How to Write a Personal Reference Letter (Template Included)

By Mike Simpson

The personal reference letter is a surprisingly tricky beast. If you’re asked to write one, you may wonder, “What should I even talk about?” and “How do I put one of these things together in a way that’ll help them land the job?”

Well, luckily, it isn’t as rough as it appears on the surface. As long as you know the person well and think they have something great to offer an employer, you can be an excellent personal reference. If you want to make sure you nail it, here’s what you need to know.

What Is a Personal Reference Letter?

Alright, before we dig into how to write a personal reference letter, let’s pause for a moment and talk about what one even is. Plus, it’s important to understand how personal references stand apart from professional ones.

Most people are familiar with the concept of the professional reference letter. Maybe you’ve asked a former boss for one or had the pleasure of writing one up for a colleague or employee. With those, the goal is for the letter writer to talk about how amazing the person is professionally. It’s all about highlighting their technical prowess, usually by sharing details about some relevant accomplishments or experiences.

However, not as many people have experience with the professional letter of reference’s counterpart: the personal reference letter.

So, what is a personal reference? In the simplest terms, it’s a reference from someone who has a relationship with the person but not necessarily in a workplace context.

Also called a character reference, these seals of approval don’t always discuss how the person slays at their job. Instead, personal references focus more on their personality traits.

How can a personal reference help you get a job? Well, that depends. In some cases, personal references are a required part of the application process. However, even if they aren’t, they can be helpful. This is especially true for people who are new to the workforce and don’t have much (if any) professional experience.

Usually, personal reference letters put the person’s personality traits on display. It’s also great for highlighting soft skills, as people put those to work every day, both at work and outside of professional settings.

Generally speaking, if you’re asked to write a personal reference letter, what the person wants is an overview of their stellar personality. However, they also want it to be in a way that relates to the job they want to land.

Ultimately, that’s what writing personal references is all about. You want to explain why and how the person’s personality and traits will help them sparkle in the role. And, considering that some corporate job openings attract 250 resumes, anything that makes it easier for a candidate to stand out matters.

Common Mistakes When Writing a Personal Reference Letter and How to Avoid Them

As with all things job search-related, certain mistakes can derail a candidate’s application. Make sure your letter isn’t the thing that sends someone close to you to the discard pile.

Overall, the goal of a personal reference letter is to make sure the candidate stands out for all of the right reasons. Usually, only 12 percent of applicants actually land an interview, so you need to make sure the content of the letter you write puts the person into that 12 percent.

How do you do that? By avoiding missteps.

First, as your parents likely told you, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. You should only offer a character reference if you, well, like the person you’re talking about. If you don’t think that person is the bee’s knees, it’s better to decline writing the letter entirely.

MIKE'S TIP: While it can be hard to tell someone you know “no,” remember, if you can’t honestly say that you think they are amazing, you’re doing them a favor. Plus, you have a right to decline. Just make sure to let them down gently. You could say, “Thank you for asking, but I don’t think I’m the best person to write this letter,” and, if you know someone better, recommend they ask that person. Then, leave it at that.

Second, make sure you introduce yourself to the letter reader. The recipient needs to know why your opinion matters, so give them an overview of who you are, how you know the person, and how long you’ve known each other.

Also, avoid both generalizing and exaggeration. Honesty is the best policy. Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t focus on the positive, just that your assessment needs to be fair and accurate.

Finally, don’t overlook the importance of spelling, grammar, and formatting. Your personal reference letter needs to be a pleasure to read. If it’s full of mistakes, a giant wall of text, or otherwise hard to review, you’re not helping the person.

How to Write a Personal Reference Letter

1. Request an Overview

Once you’re ready to start writing that character reference, spend a few minutes finding out about the job the person wants to land. That gives you an idea of the kind of skills and traits you should discuss.

For example, is the person trying to boost their customer service resume by submitting the letter to the hiring manager? Then talk about how they are outgoing, friendly, and excellent with verbal communication. Those traits are important in customer service, so they are worth mentioning.

If you aren’t sure what to include, ask for a copy of the job description. You could also ask the person what traits they’d like you to talk about or if there’s anything specific they’d like you to include. That should give you enough intel to get you started.

