What is a reference letter and why do you need one?

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If you’re trying to climb the career ladder then at some point you’ll need to provide a reference letter during a job application.

These letters demonstrate an applicant’s skills and character, and they’re written by colleagues, mentors and community leaders who are familiar with the applicant.

They’re often required by people who are applying for jobs at the start of their career, and they can be a confusing business – so we’ve demystified the reference letter by explaining these documents and what information they should always contain.

Don’t worry if you’re not up to speed with reference letters – you soon will be. And if you want more application advice, then examine our round-up of the biggest job market trends in 2022, and the web’s best freelance websites.

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Reference letters explained

A reference letter is an endorsement of a job applicant’s skills, character, and abilities. They’re often needed during the application process for jobs, graduate programs, internships and other scenarios that are frequently found at the start of an applicant’s career path, and they’re ideal for bolstering an application.

Most of the time a reference letter is requested by an organization as part of the hiring process, but proactive candidates can produce their own letters if they want to do a better job of demonstrating why they’re the ideal candidate for a role. Some candidates even obtain references from colleagues every time they leave a position, as a matter of course – so they’ve got references ready to use for future job applications.

If you’re a graduate, someone who’s just entering the job market or a person who is changing careers, then a reference letter can be a vital part of your job application. It can show faith in your abilities and demonstrate things that you just can’t get from a resume or cover letter – because an external endorsement from a trusted figure counts for plenty. Ultimately, it can form a crucial part of a job application by providing another assurance that you’re suitable for the position.

Types of reference letter

Not all reference letters are created equally. Many job applications require a professional reference letter that’s usually written by a manager, colleague, or teacher. These documents go into further detail than a resume, and explain the candidate’s history at their old job, their successes, and their abilities.

Other applications require character references. Family friends or respected community figures often write these, and they explain the applicant’s characteristics and why that would make them suitable for their new job or role.

You’ll also come across positions that require an academic reference letter, especially in educational establishments. As the name suggests, these letters cover the candidate’s educational background to prove that they’re suitable for a new role. They’re also sometimes needed if a person is applying for academic funding.

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What should be included in a reference letter

If you need to ask someone to write a reference letter – or if you’ve been asked to write one – then it’s worth considering exactly what should be in the document.

The letter always needs to clarify the relationship between the candidate and the person writing the letter, and how long they’ve known each other – an endorsement isn’t as meaningful from someone who barely knows the applicant.

A good reference letter needs to explain why the candidate is a great choice – whether it’s for professional, personal, or academic reasons – and give real-world examples that prove why they’re up to the job. It’s also important to sum the candidate up in a short final paragraph that really dials in on why they’re ideal. If you’re writing a letter and want to ensure you’ve got your facts right, ask for the candidate’s resume and a copy of the job advert before you put fingers to the keyboard.

And, at the end of a good reference letter, the author should also include contact details if the recruiter wants to clarify any details.

If you’re on the hunt for someone to write a character reference, then always consider if the person knows you well enough – whether they’re a coach, friend, neighbor or colleague, they need to be able to express why you’re a good fit. If you need a professional reference, make sure the referee works in a relevant industry to the role in question.

It’s also worth considering the things that you don’t want in a reference letter – and if you’ve been asked to write one, decide if you’re the right person for the job.

It’s not ideal if a reference letter highlights an applicant’s weaknesses, for instance, or if it mentions personal information that isn’t relevant, like political information, relationship status or religion. Also ensure that any reference letter uses standard business letter formatting and is free of spelling, layout and grammatical errors.

Mike has worked as a technology journalist for more than a decade and has written for most of the UK’s big technology titles alongside numerous global outlets. He loves PCs, laptops and any new hardware, and covers everything from the latest business trends to high-end gaming gear.