Reference Letter Writing Instructions

Adding references to an application

Reference letters enable an individual to reinforce character and ability. As an employer, friend, teacher or business associate, you may be asked to write a reference letter for someone at some point.

Why a Reference Letter?

There are many circumstances in which a reference letter can be useful.

  • A teacher highlighting a student's achievement.
  • A professor recommending a student for a graduate program.
  • A former employer's recommendation.
  • A previous employer explaining the details of a company layoff or other downsizing decision.
  • A character reference for legal circumstances such as housing or adoption proceedings.

If you're asked to write a letter, have the facts at hand. Ask the applicant all details necessary for the request and ask for a list of capabilities, achievements and even a resume to write a knowledgeable reference. This process is very similar to writing a letter of recommendation.

Writing Reference Letters

The following is an example of how reference letters can be constructed.


You can never go wrong starting with "To Whom It May Concern." It's an acceptable generic opening. However, if you have the opportunity to personalize the salutation, that's always a better choice.

In your opening paragraph, state your relationship to the applicant and other pertinent details, like how long you've know each other and why you have the status of writing the letter.

I've been Pedro Pena's academic advisor for the past three years at Bronson College. I highly encourage you to consider Pedro for your MBA program.

I have had the great pleasure of working with Ansel Johnson during his internship at our law firm for the past year. He is my primary researcher, a position that has been extremely valuable to my practice.

Please allow me to recommend Corrine Maxwell for your position of account executive. Corrine has worked in our ad office for the past three years, first as an administrative assistant, then an associate account manager. As her primary supervisor, I can say with certainty that Corrine will be a valuable addition to your company.

I have known Polly Reynolds for approximately seven years. We were coworkers for more than four years and she is also a neighbor and friend.

Body of Letter

It's advantageous to point out the strengths, capabilities and accomplishments of the applicant, but try not to use flowery language or over-dramatize the achievements. Use qualitative detail to reinforce your recommendation.

Since Pedro first arrived at the Bronson's College of Business, he has been a quick study, an innovative thinker and one of the most dedicated students I've seen in a quite a while. He is always the first to volunteer for new projects, and demonstrates strong leadership ability among his team members. His idea generation and team coordination resulted in Bronson College winning its first Top College Advertising award for the campaign, "Power to the People."

Since our company is based on a threshold of seniority, Corrine was one of the last hires at our company and unfortunately, during the downsizing, she had to be released. It was a difficult decision and is by no means a reflection of Corrine's exceptional talent and skills at building relationships that benefit both the client and the company.

Polly has a touching, relatable and friendly quality that others really find comfortable. She has volunteered for numerous child-based agencies and as been a tireless advocate for better foster care.


Reinforce why you recommend the individual and at the end of the document, provide follow-up information.

I would not hesitate to recommend Ansel for whatever endeavor he chooses to pursue. His work ethic and inherent knowledge of law will make him an asset in any area of the profession.

Corrine's energy and focus were great attributes to our company. I assure you she will make positive contributions to yours.

Considerations for Requesting and Writing Reference Letters

If you need reference letters, be courteous and timely in your request. Give the writer all the information necessary to accomplish the task and plenty of time to complete it. Reference letters don't "expire" but it would be wise to continue to upgrade as your career progresses. You don't still want to be using your professor's recommendation 10 years out of college.

If you're the writer, consider the request carefully and determine whether you can, with confidence, not only write the letter, but also be available for any necessary follow-up. If you really feel you can't provide a solid letter of reference, politely decline and offer another alternative.

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Reference Letter Writing Instructions