30 October, 2017
By Mike Simpson
We are all familiar with the traditional reference letter (often referred to as a letter of recommendation). It is an employer’s note of your professional conduct.
While not always in letter form, providing professional references is a key component of any job application.
A lesser known variety of the reference paradigm is the character reference letter.
I can hear the sighs abound.
“Another reference letter? I have already spoken to every employer I have ever had. I have made a list of every address I’ve lived at and every landlord. Who do they want to hear from this time, the Queen of England?”
No one expects to hear from the Queen, though if you think you can get her on the phone it surely wouldn’t hurt.
The character reference is actually the least painful of all references. For once, you have significant control. The Queen need not make an appearance.
What Is A Character Reference Letter?
A character reference letter is written by someone who knows you personally. Instead of highlighting your professional skills and qualities, this letter is meant to speak to your personal qualities.
These are at least equal in importance, if not significantly more important.
You can teach skills on the job. Teaching character is a whole other animal.
When Are Character Reference Letters Used?
An employer can ask for a character reference at any time, but there are certain situations in which you should provide one independent of being asked.
A character reference is a great way to bolster an otherwise weak application. If you have little job experience or your professional references are merely good, a character reference can be the boost you need to land your job of choice.
They are also useful if you will be working with a particular population, such as children or the elderly, and do not have work experience in their field. A note to your abilities and experiences working with this demographic may be your golden ticket.
What Should Be Included In Your Character Reference
A character reference should include:
- Overview of how the writer knows you
- A listing of your positive characteristics with examples
- A general recommendation
- Contact details
You should mention these elements to your reference writer. It is especially important that you ask them to include examples.
A sentence that says “Tom is trustworthy” is not nearly as strong a recommendation as sharing a story about “that time Tom returned a suitcase of money he found in the street its rightful owner.”
Don’t worry – the story doesn’t need to be quite so heroic. Something simple, but illustrative will do the trick.
Who To Ask For A Reference Letter
Your reference letter should be written by someone who knows you well.
However, you want to avoid family members. As tempted as you are to call your mom, how valuable will her glowing recommendation really be?
A distant relative will work in a pinch, but better to choose a family friend or someone you’ve worked with in an informal capacity.
A volunteer supervisor, neighborhood parent for whom you have babysat, or close friend of many years would be excellent choices.
Best Tips for How to Ask for a Character Reference Letter
1. Be Gracious
It is a little known fact that people generally like to help each other out. Asking for help can be awkward, but is usually well received. This is especially true if the person you are speaking to likes you.
We highly suggest you choose someone who likes you to write your character reference letter. To be gracious is to be courteous, kind, and pleasant. These are always qualities to strive for, but especially so when asking for a favor.
2. Be Specific
Make sure that your reference writer knows the specifics of their mission.
- When will you need it to be complete?
- Where should they send it?
- What is the job for which you are applying?
- What attributes would you especially like them to speak to?
The more specific your request, the easier the task at hand. You are already asking a favor, so you should make your writer’s task as straightforward and easy to accomplish as possible.
3. Explain Your Choice
There is no greater motivator to help someone than a heartfelt explanation of why they are the best person for the job.
Explain to your writer why you have come to them and why you feel they are in a particularly good position to write your character reference.
As an aside, a tiny bit of ego stroking never hurt anyone. Just don’t lay it on too thick.
Tips On How to Write a Character Reference Letter
1. Provide Details About How You Know the Candidate
The very first part of your letter should show the employer that you are indeed a trustworthy source of information.
- How long have you known the candidate, and in what capacity?
- What makes you a good character reference?
If your history with the candidate does not make you an ideal reference, you should advice them to look elsewhere for their letter.
2. Get the Details of the Position
If you are writing the letter for a specific position, make sure to get the details and write your reference with the skills needed in mind.
A paragraph about the candidate’s creativity might be less relevant if they are applying to can avocados. Avocado canning is not a particularity creative endeavor, unless perhaps you know something about avocados that we have missed. Attention to detail, in this case, would be more appropriate.
If the job involves working with a specific group of people, such as children or the elderly, than a comment relating to their interactions with this group may go a long way towards helping them get the job.
3. Ask the Candidate What They’d Like to See
This is especially important when writing a general character references. Without a job description to guide you, there are innumerable qualities that can be highlighted in your letter.
Ideally, the candidate should know the types of positions for which they will be applying. This can help them to guide your emphasis towards the most appropriate and important qualities.
Even if your letter is for a specific job, you should ask the candidate what they’d like to see. Sometimes the most important qualities are not obvious from a job description, but may have come through in an interview. In this case, the candidate should be able to provide additional information.
4. Provide Examples
A picture is worth a thousand words. The same is true of an example. As mentioned, the way to drive home an important quality or characteristics that your candidate possesses is to show this quality in action.
Provide examples for your most important points. These need not be full-blown narratives. Simple examples will suffice.
5. Keep It Short
Your character reference letter should not be multiple pages long. One page is more than enough. Three paragraphs will be plenty in most cases.
Character Reference Letter Sample Template
Below, please find an example of a good character reference letter you can use as a template.
To Whom it May Concern:
I am writing to recommend Greg Sterling for any position to which he might apply. I have had the pleasure of knowing Greg for the last decade. I became Greg’s youth soccer coach when he was eight years old and he has since become my right-hand man on the field. Greg was a sincere, kind, and generous kid. He has since grown into a mature, responsible young man.
Greg has been volunteering as assistant coach for the past two years. He is excellent with the young players. He navigates their development, both in terms of practical skills and in terms of character, with the maturity of someone twice his age. He is fair, but also has high standards. He is the first to commend one of the boys for a job well done, and also the first to reprimand poor behavior. Teasing among our players has stopped since they have had Greg as a role model and leader.
Working with youth sports has also given Greg the opportunity to develop customer service skills. He has truly excelled. One parent arrived on the field scathing over his child being sat on the bench for the majority of the game, and left ten minutes later apologizing. Greg has a way with people and this shines through in all that he does.
Greg would be an asset to any company and to any team. I highly recommend Greg Sterling for any position to which he might apply. Feel free to contact me at xxx-xxx-xxxx for additional information.
Putting It All Together
A character reference is your time to shine. You control who writes it and can guide the writer towards the best possible letter for the position you hope to land.
In a way, this is even better than getting the Queen on the phone. She may be a reputable source, but she is just as likely to report the bad as the good.
You can easily ensure that your character reference letter is all good. This is why many applicants present a character letter without having been asked for one. It never hurts to have one more tool in your job hunting toolbox.
If you are looking for more information about recommendation letters instead, please check out our article Letter or Recommendation 101!
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