2. Choose the Right Greeting

While you can always go with the generic “To Whom It May Concern,” if you have an idea of who will read the letter, why not go with something more specific? If you know the hiring manager’s name, use it. If not, try “Dear Hiring Manager” instead.

Personalizing the greeting lets the reader know that the letter is meant for one purpose. And that can actually make a difference.

3. Make It Clear That It’s a Recommendation

When you start the letter, let the reader know that what you’re writing is a recommendation. In fact, you should mention that in the first sentence. That way, your intentions are clear right from the beginning.

4. Explain Who You Are

After you’ve opened with the fact that you’re recommending the person, it’s time to explain why the hiring manager should care about your opinion. Let them know who you are, and how you know the person, giving them critical context about the nature of the relationship.

5. Provide a Solid Overview

With the introduction out of the way, it’s time to talk about how amazing the person you’re recommending is. Give a great overview, highlighting a few relevant traits that you really admire about the person.

Touch on several, preferably ones that are in the job ad’s must-have list or are obviously important for the role. Don’t worry about going into detail yet. This part of the letter is all about packing a punch quickly.

6. It’s Anecdote Time

After you’ve talked about how exceptional the person is by listing their standout traits, it’s time to back that up with an example or two. Give the reader an anecdote that highlights why you included those traits in your letter.

Usually, you want to tell a great story while also being brief. It only takes a paragraph or two to handle this part, so resist the urge to go further than that.

7. Call Me Maybe

As you move on to the closing paragraph, leave the door open for more discussion. Let the hiring manager know you’d be happy to answer more questions, and include your contact details. That way, if the hiring manager would like to learn more, they know they can reach out.

8. Sign Off

Once you finish that up, it’s time to sign off. A simple “Sincerely” is usually enough, followed by your name, email address, and phone number.

9. Review the Letter

After the sign-off, you probably thought you were done. Well, not quite. Instead, you need to spend a few minutes looking for any mistakes.

You can start by taking advantage of any built-in language tools, like spelling and grammar checks. If you want to go the extra mile, take the letter and paste it into a text-to-speech program. Usually, it’s really easy to hear a mistake that way, making it simple to catch missteps you may have overlooked along the way.

Personal Reference Letter Template

If you’re looking for a personal reference letter sample that you can use as a template, we’ve got your back. We’re about to hit you with a great example, one that you can use to help you navigate creating your own personal reference letter.

Here’s a personal reference example to get you started:

Dear Hiring Manager,

I strongly recommend John Doe for the customer service position at XYZ Company. I’ve known John for eight years, both as students at ABC High School and as a colleague while volunteering with a local charity. Not only do I consider him an exceptional friend, but I also believe his traits are a great match for the role. John is patient, friendly, and outgoing, and his verbal communication skills are top-notch.

During our time together, I have had the pleasure of working with John on a variety of school projects, as well as some volunteer endeavors. When it comes to working as part of a team, John is exceptional. He’s always open to the input of others, though he isn’t afraid to contribute his ideas. Plus, he wants to make sure that everyone gets to work toward joint goals, ensuring every team member gets a chance to shine.

I highly recommend John for the customer service position and feel he would be an asset to your team. If you have any questions, I would be happy to answer them. Please feel free to call me at 555-555-5555 or email me at email@email.com.

Sincerely,

Jane Smith

555-555-5555

email@email.com

Putting It All Together

Ultimately, writing a personal reference letter doesn’t have to be a challenge. In fact, it can be a joy, particularly if you genuinely want to help someone close to you excel. Just make sure to use the tips and personal reference letter sample above to your benefit. That way, you can nail every one you write.

Good luck!

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About The Author

Mike Simpson

Co-Founder and CEO of TheInterviewGuys.com. Mike is a job interview and career expert and the head writer at TheInterviewGuys.com. His advice and insights have been shared and featured by publications such as Forbes, Entrepreneur, CNBC and more as well as educational institutions such as the University of Michigan, Penn State, Northeastern and others. Learn more about The Interview Guys on our About Us page.