Tips on Writing a Character Reference Letter

FT Contributor
A man writing a character reference letter on his laptop.
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There are many different forms of reference and recommendation letters that can be written by a variety of people, including coworkers, bosses, and college professors. While professional references and recommendations typically focus on things like hard skills and achievements, a character reference letter takes a more personal approach.

Character references focus on personal qualities and typically come from individuals that know a candidate well. They highlight character strengths that may be difficult to teach in the workplace, and, when written well, can significantly bolster an application.

Character references are sometimes called personal references, although there is a difference between the two terms. A character reference focuses on the candidate’s personal qualities and soft skills. A personal reference refers to the person providing the reference, implying that they know the candidate in a capacity outside the workplace. While a character reference can be provided by a personal reference, the two are not synonymous.

How to Write a Character Reference Letter

If you’ve been asked to write a character reference letter, it’s important that you take the responsibility seriously.

When writing the letter, you should use a professional business letter format. Along with basic things like proper line spacing and text size, you’re going to want to include five elements in your letter:

Your Relationship to the Candidate

Begin your letter by establishing yourself as an authority. What makes you a trustworthy source who can write a character reference about the candidate? What is your relationship with them? How does your past relationship qualify you to judge their moral character and work ethic?

Establishing this upfront is a good way to begin. If you feel that you cannot do this, you may want to suggest that the requester should look elsewhere for a reference.

How Long Have You Known the Candidate

Along with explaining why your relationship with the candidate enables you to write a quality character reference, it’s helpful to explain how long you’ve known them.

If, for instance, you worked together for five years, that will add more weight to your opinion. On the other hand, if you’ve only known them for a few months, you may want to pass the baton to a more qualified person.

Positive Qualities and Characteristics About the Candidate

Once you’ve established why you’re writing the letter, it’s time to move on to the primary subject: the candidate. Focus the main portion of the letter on praising the individual’s character traits. As a general rule of thumb, try to include at least three different qualities that make them stand out.

Statement of Recommendation

After listing off the positive attributes that you see in the candidate, summarize your letter with a short, powerful recommendation. Something such as, “Due to Johnny’s work ethic, communication skills, and leadership abilities, I think he would be an excellent fit in any company.”

Your Contact Information

Finally, end your letter with your own personal contact information. While you may want to treat a character reference as a one-and-done scenario, providing your contact information shows your willingness to stand by your claims if a recruiter feels the need to reach out to you. Try to include at least two points of contact. Typically these are your phone number and email.

Tips for a Good Character Reference Letter

Along with following the above outline, there are a few things you’re going to want to keep in mind while writing a character reference letter:

  • Remember to stay positive throughout the letter. There’s no need to balance out praise with criticism. Honestly state character traits and soft skills, provide your heartfelt recommendation, and leave it at that.
  • Try to provide illustrations and examples. When stating positive qualities and characteristics, don’t simply say something like, “Omar is excellent at organizing things.” Back this up with an example such as, “Omar demonstrated his organizational skills every day as he managed the sales team’s logistics and schedule. Everyone always knew where they had to be.”
  • Keep your letter concise. Hiring managers don’t want to spend extra time reading drawn-out, nostalgic recollections. Stay brief and to the point.
  • Steer clear of providing private information about the candidate. Mentioning that Judith showed her moral fiber during her hysterectomy is a medical, deeply personal event that an employer does not need to know about.

Sample Character Reference Letter

If you’re still hesitating, don’t worry. Below is a sample character reference letter you can use for inspiration.

To Whom it May Concern, (if you’re writing to a specific employer, feel free to change this to “Dear [Employer’s name],)

I have known Harold Marble for four years now. He was hired as a marketing consultant at the firm I originally worked at, and when I set up my own practice two years ago I hired him to continue to help with my own marketing efforts.

Harold is organized, a hard worker, and his attention to detail is superb. Throughout our professional relationship, I’ve never seen him miss a deadline. He also puts countless hours into each task and never cuts corners. When I hired him to initially create a social media campaign he spent 10 extra hours creating graphics at no extra charge in order to ensure that it was a success.

Harold is also very responsive and communicates well. Every time he has created a marketing strategy in the past two years, he has successfully explained every element to my team and is always available for questions afterward.

In my opinion, Harold’s communication, organization, and work ethic would make him a worthy addition to any organization. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me.


Janice Smeltzer
[email protected]

Why Someone Might Ask You for a Reference

If you’ve been asked to write a character reference, don’t take the responsibility lightly. The fact that you’ve been asked to serve as a reference indicates that the person asking you values your opinion a great deal. A request for a character reference is typically made when a candidate:

  • Respects you.
  • Thinks you respect them.
  • Considers you to have a good working relationship.
  • Thinks you’ve known one another long enough to form an intimate, personal opinion of each other.

Before you agree to write a character reference, the first step in the process should always be to seriously consider the request itself. If you don’t feel you can speak positively about an individual’s personal attributes and work ethic, don’t agree to write a character reference. If you do feel you can speak about the requester in a significantly positive light (preferably with illustrative examples) then you can agree to the request.

By approaching the responsibility seriously, you’re likely to provide an effective character reference letter that may lead to a successful interview and possibly even a job offer for the candidate, as well as a thank you letter for yourself once all is said and done.

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