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How to write a professional reference letter (with examples)
Last updated: September 26, 2022
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How to write a professional reference letter (with examples)
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Finding a new job isn't always easy. Job seekers usually need to complete an application process and attend a job interview.

There are a few ways you can make an application stand out to a potential employer. For example, you can include a cover letter and customize your resume for the position.

Plus, you can include a strong letter of recommendation. When someone can vouch for your professional skills and personality traits, it can make a difference in the hiring process.

Chances are, you may be asked to write a professional reference letter for a colleague. If you want to know how to get it right, we’ve got you covered.

In this article, we'll go over the importance of reference letters and everything you need to know to write a great one.

What is a reference letter?

A reference letter is a written statement that an employer gives a former employee, often in the form of an email or physical letter.

It goes over their qualifications and should outline their accomplishments.

It’s also used to support the resume, acting as proof that the information the applicant provided is accurate. An effective letter of recommendation will help a job-seeker stand out.

While reference letters are typically used for job applications, they’re also used in academic settings and volunteer positions. They aren’t letters of recommendation (which are more personalized).

If someone comes to you for a letter of reference, they’re putting their trust in you. Your reference letter could be what pushes that candidate over the edge and lands them the role.

Why do job hunters need reference letters?

Before we buy anything, most of us look at the reviews. A reference letter works in the same way, acting as a positive endorsement of the candidate’s skills. Since the employer doesn’t know the job hunter, they rely on other people’s reviews to help out.

Reference letters are usually asked for after the interview, and not every company will need one. However, it’s best to be prepared.

A reference letter could make or break the job search, especially for those in more competitive fields.

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3 different types of reference letters

Character references

A family member, friend, mentor, or even a former co-worker can give a character reference letter. The goal is to highlight the candidate’s personal attributes as they relate to their career.

For example, if a job hunter was seeking a position as a sales associate, a character reference could mention how sociable they are. Try to keep these character traits as relevant as possible to the type of job the candidate is looking for.

Professional references

This is what most people think of when they think of a reference letter. It’s your standard letter that comes from a former colleague, supervisor, or anyone else the candidate has interacted with on a professional level who can vouch for their skills.

A personal reference letter must include a description of their duties, the duration of their employment, and how they performed. If there are measurable performance markers that you can mention, include them here.

Academic references

References can also come from teachers and graduate school professors. Academic reference letters will outline the candidate’s academic accomplishments and accolades.

The letter could include details of their coursework, grades, and even their interpersonal skills.

What goes into a reference letter?

A professional reference letter should look like a business letter. That is, you should list your full contact information, the date, and the contact information of the recipient, who's usually the hiring manager.

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If the reference letter is an email, you can leave this out. Instead, put your contact information at the very bottom of the email. It’s important to get the subject line right. The wrong subject line could get your email overlooked entirely.

Just be sure to include the subject, the full name of the person you’re referring to, and the job title they seek. It'll look something like this:

“Reference Letter for Jane Doe - Sales Associate Position.”

Request information for the reference letter

The candidate’s accomplishments may not be top of mind for you. That’s why you should ask for a copy of their resume. That, along with a brief conversation about their accolades, should provide you with ample information to write a comprehensive reference letter.

If you want to go above and beyond, you could tailor the reference letter to a specific job posting. However, reference letters are usually more general in nature.

If you know they will be applying to jobs in a certain field, do your best to reference the candidate’s skills. For example, technology job postings often look for management and communications skills.

How to write a reference letter

By following this guide, you’ll be able to craft a reference letter that will wow hiring managers and help you benefit a deserving candidate.

Let's break it down.

Introduction

If you’re writing a more general reference letter, addressing it with “To whom it may concern” is the appropriate choice. However, if it’s for a specific job, address it to the person in charge of the hiring process and include the company name.

This is also where you should mention how long the candidate was employed with you and the nature of your professional relationship with them.

Here’s an introduction from a sample letter:

Dear Mr. Doe,

I am writing to recommend Jane Smith for the position of Sales Manager at We Sell Things.

Jane Smith worked as a Sales Associate for us between January 2018 and January 2021. I worked very closely with her while she was on my team, acting as her manager.

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Overview

The overview is where you break down the candidate’s role, review their responsibilities, and highlight relevant skills.

For example:

In the year Jane Smith was on my team, she exceeded all sales targets and quickly became one of the top-performing sales associates in the company. She developed several sales strategies for the company and assisted with training new hires.

Personal story

Many reference letters don’t include a personal story, but this can help communicate how the employee performed beyond the stats. You can use this personal reflection to highlight their strengths as they relate to the position. Be sure to give specific examples.

