Heath Alva
Posted June 11, 2021

How to write a professional reference letter (with examples)

Discover the secrets of writing a professional reference letter. Examples are provided in this informative guide.
Heath Alva
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How to write a professional reference letter (with examples)
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It can be difficult to land a new job. Most applicants don’t even make it past the applicant tracking systems. But when they do, they need to be prepared.

And a solid reference letter could be the difference between an applicant landing their dream job and it going to someone else.

What is a reference letter?

A reference letter is a written statement, often in the form of an email or physical letter, that an employer gives a former employee. It goes over their qualifications and should outline their accomplishments.

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

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 for 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 seek 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. The average job posting will receive 100 applications, of which only four to six will be invited to an interview. At this stage, not having at least one comprehensive reference letter will put you at a disadvantage.

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.

The main things a personal reference letter must include is a description of their duties, the duration of their employment, and how they performed. If there are measurable performance markers you can mention, this is where you should do that.

Academic references

References can also come from teachers and graduate school professors. Academic reference letters will outline the candidate’s academic accomplishments and accolades. This 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 is 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. The subject line is important to get 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, and the job title they are seeking. It will 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.

common skills in technology job postings

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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.

Intro

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 would mention how long the candidate was employed with you and the nature of your professional relationship with them.

For example:

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.

Overview

The overview is where you break down the candidate’s role, go over what their responsibilities were, 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 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 was 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 only require 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

Reference letter example and template

Here's an example of a great reference letter which follows the guidelines we've provided above:

reference letter example

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Need to write a reference letter for a former colleague? Feel free to use this template. Just be sure to flesh it out and customize it.

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 former employees land the jobs of their dreams.

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

If you’re looking 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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