I’m going to guess that you’re here for one of two reasons. Either you’re after a job, and the employer has asked you to provide a character reference letter, or you’re trying to write a letter for someone who needs one.
If you’re in the first group, I’m going to break down what a character reference is and what it should include, as well as how to request one.
If you’re trying to figure out how to write a character reference letter, I’ll take a look at what you should include, what you definitely shouldn’t write, and how to improve the trustworthiness and reliability of your letter.
Are you ready?
Welcome to Character Reference Letter 101!
What is a Character Reference Letter?
Before we talk about what one should include, we need to be clear on just what a character reference is. And what it isn’t.
When you provide references for a job application, most companies will want professional references. These are accounts and assessments of your work from past employers. They’ll tell the potential employer about things like your job performance, work ethic, and reliability as an employee.
A character reference letter is something else entirely
This is a letter that should come from a non-work-related acquaintance. This referee should not be a family member or a person you’ve worked with in an actual job (though voluntary positions are great). It should express information about your character and personality, focusing on the positives that a potential employer might want to know about.
What Is a Character Reference Letter Used for?
There are two main reasons why someone might need a character reference letter.
One, which I won’t be focusing on, is for judicial purposes. In particular, judges consider character when they write their sentencing decisions. A character reference letter may help a judge to understand if an offense was a one-off instance or symptomatic of a pattern of behavior.
But that’s not what we’re talking about here…
Instead, we’re talking about character references for job applications. Some companies ask for these references, either with an initial application or later in the process after whittling down the group of potential hires.
What’s their purpose in asking for a character reference?
Pretty much no one goes into job interviews and behaves the same as usual. After all, you don’t know this person you are trying to impress, so you act more formally than normal. You’re also nervous because you want the job, and you can’t really relax and speak 100% freely.
A character reference helps the interviewer to learn more about the type of person you are. This is particularly important when they’re planning to place you on a team and want to know how you’ll fit and what roles you can take on. It’s part of a smarter, more thorough hiring process.
Are you Writing a Character Reference Letter?
If so, what should be included in a character reference letter?
I’m going to give you a simple breakdown here on the types of things that should go into a character reference letter. I’ll also be providing a sample letter so you can get a feeling of what should and shouldn’t be included.
In general, a character reference letter should include these four simple things:
1 Explanation of your relationship with the candidate.
2 Details of the candidate’s positive characteristics with examples.
4 Contact details for the writer.
Let’s look at these in a bit more detail…
1 Explanation of your relationship with the candidate
This is the easiest part of the whole letter. All you have to do is give one or two clear sentences to explain what your relationship is to the candidate. Are you a coach or teacher? Did you volunteer together? It’s also very useful to state how long you have known each other. A longer relationship will hold a lot more weight than a short one.
You don’t need to include the story of how you met – the stated relationship will explain that well enough.
1 Details of the candidate’s positive characteristics with examples
This is the most difficult part of the letter. When you think about the candidate’s character, what comes to mind? The 6 pillars of character like respect, trustworthiness, caring, fairness, loyalty, and citizenship are great areas to focus on.
Choose two to three positive characteristics you think help to define the candidate as a person. For each, provide a clear and concise story as an example to back up your statement.
Here’s an example…
“Samantha is a very trustworthy person. When we volunteered together at Ridgedale Retirement Home, she recovered resident’s misplaced wallets not once but three times. Each time, she handed in the wallet immediately, and everything was left in place.”
Keep it short and simple. You don’t need to name names or say what day of the week it was. Just let the reader know what happened and the characteristic it demonstrates.
A recommendation in a character reference letter can be either general or specific. If someone has asked you for a character reference, make sure you know what it will be used for.
Often, a person will be job hunting and will apply for several quite different positions. They might ask you to make a general character reference for them to use multiple times. If this is the case, you’ll have to make a general recommendation. You can write something like,
“I recommend Jeff for any position he may apply for.”
“Tara’s personality and character make her well suited to working on any team.”
On the other hand, the person asking you for a reference may be a candidate for a specific job and have been asked for a letter to support that application. In this case, it will be better to be specific. However, to do that, you need information about the company they are applying to and the job they hope to secure.
This information can help you tailor your letter to highlight the specific positive characteristics that would be appropriate to the job. For example, trustworthiness is going to be important for a security guard position, while you might focus more on fairness and strong ethics for someone applying to a law firm.
Here are some examples:
“Tara’s trustworthiness and reliability would allow her to perform very well as a security guard.”
“With her strong sense of fairness and ingrained ethical behavior, I believe Tara would be an outstanding asset to your law firm.”
1 Contact details for the writer
Last but not least, include your contact details. Remember, there is probably a strong chance you will actually be contacted by the hiring company. Put down only the methods of contact you feel comfortable with, though a telephone number is definitely a must.
There’s no need to give your Facebook or Instagram handle – these are far too informal.
What to Avoid in a Character Reference Letter?
Now that you know what to include in a character reference, it’s time to talk about what you should never talk about.
