issues and miss the opportunity to provide the applicant with a powerful letter that emphasizes the weightier things. For example, an anecdote related to an excellent customer service incident is useful. Yet do not limit your reference to just this one situation. Rather, put it against the backdrop of a bigger picture.
A hard-copy reference letter should be written in the business letter format, while an email should be sent in the same format but without the heading (your return address, their address, and the date). Whenever possible, address the recipient by name.

Begin the body of the letter with a paragraph or two introducing yourself and your relationship to the applicant. This gives the reader an understanding why you chose to write the letter in the first place.

The next paragraph should focus on the actual reference. This is where you refer to the applicant's job experience, rental history or academic background. Be as specific as possible. For professional references, include job titles, duties and achievements. For a rental reference, give a prior rental history and details about the individual's conduct. Within the frame of an academic reference, mention coursework that has been completed, grades earned and the current academic standing.

Finish the letter by giving a clear personal assessment of the individual's skills that you back up with concrete examples. Welcome further inquiries and assure the reader that you are available for questions as needed. End the letter like you would any other business letter.

Also see: Sample Reference Letter

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