Careers & Education

How to write a reference

By Matt Williamson
Info Guru,

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An effective reference letter could mean the difference between a candidate's acceptance or rejection.
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Important facts about how to write a reference letter

Primarily, a reference letter is used to introduce a person and vouch for his integrity, character, and abilities. Are you the right person to write a reference letter? If you are asked to write a letter of reference, you may need to discuss this subject with the requester. Can you honestly write positive things about the person who has requested the letter? If not, you should bow out gracefully at the beginning. On the other hand, if you feel you qualify, brainstorm with the requester so you can write what he or she wishes to be said, and be sensitive to his/her deadlines.

Have the person give you a list of accomplishments, organizations that he/she belongs to, or any other relevant information. It might surprise you to see how much that person has done outside of your personal contact with them. This can also help you get a more accurate picture of the individual. Having the person give you a copy of his/her resume is an easy way to have this information at hand. Keep in mind, however, that you can only vouch for what you know from your own personal experience with the individual.

Here are some easy guidelines on how to write a reference letter:

Explain how you know the applicant and how long you have known him/her. In what respect is this person exceptional to others you have known with a similar background? List the applicant's exceptional qualities and skills, especially those that are related to the applicant's field of interest or job search. Give specific examples to back up what you have written. Refer to the requester's competency in a specific field and/or prior experience, organizational and communication skills, academic or other achievements, interaction with others, sound judgment, reliability, analytical ability, etc. Omit weaknesses. If you can't write a positive letter of reference, you should diplomatically decline when you are first approached. State your own qualifications. Why should the reader be impressed with your reference letter? Emphasize key points that you want the reader to take note of on the resume or application. Be sure to elaborate meaningfully; don't simply restate what he/she has already written. Unless it is absolutely relevant, do not refer (either in a direct or implied reference) to the applicant's race, religion, national origin, age, disability, gender, or marital status. Don't be too brief, but be succinct and make every word count. Generally speaking, a letter of reference for employment should be one page; a letter of reference for school admission should be one to two pages. List your own contact information if you are willing to receive follow-up correspondence or answer questions. Make the ending strong without overdoing it. Undo praise can be viewed as biased or insincere. Proofread! The letter of reference represents both you and the applicant.

Here are some additional things to keep in mind when considering how to write a reference:

Appearance. Type your reference letter. Your reference letter casts a reflection on both you and the candidate. Appearance may even determine if it will be read or not. Print the letter on good quality ink-jet paper. Specifics. Concentrate on several different aspects of the person. Be specific when you refer to his/her skills, attitude, personal attributes, contributions, performance, growth, etc. during the time period you have known the candidate. Word usage. Be careful with "power words"! Some words that seem harmless in every day conversation can carry both positive and negative connotations when written and presented to a prospective employer. Here are a few positive adjectives: honest, articulate, effective, sophisticated, intelligent, observant, significant, expressive, creative, efficient, cooperative, imaginative, dependable, reliable, mature, and innovative. Avoid adjectives and adverbs that carry a mediocre connotation such as: nice, good, fair, fairly, adequate, reasonable, decent, and satisfactory. Attributes. The National Association of Colleges and Employers compiled the following list of attributes. They can be exceptional topics to address as you describe the candidate: ability to communicate intelligence self-confidence willingness to accept responsibility initiative leadership energy level imagination flexibility interpersonal skills self-knowledge ability to handle conflict goal achievement competitiveness appropriate vocational skills direction

Now that you have the basics of how to write a reference, do a draft letter and proof read it a few times. You may be surprised at the changes you may want to make. If you have any questions, review them with the applicant for whom you are writing the reference. Above all, do not exaggerate or lie about his or her qualifications.

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