Writing Winning Reference Letters – Part 1

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Reference Letters That Count

Reference letters are very important and should never be taken lightly. I have come across a practice that is very disturbing to me and that is the practice of writing a not so nice reference letter.

Reference Letters

I am talking about the case where someone contacts you and asks you to be one of their references for a job or for university purposes.   Now I have lived by this rule and I will continue to live by it.   If I am asked to write a reference letter for anyone and I cannot do a good job then I tell them to ask someone else.   Thankfully I have only had to do that once in my career but I believe we should excuse ourselves if we find that being truthful in that letter means we give a bad report.  Others may see if differently but that is how I see it.

When someone selects you to write a letter of reference I believe they have thought about it and in their mind you will do a good job at representing them to that company or that university.  What we write about the individual can be helpful or detrimental.   Sometimes some letters are not really bad but they are not saying anything commendable either. The reference letter should serve to convince the company or university that this is the right person.

 

Reference Letters

What Should Be Included in Reference Letters?

So what should we include in a reference letter to make that person stand out? A reference letter should include a few basic things.  Of course more could be added but at the very least these things should be included.  The letter should include:

  1. Information about how long you have known this person and in what capacity
  2. A fair and honest evaluation of the person’s skills (if you are able to come up with specific examples that stand out then include that as well)
  3. Explain why this person is fit for the specific job or program

Reference letters carry a great amount of weight in some instances. If we cannot represent this person well, then we really should excuse ourselves.   We should also prepare a letter that is free of errors as this can send the wrong message to the person on the other end.


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50 Responses

  1. Bren Pace says:

    Hi Mardene,
    This is great stuff! All too often I get asked for a reference letter. Of course, I draft a little ditty up but I’m sure it doesn’t compare with what you can do. These are awesome tips to remember for next time. I think I’ll bookmark this for future reference. Thanks for sharing!

    B

  2. Once I was asked to do it, I thought it would be easy but it wasnt. I didn’t want to lie but didn’t want to make a bad review either haha

  3. Sabrina Fox says:

    I’ve not had to do this yet, but these are great tips!

  4. I was ask one to be added in their reference but not the letter though,

  5. hautebeautyguide says:

    Wow, reference letters are so intimidating. I have never had to ask for one I will keep your advice for when I do.

  6. Liz Mays says:

    I don’t think I would ask anyone with whom I didn’t have a good rapport. I’m glad I’ve never been put on the spot like that.

  7. I’ve never had to ask anyone to write a reference letter for me before and I’ve never written one. If I ever do, I’ll use your tips to write a winning one.

  8. Cianna says:

    What a shame. I’ve needed letters for freelance jobs, graduate school, and internships, and I’ve asked those people around me who I feel know what level I work at, and the quality of my character. I don’t think I’d be mad if one of them said they couldn’t do it, but I would if one of them wrote me a poor recommendation. 🙁 Though now, my university has an online form to fill out for grad school, so they don’t need formal letters any longer.

  9. Ayesha Heart says:

    Great simple advice. Straight to the point! If not comfortable, simple say NO!

  10. mskathykenny says:

    I don’t think I have ever asked anyone for a reference letter. I don’t think I also have written a reference letter in my life but these are good tips.

  11. Sargas says:

    Well this is new for me. I never thought that asking a reference letter could sometimes give you rude and awful reaction. I guess better read your reference letter first before submitting one, then. or better yet get a reference letter from person your comfortable with.

  12. Katarzyna says:

    Why would you write a not-so-nice reference? I don’t get it really, if I had nothing nice to say about a person I would tell them to ask someone else. I want to be honest but at the same time I wouldn’t want to give someone a negative reference as it’s not what they need.

  13. Ole time people use to say if you have nothing good to say, say nothing at all. So if someone asked you kindly to write a reference letter for them and in truth and in fact, you will not have anything good to say about them it politically correct thing to do is to decline the offer and get them to seek reference from someone else who will give them a favourable reference. What person fail to understand is that when asked to do this you are giving character reference for someone one and this can impact on you in a negative manner especially when you write all this glowing reference about an individual and none of it is true and in the end the let you down by the things that they end up doing either at the workplace or if it is University they intend to attend.

  14. Euge Nia says:

    I think it’s better do not write a letter of reference if you can’t honestly recommend the person. Hiring the wrong person can cost a company a huge amount of money

  15. Laurie says:

    Some people are just cruel. If you can’t say something positive about the person decline writing it!

  16. rozbeads says:

    Often references are done by asking what they will say, offering to write a sample letter.

  17. Living abroad and being a leader in a community of other immigrants, I have come to realise its hard to say NO sometimes. It used to be easy. If I dont know you and I dont feel comfortable in m gut about it I said NO to writinga reference letter, rather than make it up as I went along. Today seeing the way people of certain races are treated irrespective of their calibre professionalky and as an upstanding person…I tend to be a lil less hasty in my NO> I ask them questions that get me closer to a yes or a no…then give my response!

    • Julie that is the right approach. If you need to ask questions, then ask it…..but under no circumstances should you voluntarily write a letter that would cause someone not to get a job etc

  18. Laci says:

    Absolutely it blowsmy mind the point of reference letters are that you want them to be excellent !!

  19. Lexie Lane says:

    Good ideas and advice! I will save them all. Glad you shared about it.

  20. marianne says:

    I have been in the uncomfortable position of having to write a reference letter for a colleague who was completely incompetent but a very kind person. I tried to find as many positives as possible while still being honest. It’s tricky business.

  21. Great advice. As my mum always says to me, if you can’t say anything nice about the person it’s best to not say anything at all. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  22. You never know what is in a person heart. You make thing they gave a good reference but did not. I think telling the person to ask someone else is better and if they push ask why tell the truth why you can’t be objective.

  23. Elizabeth O. says:

    I am very hesitant to do this, because I don’t want to lie for people in order for them to secure a job. It’s a huge responsibility, and I would rather ask them to look for someone else.

  24. The best person to get referrals are the person who knows you. Saying no to things you are not comfortable with is the best answer to give.

  25. Heather Blaise says:

    This is great! I like to ask the person the reference is for to write it and then I just edit it.

  26. Melisa says:

    I don’t understand why people have to be so awful. If someone asked me for a reference letter and I didn’t legitimately feel supportive towards them, I would tell them no. It’s that simple.

  27. Robin Rue (@massholemommy) says:

    I can’t even imagine anyone asking someone they didn’t get along with to write a reference letter. Usually you only ask people you trust and know will write a good review.

    • Robin the problem is your idea of getting along with might be different from the person’s. Also the fact that you got along with them does not mean they will write a substantial review as my friend came to find out when she eventually got a peek at a reference letter that was done on her behalf. Can we really know if that person will write a good review though?