Professional Resume Writer, Career Writer and Career Coach
Hiring managers love a resume laden with relevant skills and qualifications. Hard skills specific to the role, like SEO strategy or Java programming languages, are easy to qualify using achievements or facts and figures. But how exactly can they verify personality traits, work ethic, relationship management skills, or curious nature during an interview when they barely know you?
Long story short, they use a character reference. When you’re struggling to tell an employer about yourself, leverage a tried-and-true character reference to do it for you. Below, this guide will teach you how to write a character reference, plus when to use it and how to ask for one.
What Does Character Reference Mean?
Also known as a personal reference, a character reference is a letter written by someone who knows the candidate and can speak to their character and abilities. A character reference differentiates itself from a letter of recommendation because the person writing the letter is not an employer (or previous employer).
Employers may ask candidates for a personal reference during the interview process to gauge a person’s character outside of a professional capacity. So, the reference might come from a coach, family friend, teacher, or faith leader (like a pastor or priest).
Importance of Character Reference
Employers use personal references to learn more about who you are outside of work. It’s one thing to say you’re an active listener with solid conflict resolution and relationship-building skills, but a character reference can prove it. These close friends (or otherwise) can talk about how you might demonstrate these skills in the workplace.
Character references come in handy when you don’t have enough professional references to satisfy an ask. For example, if you only have one professional reference, but a potential employer asks for two, you can use a character reference to fill in the gaps.
What You Must Include in a Character Reference Letter
First, address the reference to the hiring manager or requestor. Next, cover the relationship between you and your friend, including how long you’ve known each other and examples of how you’ve worked together. Then, dive into the details.
Focus on two or three of your friend’s strongest qualities, skills, or attributes you feel would make them an ideal candidate for the role. (Asking your friend for the details surrounding their target will help you get as specific as possible here.) Back up your claims with specific examples or anecdotes that can add context, or proof, to your statement.
Once you’ve lifted up your friend, close out your reference with a strong recommendation statement that makes it clear you’re recommending so-and-so for the program, position, or role. Add your contact details as well as an invitation to contact you for further information if needed.
When to Ask for a Character Reference
Character reference requests are common during the job search process. But you can leverage a character reference for a variety of reasons, including:
- You’re an entry-level employee with no professional references
- You’re making a career change
- You want to brag on your skills and use them as a competitive advantage during the interview process
- You’re applying for professional membership or certificate
- You’re applying to a college or university
When asking for a reference, do so as early as possible so they have time to create a detailed statement. Clue them in on how you’ll use their reference so they can clarify how your personality will suit the opportunity — provide them with the job posting or additional information on the program you’re targeting. Even better, send them your resume and a quick blurb about what you’ve been up to so they have all the details they need to get started. (See our email templates below.)
How to Write a Good Character Reference Letter
A character reference aims to do one specific thing: detail your personality and skills beyond a professional setting. So when it comes to writing a good one, there are a few key elements to include.
Discuss Your Relationship With the Applicant
Start by introducing yourself and how you know the candidate. Whether you’re a friend, mentor, or teacher, discuss how you met and how your relationship has evolved — basically, discuss why, exactly, you’re the right person to speak on their behalf. This will help support your claims and let the hiring manager understand your qualifications.
Mention How Long You’ve Known the Person (mention how you know the person)
To further qualify your statements, include how many years you’ve known the person. Time surely helps, but you can also talk about specific instances where you’ve worked together. See our character reference templates below for more inspiration on how to describe your relationship with the potential employer.
Include Positive Skills and Qualities
Reserve the “meat” of your statement for specific skills and attributes you believe qualifies this person for their target opportunity. Don’t go overboard though — one to three qualities are enough to demonstrate their value. For each attribute, support it with personal anecdotes, examples, or scenarios that relate to the skill in question.
Above all, keep things positive, so you can uplift your friend as much as possible.
Write a Recommendation Statement
Next, summarize why you believe this person is the right choice, focusing on the key character strengths you mentioned earlier. This should be a clear, outright, and poignant statement that relates to the opportunity.
Mention Your Contact Information
Finally, conclude your recommendation by offering to discuss your opinions and statements further. List your phone number and email address before signing your name.
5 Tips to Write a Better Character Reference
If you’ve been asked to write a character reference, only accept if you know the person closely and can speak to their personal attributes in a positive light. Then, leverage these tips to help your friend get what they want.
1. Research the Position
First, ask your friend to provide details surrounding their target position or program. Then, review the technical and personal skills required for the job to be successful. Conduct your own research to understand the company’s mission and history to better understand how your contact can contribute to its culture.
Also, ask your friend about their goals and objectives. What are their future career goals and how does this job help them get there? If it’s been a while since you’ve last connected, pin down what your colleague has been up to since you last spoke. Use this knowledge to share your perspective and frame your recommendation.
2. Get Specific
A quality character reference prioritizes the specifics — the details. For every claim you’re making about the person’s character, prove it with concrete examples. What have you witnessed them do, how would you describe their personality, and when/how did they use their skills to achieve something great?
3. Be Positive and Truthful
It should go without saying, but don’t stretch the truth. This will only make it harder for your friend to back up your claims should they get the job. Instead, focus on the things you know to be true, and describe them in a positive light.