Keep it Positive – There’s no reason to add in negative points. With a character reference letter, it’s generally understood that neither the candidate nor the hiring company is asking for a fair, balanced assessment of character. Stick to only the positives.
As your mom taught you, if you can’t say something nice…
Don’t ramble on or give unnecessary details, especially in your examples. Everyone’s time is precious to them, so keep things as short as possible and only as long as necessary.
Watch for Mistakes
Give your letter a final edit once it’s done. Use a word processor or a reliable second set of eyes to make sure you haven’t written the wrong thing.
Keep it Professional
The letter is about the candidate’s character and not their work. But that doesn’t mean it should get into private matters. Avoid talking about stories that are too personal or which might reveal private or sensitive information. “He took great care of his mother during her battle with cancer” is far too private and isn’t appropriate in a reference letter.
How to Make Your Reference More Reliable?
If someone asks you for a character reference letter, they’re actually asking for a lot.
This person has (hopefully) selected you because you have a long, strong, respectful relationship. Now they want you to put that into writing. This means you not only have to do a good job summarizing their character, but you also have to express everything in an effective, reliable, and trustworthy way.
This can be a worry, but I’ve got some pointers to help you make your letter more trustworthy and believable.
Keep it Formal
First of all, this should be a formal letter. That means you should address the person you’re writing to by title (Dr., Ms. Etc.), or give a formal “To Whom it May Concern” if you don’t know. Use formal language wherever you can. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but don’t use slang and avoid being overly familiar.
Back it Up
I don’t mean save your file, but of course, you should do that too! I mean, back up your assessment of the person’s character with well-thought-out, illustrative examples. Put yourself in the hirer’s shoes. Wouldn’t you want to hear some reason or evidence for why someone is called trustworthy, caring, or loyal?
Invite Further Contact
Don’t just add your contact details. Actively ask for the employer to contact you. This says boldly, “I’m confident and honest in my recommendation,” and adds a lot of clout to what you’ve written.
Character Reference Letter 101 Sample
Here’s a sample letter to help give you an idea of what you could write:
To Whom It May Concern,
I am writing to recommend Jenna Sparks as an outstanding individual I have had the pleasure of knowing for some time. I was Angela’s high school swimming coach and have known her for over five years. She not only trained under me but also helped to train younger members of the swimming team as well.
Jenna has always shown a high level of dedication. As a swimmer, she did not initially excel. However, she tried harder than anyone else on the team, coming early to already early-morning practice and working on her technique more than anyone else. And eventually, this focus paid off when she became a city-wide champion.
With the younger teammates, Jenna was excellent. She was patient with the younger students and went out of her way to assist them in strengthening their techniques. She was always bright and encouraging with them as well. After a while, Jenna basically filled the role of an assistant coach. I knew she was responsible and trustworthy enough to leave her in charge of younger swimmers and to lead training sessions.
I believe that these characteristics will help Jenna go far in whatever work she chooses to undertake. I recommend her highly, and if any further information is required, I’m happy to be reached at XXX-XXX-XXXX or by email at [email protected].
Do you Need a Character Reference Letter Written?
If you have been asked to provide a character reference letter by a potential employer, there are some important things to think about.
Asking the right person is essential. I know your mom loves you, but don’t ask her to write the letter. Don’t just choose a childhood friend either. No one will believe that these people can be objective.
It has to be someone outside of your immediate family who you have known for at least a few years. They should know you through a context such as training, volunteering, study, or any other situation in which you could have shown them your character.
When you do request the letter, remember that you are asking them to stick their neck out for you. Make sure it’s someone you know will be willing to do that.
And don’t be afraid to tell them what you need. The more information they have, the better they can tailor the letter to the specific job you may be applying for. Also, ask them to be positive and point to the parts of your character that would be most relevant to your employment.
If in doubt, point your referee towards this article!
Looking for more Helpful Career Hints And Insights?
We’ve got a massive amount of advice from writing resumes to after your interview, so just take a look!
Firstly, let’s get that resume to the top of the Hiring Managers pile with my guides on Job Titles On Resume, Most Important Skills To Put On A Resume, How To List References On A Resume, Hobbies Interests To Put On Resume, How To List Education On A Resume, as well as What Achievements To List On Your Resume in 2021.
A well-written cover letter and/or letter of interest is also important. So, find out How To Address A Cover Letter, How To Write A Letter Of Interest, How Long Should A Cover Letter Be?, How To Write An Introduction Letter, plus check out my Motivation Letter Writing Guide.
Character Reference Letter 101 Graduation
Now that you know exactly what a character reference letter is, what should be included in one, and who should write it, you’re ready to try it out for real. Remember to choose a referee carefully and be gracious and professional when you ask them for a reference.
If you’re the one who will be writing a reference, be positive and professional. After all, this could mean the difference between the candidate getting a job or being passed over. It’s a lot to take on, but with some carefully considered words, you can produce a reference letter that helps their character shine.
In either case, here’s wishing you the best of luck!