You’ve been asked to provide a character reference. Oh, boy.
So many questions: What is a character reference letter? Why do they need it? Are they even used anymore? And who do you ask for one? How do they write it? What should it include?
We’re here to help. Read on to learn all about character reference letters.
What is a character reference?
A character reference letter—which is also called a personal reference letter—is about your qualities, attributes, and traits. More than just a description of your personality, it should highlight specific elements such as integrity, work ethic, loyalty, or reliability. The person who writes it has to know you well enough to be able to say what kind of person you are.
Read more: How to Answer: What Are Your Strengths?
When are character references used—or are they?
Even though character references aren’t used as often as professional references, for instance, you never know who might ask for one. Everyone from potential employers, schools, landlords, volunteer groups, and professional organizations could well make that request.
But there are a couple of reasons employers tend not to ask for character references as part of their hiring process, career empowerment coach Melanie Denny tells InHerSight. One is “they have realized that candidates will only provide the most positive references and it has become a waste of resources to pursue.”
In fact, in some instances where a hiring company does request a character reference letter, they will stipulate that it must be sealed and provided directly to them by the writer.
Another reason is that a character reference is less valuable than a professional reference for employment, career consultant Debra Cruz tells us. However, she adds, “they can be useful to get insight on a person's behavior and attitude.”
Who do you ask for a character reference—and how?
Don’t ask your mom, and don’t ask someone who actively dislikes you to write a character reference letter. Work colleagues, family friends, teachers or tutors, coaches, clients, group leaders and volunteer supervisors are all acceptable, but family members simply won’t be taken seriously.
Do remember that you’re asking for a favor, so act accordingly. Give the writer enough time, and if they show the slightest hesitation, give them an easy out. You don’t want a mediocre reference or, worse, any surprises.
Recruiters and hiring managers who ask for character references do check them, job search strategist Maureen McCann tells InHerSight. They need to ensure that the person they meet in the interview is the one described in the character reference letter. “What many people don't realize is that these reference checks could be the thing preventing you from getting the offer,” she says.
Once someone agrees to write a character reference letter, make sure they know what it’s for. If it’s for a job, give them some background on the position so the letter is tailored to that job. If it’s for a volunteer organization, tell them what characteristics you’d like addressed. If it’s easier for them, provide a draft they can use when writing their letter.
When you’re making a career move, it doesn’t hurt to ask your soon-to-be former employer for a character reference letter too. Even if it’s non-specific, a general character reference letter is good to get from your employer when you’re leaving that job, says Cruz. If nothing else, it shows that you had a good relationship with them.
How do you write a character reference?
As mentioned, it’s important to know the reason for the letter. A character reference required for a job with children or the elderly should emphasize different traits than one required by a landlord.
McCann gives this example, when asking a business colleague for a character reference: “This employer wants someone with strong communications skills. When you talk with them, can you highlight those? Maybe tell them about the time we worked on the ABC project where we clarified concepts, showcased data and were able to help seven different audiences understand our role better—then be sure to tell them how this led to more funding for future projects."
We’ll go into details below, but generally you start the letter by explaining how you know the person about whom you’re writing. Once you’ve highlighted an important trait, you include an example of that characteristic. So, if you’re saying how dependable or trustworthy they are, describe a situation that exemplifies that attribute.
From there, you can move on to recommending that person specific to the purpose of the letter.
What does a character reference letter include?
There are four parts to a character reference letter, which should be no more than one page in total:
Introduction. This says why you're writing, how you know the candidate, and for how long.
Specific attributes. Here is where your knowledge of the reason for the letter comes into play. Choose one or two characteristics to emphasize.
Give situational examples of those attributes.
Next comes your statement recommending without reservation the person for the position or placement.
Your own (the recommender’s) contact information.
If you’re giving a character reference by phone, you should include the same content as a letter would. “In the case of a phone call,” Denny explains, “the reference should be prepared to answer questions about the relationship with the candidate, the length of time they’ve known each other and personal qualities with specific examples.”
Sample character reference letter
Here’s a sample character letter, written with a specific job in mind:
I am happy to provide this character reference letter for Jane Smith with respect to her application as an early childhood educator at your facility.
Jane babysat for our family for more than a decade. She was always trustworthy and mature, even as a teen, and has grown into a responsible adult whose rapport with and understanding of children is exceptional.
While obtaining her diploma in early childhood education, Jane worked with children, including our own, as an instructor and assistant lifeguard at our community pool. She is great with kids of all ages and can be relied on to keep them safe.
Jane would be an asset in any early learning and development setting. Please feel free to contact me for any further information you might require.
About our sources
Melanie Denny is a career empowerment coach, award-winning resume writer, nationally certified LinkedIn strategist, and career speaker. President of Resume-Evolution, she’s helped thousands of corporate professionals, from entry-level to executive across various industries, level up in their careers.
Debra Cruz is a career consultant with a graduate degree in educational counseling. She supports higher education for the underrepresented minority groups in community college, university and graduate school. She served as assistant director of employer relations / career counselor in a private liberal arts institution, advising them in the process of career development. She also advises job seekers on the necessary skills to help them succeed in their job search.
Maureen McCann is a nationally certified executive career strategist and founder of ProMotion Career Solutions. She is also a facilitator and teacher within the Career Development Certificate program at Career Professionals of Canada.