4. Proofread the Letter by Someone
Of course, you’ll want to proofread the letter before sending it. But consider allowing someone else to review it for errors, inconsistencies, or informational gaps, as they’ll be more likely to catch mistakes as a first-time reader.
It’s also wise to let your statement marinate a bit. Once you finish writing the letter, step away and focus on something else before you come back and review (this is an editing hack I use in my writing process). Ensure your letter suits your friend’s needs developmentally. Does your statement help your friend achieve their goals, or are there better, more specific examples you can include? Can you say something more succinctly?
5. Keep It Short
Long, clunky paragraphs are tough for anyone to digest — even our favorite thriller novels leverage short paragraphs and impactful sentences. When writing a character reference, keep your end reader in mind. You can write a quality statement in three or so paragraphs. Aim for simple sentences your reader can read quickly. Shorter is better.
What Do You Say in a Personal Reference
Even with the tips above, you may still struggle with exactly what to say. To keep it simple, you want to make sure you address your friend’s
Here is an example of how you can address all of these attributes and give specific examples of how your friend displays the traits you want to point out.
I am writing to you regarding Suzanne Element. I have known Suzanne personally for over ten years, and have always known her to be an organized and responsible individual. I believe that her skills and experience make her an excellent candidate for office manager in your organization.
When I met Suzanne, she had just left an administrative position in a busy Fashion House, where she was responsible for bookkeeping, answering phones, and making appointments. She took such pride in her work there and even developed strategies for making her bookkeeping more organized and efficient.
During the time I have known her, Suzanne has been active in our community, serving on the Library Board and the Historical Society. She has taken many responsible roles in both of these organizations; her contributions include acting as Secretary of the Library Board and heading the Historical Society’s Annual Fund Drive. She achieved multiple successes in both of these positions. For example, as head of the Historical Society’s Fund Drive, she helped raise 28% more funds than the previous year. Much of this had to do with her success in getting and organizing dozens of volunteers. Her passion, combined with her organization, makes her an asset to any organization.
Personal Reference Example from Balance Careers
Effective Character Reference Templates
Template 1: How to Write a Character Reference for a Friend
To whom it may concern (or hiring manager name),
I’ve known Lauren for seven years, first as a classmate in graduate school, and now, as a regular volunteer at our local animal shelter. During feedings and on our regular hikes with the dogs, I’ve learned all about Lauren’s successful freelance content creation career and the success she’s had supporting countless companies’ marketing initiatives.
Lauren is a self-starter. She’s the first to jump in and assist with any problem and she shows up when she says she will — often early and with dog treats for our friends!
Lauren’s personality is warm and engaging. She’s always laughing and I can always count on her to show up with her full self ready to work. In graduate school, I watched Lauren mentor several undergraduate students in their course studies and career paths. At the shelter, she patiently discusses all aspects of the rescue process with apprehensive new owners, no matter how many questions they have.
For these reasons, and many more, I enthusiastically endorse Lauren for your upcoming [strategic content] initiatives at [Job/Searcher]. Her communication skills, intrinsic motivation, and warm personality make her ideally suited to lead and coach up employees as a Senior Content Strategist.
For additional insight, please contact me at 555-555-5555 or email@example.com.
Template 2: How to Ask Someone to Write a Character Reference
Hi (friend’s name),
I hope all is well! The last time we spoke, we were talking about my impending job search, and well, as luck would have it, I’ve found a few [content strategist] roles I think could be the next step in my career. Can I list you as a personal reference if any companies request them? (Alternatively: The hiring manager has asked for a list of references as the next step in the process. Would you be willing to speak on my behalf?)
If so, they’d appreciate the insight into my personal attributes and skills beyond my professional qualifications. Our time spent as graduate school mentors and, more recently, as volunteer buddies at the animal shelter makes you the perfect person to talk about your experience working with me. More than anything, they’re looking for details regarding my values, work ethic, personality traits, etc.
I’ve attached my resume for your reference as well as links to a few of the job ads I’m targeting. Thanks so much for considering my request.
Frequently Asked Questions About Character References
1. Can a Family Member Write a Character Reference?
A family member can serve as a personal reference if you absolutely need them to, but exhaust other options first. Mentors, professors, coaches, and volunteer leaders are all great options. However, a family member might be a good choice if you’ve had a close working relationship, such as starting a business or working on a long-term project or family business together.
2. How Long Should a Character Reference Be?
Like cover letters, don’t go overboard with your reference statement — one page or less is usually sufficient. More than length requirements, employers crave detailed references from a reliable source who can speak from experience about the candidate’s traits and attributes.
3. What Do You Say in a Reference for a Friend?
When writing a reference letter for a friend, summarize your personal experience with the characteristics and skills you think qualify them for the position. Depending on your relationship, you might discuss their values, work ethic, and how they work with others. Feel free to share examples and anecdotes, but don’t get too personal. Relate your relationship back to the opportunity at hand whenever possible.
If you’re in the position of needing a character reference, congratulations! This is a very good thing because it suggests a hiring manager is interested in you enough to ask for additional insight. Don’t delay in requesting one from your personal network. If you’ve been asked to write one for a colleague, take it seriously. Your words could be the push prospective companies need to make the move.