How to Write a Reference Letter (with Examples)

A close-up of a businessman typing on a laptop on a wooden desk

Knowing how to write a reference letter is essential in today’s ultra-competitive labour market. Everyone needs an edge, and this written document is your ace in the hole.

Just think for a moment: would you rather have an applicant with a positive reference letter from an executive pertaining to this former employee? Or would you accept a candidate with a standard CV and cover letter and who was fired from their job?

We thought so.

Whether you have been asked to write a reference letter for someone or you are drafting a template for your ex-boss to sign, let’s get down to it.

1. Introduce Yourself

Imagine receiving a letter that read: ‘Dear Hiring Manager, HE Pennypacker was a fine employee. Kind regards.’ That would seem like an anonymous, random document that doesn’t provide much help for the person seeking the position. A much more informative introduction would be preferable.

How do you write an introduction? Here are some suggestions.

  • If your business has one, use a letterhead for your reference letter.
  • Begin the letter with ‘Dear’ followed by the name of the person the letter is meant for.
  • If you’re unsure of the name, then you can address the letter to ‘Hiring Manager’ or ‘Admissions Committee’.
  • The opening paragraph should include your name, the candidate’s name and the reason for your letter.
  • Insert a couple of brief details, such as their job title and length of position.

Remember: this isn’t a novel where you need to engage the reader. You just need to be succinct.

2. Be Positive and Descriptive

Staying positive is essential in reference letters or personal letters of recommendation. Even if you have been asked to refer someone who has been in your employ, you can remain positive by trying your best to come up with some redeeming qualities and traits of the individual.

Of course, it wouldn’t be wise to just write random positive words and phrases. They should be descriptive, too.

Unsure which ones to add? Here is a list of basic positive but descriptive adjectives and phrases.

  • ‘I have had the opportunity to work with…’
  • ‘I am pleased to comment on…’
  • ‘I will be happy to speak with you…’
  • ‘He is mature beyond his years…’
  • ‘She has always proven equal to the task assigned…’

3. Talk about Their Job Performance

Now, the quintessential question is: what should be included in the appetiser section of the reference letter? Ultimately, you should list a minimum of three exceptional skills and character traits pertinent to the job and other successes or attributes that have been important to the position. These do not require you to go into great detail – this can be done later on in the letter – but a brief mention of why they would be qualified for the position they’re applying to.

  • Hercule Poirot has a flair for organisation and can keep track of a project’s status.
  • Miss Marple handles responsibility well and ensures she is sensitive to others’ ideas.
  • Tommy Tuppence had careful attention to detail and thought out and articulated his positions.
  • Roger Ackroyd always followed tasks to their conclusion, remaining calm under pressure.

4. Provide Examples

The next portion of your reference letter is the meat and potatoes that offer supporting examples of how important the person, who resigned from the company, was to the job or how much they participated in their academic ventures. Indeed, space is limited, so you need to get to the specifics of these examples.

For instance, if you are writing about how versatile the individual was, then you can allude to the time they worked on three different projects, trained an entry-level clerk and prepared the office Christmas party all on the same day.

You should aim for at least two examples of their job performance.

  • ‘Philip Marlowe has always been willing to go beyond what is required of him. I was surprised one day to find that he had stayed up the night to locate some obscure statistics regarding the Turkish economy, which proved to be highly relevant to our emerging markets division.’
  • ‘Tom Sawyer has always worked well with little supervision. There have been times where you think Mr Sawyer had left the office for the day, but he was handcuffed to his workstation completing a wide array of assignments that needed to be completed by the week’s end (he finished them in two days).’

5. Mention Your Availability

Unsure how to complete a reference letter beyond ‘kind regards’, ‘all the best’ and ‘yours truly’? The best way to conclude your reference letter is to invite the recipient to follow up at any convenient time – common sense dictates business hours, but just be sure to list an appropriate time (remember; common sense is not so common!). This could consist of an email or a telephone call. Either way, this is cordial, respectful and professional.

For example, you could end your letter with something along the lines of: ‘If you have any additional questions or concerns, then please do not hesitate to contact me between the hours of 10am and 3pm, Monday to Friday. I’d be happy to answer any further inquiries.’

6. Use the Right Words

Are you a wordsmith? You don’t need to be the next William Shakespeare or Raymond Chandler to compose a reference letter, but it is important to know what words to use or not.

For instance, as you research on the best ways to pen a reference letter, you will inevitably come across recommendations to write power words. These are terms that are meant to impress a prospective employer, though they might consist of positive or negative determinations. ‘Intelligent’, ‘sophisticated’, ‘expressive’, ‘reliable’ and ‘effective’ are just some examples.

The next series of words to think about are bland and mediocre adjectives and adverbs such as ‘nice’, ‘adequate’, ‘fair’, ‘good’ and ‘decent’. Do you really want to use these words when you just wrote something that looks like it belongs in a Nikolai Nabokov novel?

7. Don’t Forget to Proofread

Let’s be honest: since the advent of spellcheck, proofreading has become a lost art form. Many seem to believe that spellcheck is the only thing that matters when it comes to giving a document a second look. But this isn’t enough. In fact, spellcheck is just one way to edit your reference letter.

What else should you do?

  • Perform a grammar check, which can be done by using a wide array of free digital tools.
  • Read the letter out loud and determine your mistakes that way.
  • Get somebody else to read your reference letter.
  • Write your letter on paper and then type it on the computer.
  • Fact-check to ensure you are getting the person’s tenure right.

Proofreading a journalistic piece is vastly different from proofreading a business document, but it’s still an imperative function in the business world.

8. Format Your Letter

Every reference letter needs to have a professional format. Yes, you could write one by hand or type one out by email. But this wouldn’t exactly be professional, would it? So, how do you format this letter?

  • Write out the reference letter on a word-processing application.
  • Use a single line space between each paragraph, one-inch margins and left alignment.
  • Set the font to a traditional typeface like Times New Roman or Calibri – 11pts or 12pts is the norm.
  • Write no longer than a page; it is preferable for a four-paragraph maximum.
  • Save your letter as a .pdf when sending through email.
  • If possible, use a professional business template in your word processor for your composition.
  • Remember to include your contact information (name, address, telephone number and email address) at the top of the letter if you’re not using a letterhead.
  • Don’t forget to hand-sign your letter (in blue or black ink) and to make a copy of the signed letter for your records.

A correct format may not seem like a big deal, but it is important for professionalism.

Sample Letter

Here comes the fun part: a sample reference letter.

Reference letter sample


There is a philosophy in HR departments all over the world: if an employee was good, ex-bosses will give recommendations or glowing reviews for someone. But if an employee was terrible, then these former employers will only confirm dates of employment and titles.

Of course, if you were happy with the employee that you’re writing a reference letter for, the former will apply to you. And the advice shared above will help you do just that.

Have you ever had to write a reference letter for someone before? Do you have any tips and tricks you’d like to share? Join the conversation below and let us know.