For example:

Jane went above and beyond her job description, assisting other team members with projects and coaching them along the way. Her dedication and communication skills helped increase the team’s morale and were a driving force behind the success of several substantial projects.

She worked directly with some of our most important customer accounts, and her contributions have not gone unnoticed. Several customers and employees have spoken highly of Jane.

Closing

To close your reference letter, you should offer to provide additional information if necessary. Provide your phone number and email address so the hiring manager can get in touch if they have more questions.

For example:

If you require any further information, please contact me at (123) 123-1234 or [email protected]

Joe Smith

Sales Director, We Sell Things

Formatting your reference letter

The look of the reference letter is almost as important as the content. If you follow these basic formatting guidelines, your letter will be good to go.

  • Your letter should be more than two paragraphs, but it should also fit on one page.

  • Use a standard font, like Times New Roman, with a font size of 10 or 12

  • It should be single-spaced with a space between the paragraphs

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Reference letter example and template

We’ve put together some samples to show you how a professional reference letter can look.

EXAMPLE: Reference letter from a leader

Here's a professional recommendation letter sample that follows the guidelines we've provided above. It’s a general letter from someone in a management or leadership role.

DATE

To whom it may concern,

I am writing this letter to recommend Jasmine Clark for the receptionist position.

Jasmine has been working as an office assistant at Block Accounting since January 12, 2018. As the office manager, I have worked closely with Ms. Clark for more than four years.

Jasmine is a valued member of our team. She works tirelessly in a busy work environment and always completes her work on time.

Jasmine is a team player with strong leadership skills and a positive attitude. Her daily duties include data entry, customer service, and cash handling.

While it’s not an official part of her job description, Jasmine always caters to staff birthdays and trains new team members. Her excellent communication skills, patience, and attention to detail have earned her respect from her coworkers.

If you have any questions or require additional information, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

You can contact me by phone at (000) 000-0000 or via email at [email protected]

Kind regards

Jane Allan

Here’s a bonus example:

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EXAMPLE: Reference letter from a colleague

Alternatively, if you need to write a reference letter for a former colleague, here’s an example:

Dear Louisa King,

I am writing to recommend Kylie Big for the bartender role at Kasey’s Diner.

My name is Jason Rose, a chef at That Hotel. I have over 10 years of experience in food preparation and kitchen management.

Kylie Big has been involved with running the bar and has provided excellent customer service for the past three years. Kylie has played a vital role in serving drinks, accepting payments, and restocking ingredients.

Kylie is a hard-working individual and is respected by her colleagues. Kylie has the patience and motivation to perform any restaurant duties, offering leadership and good time management.

While it was not an official part of Kylie’s job description, she has delighted customers and staff by planning special events. Kylie’s enthusiasm and attention to detail have inspired other team members to strive for success.

Feedback from Kylie’s peers has been positive, suggesting she's both a team player and adept at bartending.

If you have further questions about Kylie, you can call me at 000-000-000.

Warm regards,

Jason Rose

Chef, That Hotel

TEMPLATE: Reference letter from a colleague

Now it’s your turn. To make it easier, we’ve put together this template that you can customize to suit your needs:

Dear {FirstName LastName},

I am writing to recommend {ApplicantName} for the {position} at {Company}.

My name is {RecommenderName}, a {position} at {Company}. I have over {length of time} of experience, specializing in {expertise}.

{ApplicantName} has been involved with {job function} and {summarize accomplishment} for length of time. {ApplicantName} has played a vital role in {work task}, {work task}, and {work task}.

{ApplicantName} is a {attribute} individual and is respected by their colleagues. {ApplicantName} has the {attribute} and {attribute} to perform {a specific role} offering {professional qualities}.

While it was not an official part of {Applicant’s} job description, {Applicant} has delighted customers and staff by {personal story}. {Applicant’s} {personal qualities}, and {professional qualities} have inspired other team members to strive for {positive outcome}.

Feedback from {Applicant’s} peers has been positive, suggesting {ApplicantName} is both {personal quality} and {professional quality} in {position}.

If you have further questions about {ApplicantName}, you can phone me on {phone number}.

Warm regards,

{RecommenderName}

{Recommender position}, {Company}

Write compelling reference letters that will impress

Now you’re ready to write reference letters that will help your connections land the jobs of their dreams.

By following the above tips, you’ll be able to pump out excellent reference letters that'll impress even the pickiest hiring managers.

Remember to break your letter down into parts. There should be a clear introduction, overview, personal story, and closing. Include details of their skills and any duties that are relevant to the new position.

For more information on writing reference letters or other aspects of the job hunt, visit the Jobcase Getting Hired Resource Center.

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