A Guide (With Examples) to Professional Reference Letters

Last updated: February 22, 2024
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A Guide (With Examples) to Professional Reference Letters
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Finding a new job isn't always easy. Job seekers usually must complete an application and attend a job interview.

There are a few ways you can make an application stand out to prospective employers. 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 letter for a colleague. If you want to know how to get your letter right, we've got you covered.

This article will cover 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 standard letter.

It goes over their qualifications and should outline their accomplishments.

It's also used to support the resume, confirming 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. However, they aren't letters of recommendation, as these are more personalized.

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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 in the role.

Why do job hunters need reference letters?

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

Reference letters are usually asked for after the interview, though 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. That is why job seekers need to put a lot of thought into who they ask for a letter.

Let's take a deeper look into why reference letters are so important.

They add a personal touch to the application

In today's job market, it's not all about qualifications. Employers are looking for applicants with the right attitude and cultural fit.

A reference letter can give them insight into the person behind the resume, making it easier to determine whether they'd be a good match for the company.

They back up a candidate's skill set, character, and abilities

An employer can use a reference letter to verify the information on a resume. This is especially useful for those who are just entering the workforce or have gaps in their employment history.

If an employer doubts the information on a resume, they can check with the references to ensure that the candidate is qualified for the role.

They may expedite the hiring process

Sometimes, a well-written reference letter may be enough to convince an employer to hire a candidate.

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If they're on the fence about two candidates and one of them has a strong letter of recommendation, that letter could be the deciding factor.

This is especially true in fields where jobs are highly competitive.

They’re great for those just entering the workforce

If you're new to working, you might not have much in the way of work experience. In this case, a reference letter can be extremely helpful.

Your references can vouch for your interpersonal skills and abilities, even if you don't have much experience to back them up. Don't underestimate the power of a good reference.

Understanding the different types of reference letters

While most reference letters follow a standard format, there are different types to be aware of. Here are three of the most common:

Character reference letter

A positive character reference letter is written by someone who knows you on a personal level. This could be a close friend, a teacher, or a neighbor.

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This letter focuses less on your skills and experience and more on your character. It highlights your work ethic, attitude, and ability to work well with others.

Professional reference letter

A professional reference letter is written by someone who’s worked with you professionally. This could be a past employer, colleague, or client.

This type of letter focuses on your skills and experience. It highlights your accomplishments and successes in a specific role or industry.

Academic reference letter

An academic reference letter is written by a teacher or professor who taught you as a student. It typically serves as a recommendation for admissions into a higher education program, like a college or graduate school.

This type of letter focuses on your academic achievements and abilities. It highlights your intelligence, drive, and ability to succeed in an academic setting.

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When making a letter of recommendation request, specify which type you need. This will ensure that you get a letter tailored to your needs and provides the most value to potential employers.

What goes into a reference letter?

A professional reference letter should follow the format of a formal letter. This means you should list your full contact information, the date, and the recipient's contact information, usually the hiring manager.

If the reference letter is in an email form, you can keep this out. Instead, put your contact information at the very bottom of the email. It's crucial 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 with your letter, you could tailor the document to a specific job posting. However, reference letters are usually more general.

Tips 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.


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.

You should also mention how long the candidate was employed with you and the nature of your professional relationship.

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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The overview is where you break down the candidate's role, review their responsibilities, and highlight relevant soft 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 relating 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.


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

For example:

If you require 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.

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.

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

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, and I am a chef at That Hotel. I have over - - 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 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 reference letter 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 an {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 with {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, {Recommender Name} {Recommender position}, {Company}

Common reference letter mistakes and how to avoid them

There is always room for improvement when writing a reference letter. Let's look at a few of the most common mistakes job seekers make and how to avoid them.

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Not providing the recommender enough time

Not providing enough time is one of the most frequent mistakes applicants make when requesting a reference letter. They wait until the last minute to reach the recommender, giving them little time to write a well-thought-out letter.

It can be challenging to write a quality letter on short notice, as the recommender may not have enough time to think about your skills and personal strengths. Asking for a reference letter well in advance will give the recommender plenty of time to write a strong letter.

Not customizing letters for each application/role

Many job seekers use the same reference letter for every application. While there are no established rules on how to format a reference letter, it can be helpful to tailor each one to the specific job you're applying for.

Each letter should be unique, highlighting the skills and experiences relevant to the role you're applying for. Don't just use the same document for every job. Take the time to customize each letter to be as effective as possible.

Not editing and/or proofreading the letter

Editing and proofreading your reference letter draft before sending it off is important. Simple grammatical errors or typos can undo an otherwise well-written letter.

Don't rely on an automatic spell check to catch everything, though. Take the time to carefully review the letter before sending it off. Or, if you’d prefer, you can have someone else read over the letter to catch any lingering mistakes.

Submitting the letter past a deadline

Most employers will specify a deadline for a reference letter submission. It's important to submit your letter by this deadline to complete your application.

If you're running late, contact the employer and let them know. They may be able to extend the deadline for you. But try not to make a habit of this, as it could impair your chances of being considered for the job.

Keep these common mistakes in mind when writing your reference letter. Avoiding them will help you write an effective letter. Remember, these letters help you to showcase your skills and accomplishments and can help you land a new job.

Write compelling reference letters that will impress

Whether you've been recruited to write a reference letter or need to obtain a reference letter, it's helpful to understand the basics of writing a compelling and impressive letter. There are several types of reference letters, and each has its purpose. Be sure to select the right type for your needs.

Additionally, take the time to customize each letter and proofread it before sending it off. By following these tips, you can write a reference letter that will positively impact your job search. If you need more help, check out Jobcase’s Getting Hired Resource Center for guidance on your job search.

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