Character Reference Letters: Examples & Writing Tips
Employers often request character reference letters for jobs that require employees to demonstrate high levels of trustworthiness, or where ethics are central to the role.
They may also be requested when applying to charities or as part of the university admissions process.
Sometimes character references are also useful to employers when considering candidates for entry-level or graduate positions, where candidates have little job experience.
A character reference is given by someone the candidate knows personally. It will speak of their attributes and personality, as opposed to employment-related skills and experience.
Character references are also sometimes referred to as personal references.
Who Might Be Asked to Write a Character Reference Letter?
There is no strict definition of who might be asked to give a character reference; it will depend on a variety of criteria.
You do not need to be an employer to write a character reference. A character reference should be written by someone who knows the candidate personally, rather than only in an employment context.
Character references might be written by a:
- Sports coach
- Personal coach
- Family friend
- Member of an activity group (such as choir, orchestra, sports team)
- Professional or personal mentor
The crucial element is that you must know the candidate well and see them regularly.
Avoid writing a character reference for someone you are related to, as you do not want the objectivity of the letter to be called into question.
Never write a character reference letter for your:
- Spouse or partner
- Siblings or siblings-in-law
Things to Consider Before Agreeing to Write a Character Reference
Writing a character reference is a big responsibility that can have an impact on a friend’s career, so think carefully before agreeing.
Remember, if you don’t feel like you are in a position to do a good job, it is OK to politely decline.
Before agreeing to write a character reference, consider:
- Do you know the person? How well?
- Can you talk positively about them?
- Do you have the time to do the reference justice?
- Do you have the skills to produce the reference in the required form?
- Do you have all the information you need?
- Can you produce the reference by the required date?
Seven Things to Include in a Character Reference Letter
Character reference letters should consist of short paragraphs covering the following seven points:
A character reference has more of an impact when addressed to the correct person, so always try to find this out. If you do not know who to name, address it ‘To Whom It May Concern’.
You should then state that this is your character reference for the person in question and the position they are applying for.
2. Relationship to the Candidate
When describing your relationship to the candidate, be as specific and positive as possible. If there are lots of ways you know each other, pick the most appropriate one.
‘I work alongside Judy volunteering at the village shop.’
‘John is the Treasurer of the PTA at my children’s school, as well as my neighbour.’
3. How Long You’ve Known the Candidate
It is a good idea to include the length of time you have known the candidate to give validity to your reference. State the length of time in years.
‘Claudia and I have worked together for ten years, the last four presenting the same show.’
‘I have known Kevin for six years. For the past two, he has been my boxing coach.’
4. Positive Personal Qualities with Specific Examples
In this part of the letter, you will outline key competencies or qualities that the candidate has. These must be qualities that you have witnessed in your relationship with them.
This is the main part of the letter and the most important.
To begin, refer to the list of information provided to you and consider why you have been asked to give the reference. What evidence do you have of the qualities that the person in question wishes to convey?
Use short sentences and a formal, honest and positive tone.
You should focus on one or two key skills or qualities; three at most. You should not write an essay.
Examples might include:
- Positions of responsibility or leadership
- Occurrences where the person was selfless or made a difficult choice
- Skills which show attention to detail, communication or rapport with other individuals
5. A Recommendation
The letter should conclude with your recommendation. This is where you vouch for the candidate’s suitability for the role.
6. Your Contact Details
Ensure that the person receiving the reference can contact you should further information or clarification be sought. Include an email address, phone number or postal address.
7. Sign Off
Remember to appropriately match your sign off to your salutation.
Example Character Reference Letter
First and Last Name
1 Street Address
Dear Mr Smith,
This letter is my personal character reference for Jennifer Thomas.
Jennifer and I have worked together as volunteers on the operating committee of the charity [name] for the past five years, in addition to being part of the same running club. She leads the support crew for our running club’s long-distance races and has done so for the past decade.
Jennifer is an excellent project manager with an eye for detail as well as strategy. She chairs the operating committee of the charity with warmth, humour and strength, working tirelessly for a cause which she passionately believes in. Jennifer leads by example, ensuring everyone is moving in the same strategic direction.
The success of any sportsperson is made or broken by their back-up team, particularly with long races which last for 24 hours or more. Jennifer multi-tasks, keeps going through adversity, keeps a level head and has never once missed a checkpoint.
She is a truly inspirational team player, excellent driver and without her, we would never have reached the starting line, let alone the finish.
For these reasons, I recommend Jennifer for the position of First Responder. I believe she is a true asset to anyone who has her on their team.
Please contact me if you have any questions or would like further details.
Five Tips for Writing a Great Character Reference
1. Make Sure You Have Enough Time
Only accept the task if you are sure that you can do a good job and not let the candidate down with a substandard letter. If you doubt your ability to meet the deadline, it is far better to say no early and leave them enough time to find another person.
2. Be Clear Why You Have Been Asked and What You Need to Show
Ensure you understand the reasons the candidate asked you and not someone else. Have you known them in a particular context or for a specific length of time? Ensure you have all the relevant details about the role they are applying for. Ask questions early to make sure you have sufficient information to complete the task.
3. Make It Brief
Be succinct and try to keep your letter to one side of A4.
4. Use Specific, Positive Examples
Familiarise yourself with the qualities the candidate has been asked to showcase. Make sure each quality you mention is supported by a strong and relevant example. If the example in question is about a team, refer only to the candidate’s contribution.
Once you’ve finished your first draft, take a short break and then revisit what you have written. Does it achieve what you set out to say or are there better examples?
Have you proofread for spelling errors and typos? Can you reduce the word count so that it says the same thing but more succinctly?
Being asked to write a character reference is an honour, but it is also a huge responsibility. Make sure you take the request seriously and only agree if you are in a position to do so.
If you agree to give a character reference, send the reference only once you have edited and checked it. You may want to send a final draft to the candidate before completing it, to be sure it answers the points they wish to emphasise.
Keep to your agreed deadlines. Be positive and upbeat throughout.