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Key Elements for Writing a Reference Letter

Published on Wednesday, 27 Jan 2016

Getting asked to write a reference letter can often be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s extremely flattering that someone admires and respects you enough to ask you to take part in such a pivotal element in the overall process that will eventually determine their future. However, not everyone is a comfortable or adept writer. Compounded with the pressure that your words have the potential to directly affect whether someone gets a job or not, writing a reference letter can quickly turn into an incredibly stressful task. 

Thankfully, the responsibility of writing a stellar reference letter can be alleviated with the inclusion of several key elements.

1. Introduce yourself and your relationship to the candidate. 

It’s always good to identify yourself to the hiring manager in order to present yourself as a valid reference. Tell them who are you professionally, why your opinion of the candidate should matter, and in what context you know the candidate. 

Once you’ve established why your judgement of the candidate is important, the reader will feel justified in taking your words into more careful consideration. Imagine getting a letter from someone you aren’t familiar with and they start telling you how great another person is. If it’s not clear why you should listen to this person’s opinion, you’re likely to just ignore it. 

2. Offer details of key achievements

Making positive, but broad and generalised statements about someone is will only get them so far. When writing your reference letter, consider what key accomplishments the candidate has achieved in the field or industry and share a few of those experiences with the reader. 

3. Be relevant

Remember what your goal for writing the reference letter is and don’t get side-tracked with excessive verbiage. When it comes to writing reference letters, longer isn’t always better. Try to be as direct and concise as possible without skimping on content. Ask yourself if the story or example you are offering would positively affect the hiring manager and persuade them in favour of offering a job to the candidate. 

Everything in your reference letter should support and encourage the goal of getting the candidate a position at the company in question. If the content is just extra padding, eliminate it from the letter and leave only the significant parts that are going to impress. 

4. Provide details on personality traits

After the hiring manager checks for qualifications, the next thing they are going to look at is whether or not an applicant would be a good fit with the company’s culture. Instead of merely listing adjectives describing the candidate, consider sharing an anecdote that can demonstrate his or her strongest personality traits.

This provides greater insight and will be far more interesting for the hiring manager to read than a boring list. An engaging story will also leave a stronger impression, which can help keep the candidate in the forefront of the hiring manager’s mind when it’s time to decide who gets the job. 

5. Give insight to the candidate’s work ethic

Beyond qualifications and personality, a hiring manager wants to know about a candidate’s work ethic. Unfortunately, this is something that can’t be expressed accurately on a standard resume. If you have previously worked with the candidate directly, offer examples that show off his or her strong work ethic. 

If you haven’t had the opportunity to work closely with them, share a personal instance that could illustrate their work ethic. For example, if you have volunteered with the applicant for a charity, use an experience from that volunteer event that can showcase the candidate’s dedication, attention to detail, teamwork skills, and willingness to help. 

Writing a great reference letter is no easy task, but it needn’t be a burden either. Keep in mind the end goal and write towards reaching that result. Leave out the extraneous content and you’ll be able to submit an insightful and impressive recommendation that will help land someone their next big career break.

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