How to Make a Personal Reference Letter

Writing personal reference letters requires an honest, thoughtful approach.

Occasionally a friend or colleague may ask you for a personal reference. This is an honor; your friend believes that you have the authority and credentials to carry some clout. The letter may help the person to get a job, gain admission to a university, land an internship or serve in an organization such as the Peace Corps. The job is also a responsibility. You must take care to represent an accurate, honest portrayal.

Brainstorm a list of traits you want to mention, especially those for which you can provide concrete examples. You may not use them all, but having the list will expedite the writing.

Format the letter in a business style and address it directly to the relevant party if you know who it is. If you're writing the letter in such a manner as to allow the subject to use it more than once, address it thus: "To Whom it May Concern." If you have letterhead stationary, use it.

Open with a general remark of a positive nature, such as, "It is my pleasure to recommend Lilian Smith to you." Make sure to use the person's first and last name and and that they are spelled correctly. Set this one remark in a paragraph by itself, even if it's only one line long. Doing so invites the reader to read on and it highlights the subject's name.

Mention how long you have known the subject and in what context at the beginning of the next paragraph. Add a remark about having enjoyed your interactions or some other positive point. Take care not to gush or exaggerate. Use an appropriate tone, or the reader will think you lack authority and judgment.

Develop a paragraph that mentions specific facts of a positive nature that will support your opinion. Include the subject's accomplishments, role in community service or any other positive activity.

Develop another paragraph in which you discuss the subject's character and personality. If possible, give examples of times when positive aspects of the subject's character became apparent. This would include examples of honesty, trustworthiness, reliability and responsible behavior. You might also remark on examples of intelligence, such as evidence of innovative thinking.

Close the letter with one final, blanket remark, such as, "I am sure that Lilian will make valued contributions wherever she goes. You will be pleased with her as a colleague and employee." Set final remarks in a paragraph of its own.

  • Keep the letter short -- not more than one page -- and leave white space between each paragraph.

Cat Reynolds has written professionally since 1990. She has worked in academe (teaching and administration), real estate and has owned a private tutoring business. She is also a poet and recipient of the Discover/The Nation Award. Her work can be found in literary publications and on various blogs. Reynolds holds a Master of Arts in writing and literature from Purdue University.