How to Write a Character Reference Letter

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If you can’t provide a positive and honest character reference, politely decline the request.
If you can’t provide a positive and honest character reference, politely decline the request. (Image: Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Getty Images)

If you’ve been asked to write a character reference letter, ask yourself if you know the subject well enough to write such an important testimonial. Character reference letters augment rental applications, court actions, child custody bids or immigration requests, so your words will carry weight. While there is no one “right” way to define character, turn to the so-called “six pillars of character” that children and teens explore in school as a good starting place for your letter. These pillars are caring, citizenship, fairness, respect, responsibility and trustworthiness. You can include other attributes as well, but be certain that you speak from personal experience to illuminate the subject’s character.

Organize your thoughts. Write the six pillar words on a piece of paper or your computer and then supply a brief anecdote about the subject underneath each one. This brainstorming technique is called “clustering” and should assist you in elaborating on your key points. You might use other character words, too, such as honesty, credibility and loyalty.

Craft a compelling opening statement that explains your purpose in writing and your relation to the subject. For example, if you are writing to attest to the character of a former assistant store manager, you might say: “I am writing to highly recommend Carol Hodges, who functioned as my assistant manager at QRS Vitamin Shop for two years and proved herself repeatedly to be my most outstanding employee in more than 15 years in business.”

Provide background information on the subject’s role in your business or personal life and the vantage point that allowed you to expertly judge it. In this example, you might explain Carol’s main job responsibilities, such as how you entrusted her with your money and inventory and the care of your customers in your absence.

Refer to your clustering exercise to illustrate the subject’s key character traits. Be specific and offer short anecdotes. In this example, you might provide two short anecdotes: one that amplifies how Carol showed care and respect for your customers and another that demonstrates her responsibility and trustworthiness in financial matters relating to your business. End each anecdote with a statement of endorsement. In this example, you might conclude the first anecdote with: “Carol was unfailingly polite to our customers and left no stone unturned when it came to their requests for more information.”

Write a strong and memorable closing statement that is sincere and heartfelt. You might express your wish to rehire the subject or that the subject “set the bar” for all future employees. Or you might link this closing point with your opening statement – in this case, echoing that the subject was your “most outstanding” employee.

Close your letter with an offer to answer any questions the recipient of the letter may have. Be sure to include your contact information.

Proofread and edit your letter until it is flawless. Keep a copy for your records; you might be asked to write another character reference letter in the future.

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