How to Write a Professional Reference Letter

Posted January 15, 2019, by Jenny

So, you’re the chosen one, you’ve been asked to write the coveted letter of recommendation for a friend, student or colleague. But where do you start? How fine is the line between truth and fiction? How long does the reference letter need to be? Breath, we know this responsibility can be heavy; this could be the make or break between this person getting the job. So before you dive straight into the deep end and start waffling on in your letter, it’s important to prepare in order to write an effective and sincere letter of recommendation.

What is a reference letter?

A reference letter (also known as a letter of recommendation) is written to testify to someone’s skills, experience and qualities. You may be asked to write a professional reference letter for your colleague or employee or a personal reference letter for a friend to attest to their good nature and personal attributes.

It’s important that the tone of your letter maintains a certain level of professionalism. Writing that your colleague is the life of the Christmas party and always the last one to leave Friday night drinks probably isn’t the most appropriate.

Senior recruitment consultant at Randstad’s HR Partners Carla Wilkinson says that employer references are “really important” when it comes to landing a job. “There’s a lot of weight that’s given to them [references]. Particularly when it’s coming close to offering a candidate a role,” she said.

How long does a reference letter have to be?

There’s a fine line between having a letter that’s too brief (you don’t want to insinuate that you don’t have enough to discuss about the candidate or you can’t be bothered adding any more), and a letter that is too long (if you waffle on it can seem over exaggerated and sorry to say, boring).

So, what’s the magic number of characters that’ll keep your letter concise, engaging, sincere and do the candidate justice? We’d suggest or even strongly encourage you to keep the letter to one page and at around three to four paragraphs. This should be enough space for you to highlight that you like and know the person you’re writing about well; you trust and can attest to their skills and capabilities, and you’ll be happy to recommend them.

Before you start

– This is a positive letter, so before agreeing to write a reference letter make sure you are in the right headspace and you have enough confidence in the person asking you. If you feel you do not know them well enough or don’t think they added much value to the business then it’ll be best to say no. You’ll see as we go on that if you try to fake it then you’re just creating a harder task for yourself.

– Ask to see a copy of the person’s resume (even if you have known them for a while), there might be an achievement or accreditation on there that you’re not aware of and can help you when composing your letter.

– Get as much information as you can about whom the letter is for and the intention of the letter

Formatting your reference letter for a co-worker

If you have the name of the employer/hiring manager then be sure to address them personally, otherwise, if you are writing a general letter of reference than a simple, “To whom it may concern”, will suffice.

Note: If you’re writing your letter as an email, be sure to include the full name of your reference in your subject letter. Eg: Reference for Rebecca Brown. If you are typing your letter then be sure to include the date above your greeting.

Section 1:
Here you want to introduce yourself and how long you’ve known the candidate; get in a positive affirmation about your co-worker and acknowledge the role they’re applying for.

“I’m pleased to recommend Bianca Jones for the position of Senior Interior Designer at Alphabet Studios. As the Head Designer and Owner of 123 Design Studios I’ve supervised and mentored Bianca for the last two years and have worked closely with her on several large projects, building our relationship on both a professional and personal level.”

Section 2:
We’re past the intro and now you can go into detail and give a bit more specific information on the person you’re recommending. In these middle paragraphs highlight their skills, qualities, what they can contribute and if relevant, a specific example. Try and make what you write as closely related to the role as possible. If they are applying for an assistant role, highlight their high-level of organisation, or for a manager role, discuss their good communication and leadership skills.

“Never one to shy away from hard work or putting her hand up for a project, Bianca will no doubt succeed in her next role and will be determined to make her mark. Since starting with the company in early 2017, she has been a great team player and integral part of our small interior design business. On all briefs (big and small) she has delivered and exceeded client expectations, all while remaining cheerful, optimistic and professional. As a senior interior designer, Bianca has great attention to detail and always thinks outside the box, which has brought an abundance of positive feedback and repeat business.

 A true social butterfly, Bianca has been nothing short of friendly, helpful and kind to all who come into contact with her and will be genuinely missed by all in the organisation.”

Section 3:                      
End with a bang! Finish off the letter affirmatively and reiterate your recommendation of the candidate.

“I have every confidence in recommending Bianca to join your team. Her experience, sound communication skills, creativity and passion give me every confidence that she will thrive and go on to achieve great things.”

Section 4:
Give your personal details for the employer to contact you should they wish to discuss anything further and sign off with a polite and professional close.

“Should you wish to discuss any of the above further or have any questions, I invite you to give me a call on 0400 123 456 or email me at [email protected]

 Kind Regards,
Annie Smith”
(title – optional)

 Note: If you’re sending a physical copy of the letter you may want to print it out and sign it by hand.

Before you send it off

As with any professional document, it’s always important to have what we write checked over. Try asking a fellow colleague (ideally one who also knows the candidate you’re writing about) to look over your letter to ensure there are no grammatical errors, it flows well and will do the candidate justice.

The candidate who asked you to write a letter of recommendation/reference letter is counting on you to pull through for them, so be sure to use our tips and template as a guide. Plus, think of the great feeling you’ll have knowing you had your part in helping them land the job.


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