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How To Write A Reference

Updated on January 2, 2012

How to Write a Reference

Are you faced with the task of writing a reference letter?  Many people view this as a privilege and an honour, while others instead view it as a difficult (and potentially risky) chore.  Regardless of where you fall in this spectrum, you can write a well thought-out and high quality reference if you know the right way to go about it.

First things first: should you agree to write the letter at all?

Before we dive into the details of actually writing a reference, let’s face up to the first decision you’ll have to make. That is, should you agree to write the letter at all? There are many reasons why you might not feel comfortable doing so, such as:

  • You don’t know the person making the request very well
  • You don’t feel comfortable recommending the person for one or more reasons
  • You don’t feel qualified to write a reference
  • Your employer has rules against writing reference letters

Whether these or some other issues apply to you, if you cannot honestly write a positive reference then you absolutely must be honest about it right up front.  Be diplomatic and tactful, of course, but also be firm.  It is far better to gracefully decline when first asked than to get part way into the process and find you can’t complete it for some reason.

In most cases, though, the person requesting the reference is someone for whom you are happy to write a reference.  The trick is to figure out what to write and how to write it so that it has the greatest value and impact.

Step 1 – Gather information

Step 1 is all about talking with the requestor and gathering information about what they aim to accomplish with your reference letter.  Are they looking for a character reference?  A job-skill reference?  Or a combination of these two areas?  Spend a few minutes talking about these possibilities until you get a better sense of what they really need.

Also, ask the requestor for information about their background.  A copy of their resume is a good starting point, but also make an effort to learn more about their past accomplishments, any special groups or organisations to which they might belong, and the like.  Although you might not end up including these tidbits in the final letter it’s a good way to make sure you have a well-rounded and accurate picture of the person in your mind.

Finally, be sure you know important due dates in the process.  The best letter of reference in the world will not do the requestor any good if you complete it after the date on which they need it.  Once you have the due date confirmed, build it into your schedule so you complete it a day or two early if at all possible.  This gives you a bit of leeway in case something unexpected comes along to delay your writing.

Step 2 – Draft the letter

There are many different ways to structure a reference, so get a draft written as early as possible. In most cases it should contain the following information (at minimum):

  • Your relationship/connection with the person
  • Your direct experiences with the person’s skills and abilities (be specific)
  • Your direct experiences with the person’s core competencies, especially those ways in which they have proved themselves to be exceptional (be specific)
  • Your qualifications for writing the reference; that is, why should anyone be impressed or swayed by receiving such a letter from you?
  • Your own contact information in case the recipient wants to follow up

These might seem like pretty vague categories of information, but you’ll be surprised at just how quickly you can come up with two or three paragraphs that touch on these points.  Remember, it doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect the first time around; your goal at this point is to simply capture the basic information to give you a draft from which to work on further refinements.

Step 3 – Polish the letter

The step of polishing the letter is all about taking your initial thoughts and putting them together in a more succinct, powerful, and professional way. You want the letter to emphasise the appropriate key points, but not in a way that is overly expansive, flowery, or simply “too good to be true”. The kinds of words you’re going to use here are known as “power words”, and a few examples of them include:

  • Articulate
  • Significant
  • Efficient
  • Effective
  • Observant
  • Innovative
  • Reliable
  • Creative
  • Imaginative
  • Responsible
  • Expressive

You should use these types of words when appropriate; you should not use these types of words too often or too much.   Yes, it’s a bit of a balancing act to strike just the right chord sometimes, so it’s a good idea to set the letter aside for 24 hours or so once you have done some polishing work.  Most often you’ll get a fresh perspective and be able to improve the reference further the next time you pick it up to work on it.

Step 4 – Finalise the letter

When you are confident the reference is accurate, strong, and effective, it’s time to finalise the letter. Finalising the letter is all about making sure it is professional looking and 100% error free. Be sure to check the following:

  • Is it neatly typed according to proper letter format?
  • Is all of the grammar and spelling correct?
  • Is it concise and succinct?
  • Is it printed on quality paper (or letterhead, if appropriate)?
  • Have you personally signed it?

Although these might seem a bit obvious, you might be surprised at how often these kinds of details are overlooked or brushed aside.  Remember, every reference you write reflects not only on the person who requested it, but on you as well.  That’s why it’s so important for it to be professional and perfect in every way.

Other tips and suggestions

Think about the things you like to see when reading a reference letter, and make sure they are included in the reference you write. Some of the areas most experts recommend you touch upon include:

Key attributes

  • Leadership
  • communication skills
  • interpersonal skills
  • conflict management
  • flexibility
  • goal orientation
  • vocational skills and aptitudes
  • self-direction
  • competitiveness
  • personal awareness and
  • willingness to grow

Subtle yet important qualities

  • Self-starter
  • productive thinking style
  • empathy
  • energy and enthusiasm
  • pursuit of excellence
  • potential for leadership and/or growth
  • maturity
  • team orientation

Above all, be sure your reference letter talks about your own personal experiences with and observations of the requestor. Your words are only credible if they describe firsthand knowledge; avoid hearsay, third party information, or vagueness.

With a bit of time, effort, and thought, you will find it easier than you ever thought possible to write an effective reference!

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