How to Write a Reference Letter (Tips and Example)

Billy Haynes
Billy Haynes


Reviewed by Chris Leitch

How to write a reference letter

Are you unsure how to write a reference letter? Not a problem! We’re here to help explain the process to you.

Writing a reference letter is somewhat a form of art. Regardless if you’re a previous employer, teacher or another type of professional offering a reference letter, it can be daunting.

By the end of this article, you’ll know the important points to include, what to leave out, and how to highlight the person’s work ethic. The goal is to assist them in landing an interview.

Keep reading to become a professional reference letter writer.

What is a reference letter?

Essentially, a reference letter is a professional document in which you provide your opinion on someone’s overall work ethic and professionalism. This letter lets potential employers get a better idea of the type of person they are considering for employment, their character and abilities.

The concept is to offer a quick overview of the person’s qualities and experiences, and help weed out those with poor work ethics or bad behaviors. Think of it like a personal testimony you’re giving that helps hiring managers better understand the applicant.

Types of reference letters

There are three main types of reference letters you may be requested to write: professional, academic or personal references. We’ll explore each one below:

Professional references

This type of reference letter is commonly requested when a person applies for a new job and needs your endorsement regarding their work ethic. This is when you’re able to highlight the individual’s skill set, current/previous job title, and other contributions they offer in a professional role.

A good reference is often important to hiring managers, as it helps them gauge the suitability of their candidates for a position. Always include your contact information, such as a phone number to make it easy for hiring managers to reach out if needed.

Academic references

When being asked for an academic reference, the focus is on the person’s educational accomplishments and ability to continue learning. This type of reference is more common if you’re a teacher or college professor. You will highlight the academic strengths, participation and overall character of the student within a learning environment.

Academic references are important for admission processes, assisting institutions with evaluating candidates for specific programs. A quality academic reference can have a significant impact on a person’s educational future.

Personal references

A personal reference, also known as a character reference, is usually requested by friends or family, someone who knows the individual on a personal level. These references help hiring managers determine a person’s overall character, behavior, values or personal attributes.

Although not always required, personal references can be influential, particularly if there’s limited professional or academic references available. Also, character references give insights into an individual’s personality in a way that professional or academic references cannot.

What to include in a reference letter

When writing a reference letter, you can think of it like a puzzle where every piece will add value.

Begin by introducing yourself, including your job title and professional relationship with the applicant. Establishing credibility from the start is important in highlighting how your experience with the applicant is significant.

Include how long you have known them, too (was it in a professional or personal capacity?), and focus on specifics such as achievements, work ethic and skills related to the position they applied for.

When drafting an employee reference letter, discuss how they contributed in their role within the workplace. For academic references, explain what the student’s academic strengths were, such as whether they’re a quick learner or math whiz.

Finally, include contact information in case the hiring manager has questions for you.

What to leave out

It’s also important to know what not to include in a reference letter.

Avoid including personal details that are not relevant to the academic or professional abilities of the applicant. For example, do not include stuff about their personal life, political views or other information that is not directly related to the role they are applying for.

However, you don’t want to be too vague or simply provide general information. For example, a statement such as “they are a good person” will not help the hiring manager look into qualifications.

Also, avoid exaggerating or flat out lying to make them look better. Only state what you know to be true; otherwise, it could impact your reputation. Potential employers or academic institutions want to know if a person has a strong work ethic; your reference assists in painting this picture.

How to structure a reference letter

A well-structured reference letter includes several sections as follows:


Start with a formal greeting. Include the hiring manager or admissions officer’s name if you know it. For example, “Dear Mr Smith” is appropriate. If you don’t know their name, “To Whom It May Concern” is sufficient.


The introductory paragraph should set the tone. State your job title and professional relationship with the applicant. Include the purpose of the reference letter, such as recommending them for a certain job or program. Include your contact information here or in the letterhead.


The body of the reference letter is where you will highlight specific skills and abilities, work ethic, achievements and accomplishments.

Remember: you should only focus on including details that are directly related to the position or course being applied for. Therefore, an employee reference letter should target workplace contributions, while academic references discuss class participation and learning abilities.

Finally, include examples to back up your statements.


This is where you will close the letter, again briefly expressing confidence in the applicant’s ability to fulfill the requirements of the position or program. This helps to reinforce your positive opinion, and can greatly influence the hiring manager or academic advisor’s decision.


Use a formal closing signature, such as “Best regards” or “Sincerely”, followed by your signature. Below your signature, you may add your phone number again as good practice to make it easily found. If the applicant is considered for the next phase, there may be additional questions.

