How to Write a Character Reference

You’re probably familiar with a college recommendation letter from a teacher and professional letter of reference from a colleague or boss. Did you know that you can write friends and family members recommendations, too? Although less common, certain circumstances make personal reference letters appropriate. 

A family member or friend may write a letter to a judge about the fitness of a parent in a custody case, to request an early release or a lenient sentencing for a defendant, or to express support for a change in citizenship status. Applicants may also include character reference letters as part of an application for employment or housing. Anytime someone needs to showcase character traits specific to an activity that falls outside the scope of work or school, he or she can ask a friend, family member, or close community-member for a character reference.

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Step One: Ask Questions

When someone asks you to write a character reference, you should begin by deciding whether you feel prepared and able to complete the request. Has the person given you at least 2-3 weeks to prepare the letter? If the recipient hasn’t given you enough time to complete the task, you should not feel obligated to recommend them. After you decide to help, learn more about the purpose of the letter. Who would you be writing, and why does that person need such a letter? 

Next, ask yourself a few further questions about your ability to fulfill the task. Can you think of several good qualities that you would be able to write about, and do you have concrete examples to provide? In the event that no good qualities or complimentary stories come to mind, you may want to give your friend or family member the opportunity to ask someone else. 

Assuming that you feel well-qualified to give a reference, you should ask your friend or family member what strengths he or she would like you to emphasize. For instance, your friend might say that he wants you to focus on his trustworthiness. If you agree that he is trustworthy, you could try to come up with a short list of his good character traits that relate to trustworthiness:

  • Honest
  • Dependable
  • Ethical
  • Responsible

After you feel confident in your ability to complete the task, ask your friend for any additional information. What is the due date for this letter? To whom should you address it? Will you need to follow up with anyone to make sure the letter has been received?

Step Two: Use Business Letter Format

Use business format for a formal reference letter. We recommend mailing a physical letter, assuming time permits. If you’re unfamiliar with such formatting, you can review our guidelines here. Use clear, legible fonts and plain paper. If you’re planning to send a digital letter, attach it to an email as a signed PDF. Confirm that the recipient can open email attachments before you send. Be sure to proofread your letter for grammar and spelling errors. 

Step Three: Explain Your Relationship

Within the letter, you’ll need to explain the nature of your relationship as succinctly as possible. Include relevant information to help the reader understand the length and context of your relationship. 

You might say something like:

  • I have been Jill’s family friend for 10 years.
  • Bob has been my Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor for the past six months. 
  • I volunteered with Sam at St. Paul’s Church in Lexington, Kentucky, and we co-chaired a fundraiser last May.
  • I have been Felicia’s landlord for two years. 

Step Four: List Positive Characteristics

As mentioned above, you should make a list with the positive characteristics of the person. Once you outline his or her personal qualities, try to narrow down the list to three or four characteristics you’ll include in your letter of recommendation. You should be able to provide a concrete example to highlight each quality. Also, you should try to choose characteristics that seem relevant to the purpose of the letter. 

As an example, if you’re writing a letter to a hiring manager, you should write about how your close friend is hardworking. This will be more relevant than a long letter describing how he throws the best parties. Although both characteristics are positive and true, one is more applicable to his work than the other. 

Step Five: Provide Real-Life Examples

To illustrate that your brother has a positive attitude, you might share a story about how he overcame cancer at a young age. To emphasize that your neighbor has a strong work ethic, you might explain how he volunteered his time to beautify the neighborhood by planting a community garden. These specific examples show a potential employer that your opinion has a basis in observations. It’s easy to say something nice, but it’s much more compelling to illustrate the behaviors that led you to develop your opinion in the first place. 

Below, we’ve listed a few concrete examples. 

Good: He is a valuable asset to any team.

Better: He always remembers to pass the ball and communicate with other players on the field. That’s why our soccer team voted him Most Valuable Player (MVP) two years in a row. 

Good: She has strong communication skills. 

Better: Whereas most volunteers would be overwhelmed, she redirected the waiting customers to the nearby garden so that they could enjoy the view. She made everyone feel special, and turned the delay into a positive experience. 

Rather than writing about someone’s general character, it’s much more memorable to tell stories. Whether you’re providing a reference for a court case or a job application, try to paint a picture with your words. By doing so, you’ll allow the reader to feel more connected to the person you’re writing about. 

Step Six: Share Contact Information

When you’ve completed your recommendation letter, be sure to supply all appropriate contact information. This may include a phone number, email address, mailing address, or home address. Your contact information allows the reader to reach out to you with follow-up questions. Also, the contact information enables the reader to confirm any factual information you provided in your letter.

Step Seven: Send the Letter on Time

Imagine you’re writing a recommendation for your friend, a job candidate for a very competitive position. You could write the most complementary and thorough letter, but it won’t do any good if it arrives after the job has already been filled. That’s why it’s so important to ask for a due date and send a recommendation early whenever possible. Whether you provide a letter for a criminal sentencing or a job search, the decision-maker needs plenty of time to read and consider your observations. 

If someone asks you to provide a character reference and you’re not sure you can do it on time, just say no. That’s much kinder than failing to send the letter. Once you’ve agreed to be a character reference, this person is counting on you. Usually, he or she will not be able to secure another recommendation with short notice. 

Also, remember that asking for a character reference can be intimidating. No matter how you answer the request, try to be kind and encouraging.

Sample Letters

Here are a few websites that provide templates for character reference letters: