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How To Write A Reference Letter

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At some point in life, many of us are asked by someone we know to write a general character reference letter on their behalf. If you haven’t been asked yet, it is likely you will be at some point. In fact, keyword searches and direct requests for information and samples on “how to write reference letters” are among the most common online writing queries.


As opposed to a “letter of recommendation,” which is normally very specific in subject and purpose, a “letter of reference” or “reference letter” is typically more general in nature and IS NOT addressed to a specific requester. Usually, “letters of reference” are addressed as; “To Whom It May Concern” or “Dear Sir/Madam.”

The most common letters of reference are:

  • Employment-related — general reference letter
  • College-related — general reference letter
  • Character reference letter — general-purpose personal reference
  • General reference letter — various subjects

In addition to standard letter-writing dos and don’ts, there are a number of basic guidelines that apply specifically to most situations related to the writing of letters of reference. These are usually more “situational” than “how-to” in nature. These reference letter guidelines are important to both note and apply, since writing letters of reference is always a somewhat tricky and delicate matter. That’s because they almost always affect the reputation and future of the writer or that of another person.


The following tips and strategies apply primarily to the writing of letters of reference in their various forms (i.e. reference letters, character reference letters, employment reference letters, college reference letters, and general reference letters).

Write It Only If You Want To
If you are asked by someone to write a reference letter about them, you don’t have to say yes automatically. If it’s someone you respect for their work, and you have mostly positive things to say, by all means write the letter. There is no point saying yes and then writing a letter that says nothing good about the person, or worse still, concocting a misleading positive assessment of someone. So, whatever you do, don’t get sucked into writing a reference inappropriately out of feelings of guilt or obligation.

If You Must Refuse, Do It Right Up Front
On the other hand, if someone asks you to write a reference letter for them, and you know you’ll be hard-pressed to keep it positive, say no right away. There is no point in hesitating and leading the person on to believe that the answer might eventually be yes. A gentle but firm no will usually get the message across to the person. Explain that you don’t think that you are the best (or most qualified) person to do it.

Suggest Someone Else
If you feel you should refuse, for whatever reason, it may be helpful for you to suggest someone else who you think might have a more positive and/or accurate assessment of the person. That other person may be in a better position to do the assessment. Usually there are a number of possible candidates, and you may not actually be the best one. In fact, I have seen a number of cases over the years in which people requesting reference letters have not requested the letter from the obvious or logical choice. This usually happens when the requestor doesn’t like the person who is the obvious choice, and/or they are worried about what that person will have to say about them.

Write It As You See It
Writing a less than honest letter of reference does no one a favor in the end. It is likely to backfire on all involved: you the recommender, the person being recommended, and the new employer. Also, most employers and head-hunting agencies check references these days. How would you like to be called up and have to mislead people due to questionable things you may have written in a less that forthright reference letter?

Be Honest and Fair
Honesty is always the best policy when it comes to writing reference letters. At the same time, try to be fair and balanced in your approach. If, in your estimation a person has five strengths and one glaring weakness, but that weakness really bothers you, make sure you don’t over-emphasize the weak point in the letter based on your personal bias. Just mention it in passing as a weakness and then move on.

Balanced Is Best
An overall balanced approach is the best one for a letter of reference. Even if your letter generally raves about how excellent the person is, some balance on the other side of the ledger will make it more credible. After all, nobody’s perfect. There must be some area where the person being recommended needs to improve. A bit of constructive criticism never hurts and it will make your letter appear to be more objective in nature.

Bottom Line:
The most important point to take away from the above tips and strategies is that it is your choice as to whether, and how, you will write a letter of reference.

It’s an important type of letter that will have a definite impact on the future of the person about whom it is being written, so don’t agree to write one unless you are willing to be totally objective and give it your utmost attention and effort.

Reference Letter Definition and Samples:
For more on the differences between reference letters and recommendation letters and links to a few reference letter samples, click on the following link:

14 thoughts on “How To Write A Reference Letter

  1. I am most fascinated by your writing tips. I can learn more from them.

  2. Thank you Shaun for this article. It has helped me to get a deeper understanding between the two types of letters of reference.

  3. I have been a subscriber for around 3 years now and must confess I don’t always read every months blog (my bad). I am amazed at the content of each of these “tips & Strategies”. I have gained so much knowledge and insight. It may not have helped me personally in finding that work, but I find every bit of information published so helpful. Thank you so much that you are sharing and helping others.

  4. Many thanks for the good tips as very often I have to write reference letters and I am always short of what to say.

  5. Dear Shaun, I have always found your writing tips being so helpful. Right now I am confident to stand and assist my friends and colleagues in crafting a Recommendation and/ Reference Letter.



  6. Dear Shaun,
    Thank you for all the postings. Writing a reference must be done objectively. A reference letter must be written fairly as it may be for a job or studies. Verbal references are also important.
    – Merry Christmas to you and family. Happy new year 2016.

  7. Hi Shaun,
    Nice to hear from you again. I’m very happy to sign up on your website because I have learned many things from you. I, sometimes, don’t know how and what to write although I am a teacher of English at local high school in my country, Vietnam. Recently, our government has asked us to take an IELTS exam so I have a high spirit to write to you. In Vietnam, we have a lot of private centers to teach an IELTS course and I am considering to enroll in one. I am trying to study 5 new academic words a day in order to improve my English. Could you give me some advice? About the course or any books relevant to my major? Please help me in a certain way. I express my thanks to you if you write to me. I am looking forward to hearing from you soon.
    – Best regards, Thuy

  8. Hi Shaun,
    A very informative article. I’ve been following your blog posts and they are very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Hi Shaun,
    I enjoy reading and learning from you. As usual it is always not easy to write reference letters.
    Thank you,
    – Naima

  10. Hello Thuy; and some others who have asked me for my general advice on how to improve your English.

    Below is my standard answer:

    The main advice I can give you is to practice, practice, practice! That depends on your personal learning style of course. In my case, I have to write something down to really learn/remember it for later. (Also, try saying things out loud. I find that if I do that it is easier to tell if a word or a phrase “sounds right”).

    BTW, on my main website there are almost 400 pages of free English writing help content. I suggest you start there:

    In addition, this blog has about 100 separate writing help posts.

    Both the blog and the website allow you to “search” by keyword, so it is easy to find particular subjects.

    I hope this helps!

  11. Dear Shaun
    Thanks you for your work of English art. I have to commend you for the knowledge you give to us in English writing.
    May God continue to bless you and your family. Compliments of the season.

  12. Perfect. And well deserved!

  13. Hello Shaun,
    Wishing you and yours a Very Merry Christmas and a Blessed 2016. Thank you for all your words of inspiration and motivation I received throughout this year. It’s made my life feel so much richer. All the very best in the coming year.

  14. Hi Shaun, A belated ‘Happy New Year’. You have confirmed that it is really hard to right a reference letter unless you have a clear, positive opinion of the person’s abilities. However, writing a non-committal letter of reference would be a cop-out and wouldn’t do any good for the employee/student. I fully agree with you that if you have nothing good to say about him/her, avoid having to write the letter. Writing a positive letter of reference is easy if you truly believe that he/she deserves it. But I think we are talking about those in-between cases, where you are called upon to write something for a rather colourless, uninteresting person. A sample letter for such cases would help a lot. I wanted to write a rather funny story from my early days of starting a working life where I saw the reference letter that a friend of mine got from our common ‘boss’. But I shall desist since it may take up too much space.

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