How to write a reference letter

Learning how to write a high-quality reference letter can be the difference between an applicant landing a dream job, or being passed over. Below are five tips for making an effective reference letter:

1. Be specific

Vague compliments simply won’t do. If you want your reference letter to make a difference, be specific. If you make a claim, be sure to back it up with an example that is tailored to what they’re applying for. In what way did they help make a real difference in the workplace or learning environment?

Some examples of this would be how they managed to hit a tight deadline for a class project or pushed through a difficult work situation. With academic references, don’t simply state they were a good student; instead, mention what their best analytical skills are, or a certain research project that they excelled in. Both help illustrate the person’s overall abilities, and by providing the back story, it gives insight into their process for handing real-world situations.

2. Mention the applicant’s qualifications

It’s essential that your reference correlates with certain requirements the applicant needs to have. For example, if they’re applying for a role in upper management, you should focus on leadership skills, their ability to manage a team, and how they hit goals.

Mention a time when they demonstrated strategic thinking skills, and their process. For academic applications, emphasize on critical thinking, intellect, and achievements such as being class president or valedictorian, for example.

This will show that you’re not only aware of their general competence, but also understand and support them in specific roles — consequently making your reference letter more significant to employers or admissions committees.

3. Reflect on your professional relationship

By explaining your professional relationship with the candidate, it will provide credibility. Begin with stating your job title and how you know them. For example, were you their boss, coworker or teacher? If you were their supervisor, discuss what made their performance really stand out. Did they consistently hit target goals or provide innovative ideas that were successful?

If you worked with them directly, share insights into their teamwork and problem-solving skill set. This is important, as it tells hiring managers that your reference is meaningful based on seeing the candidate in action.

4. Keep a positive tone

Always keep a positive tone throughout your letter. Be confident in your statements; this encourages and influences the reader’s perception of the applicant’s abilities. If you know of situations where they faced challenges, discuss these in a positive way.

By explaining how unexpected incidents or challenges were overcome in a positive way, it shows the ability to adapt, learn and grow. Not only does this approach showcase skill and resilience, but also demonstrates your belief in their future success.

5. Include your contact information

This cannot be overstated, as providing contact information is just as important as giving a glowing recommendation.

Be sure you provide the best contact methods to reach you for additional questioning if needed. This may include a phone number, email address, or both.

This shows you’re willing to stand behind your endorsement and that you’re open to future discussion on the candidate’s abilities. Transparency is valuable and aids in the letter being an effective tool.

Formatting tips

Even the highest recommendation will not mean much without proper formatting. The following tips will ensure your letter looks professional:

  • Use a professional font, such as Arial or Calibri, and set to 12 pts.
  • Use an official letterhead if available, as it creates authenticity.
  • Keep it to one page; set page margins to one inch on all sides, if needed.
  • Follow standard letter conventions, including aligning text to the left and using letter-size paper.
  • Add a single space between lines, and a double space between paragraphs.

Reference letter example

The following is an example of an effective reference letter:

Jane Doe
Senior Manager
XYZ Corporation
123 Business Rd
New York, NY 10001

Phone: (555) 555-5555

Email: janedoe @

Date: December 13, 2023

To Whom It May Concern,

I am writing to provide my recommendation of John Smith for the position of Marketing Manager at ABC Inc. As the Senior Manager at XYZ Corp, I have had the pleasure of working directly with John for more than three years, where he has been my Assistant Marketing Manager.

John has consistently demonstrated amazing skills in digital marketing and project management. He led several innovative campaigns for our product launches, resulting in 30% increases in online engagement, showing his ability to successfully reach goals and engage with the target audience. He has a strong work ethic, frequently going above and beyond to meet tight deadlines and deliver amazing results that exceed expectations.

Additionally, John’s personal skills have made him a valuable assist to the team. He is a natural leader, respected by colleagues for his hands-on approach and ability to inspire creative solutions.

I am confident that John will provide value to ABC Inc. Please contact me if you need any further information.

Jane Doe

Key takeaways

Now you know the main elements to writing an effective and impactful reference letter.

Regardless what type of reference letter you are asked to provide, the overall concept remains the same:

  • You are highlighting what skills, abilities and behaviors qualify the applicant for the position.
  • State your name, role (eg: “Head of HR”), and relationship to the candidate.
  • Discuss specifics in a positive and encouraging tone.
  • Finally, remember to include your contact details.

Got a question? Let us know in the comments section below.

Originally published on June 1, 2019.