The Ultimate Reference Letter Guide For Job Seekers

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A reference letter is great to have on your side if you’re a job seeker. You might have found a job from a free job site or an employee referral and you’d like to make your application stand out. Having a glowing letter of reference from a former or current colleague or supervisor will help you set yourself apart from the competition in a sea of job applications.

If you’re searching for a job, check out ZipRecruiter! ZipRecruiter makes your job hunt simple with their 1-Click Apply feature! You can also upload your resume to ZipRecruiter’s resume database! Get started with ZipRecruiter today!

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What Is A Reference Letter?

A reference letter is received from someone who can speak to your personal attributes and character traits. This letter talks about how well you can do a job.

This letter will feel like the writer is bragging about you, sometimes providing examples which demonstrate your skills.

You will need a reference letter when applying for a job or internship, volunteer position or applying to attend colleges or graduate programs.

Reference Letter vs Letter Of Recommendation

Let’s talk about the difference between a reference letter vs letter of recommendation. The two get confused, often.

A reference letter is usually more general than a letter of recommendation and speaks about a person’s:

  • Personal attributes
  • Character traits
  • Job performance

A letter of recommendation is more specific and talks about:

  • The writer’s support of the candidate for the position they are applying for
  • The applicant’s job skills and positive traits

For example, if Sally applies for an IT support job, her reference letter from her former colleague may speak to her character, sharing that Sally is a hard worker, dedicated, and works well under stress.

In contrast, a recommendation letter for the IT support job will share specific strengths with examples.

It will be a detailed letter and may talk about Sally’s leadership skills, followed by an example of how she led four projects the year before, achieving excellent results and receiving a leadership award. It may share more about the relationship the writer has with the applicant and how his/her experience was working with them.

Both a reference letter and letter of recommendation are great to have but a letter of recommendation offers a little more, since it comes with a formal, written recommendation.

Related: Best Resume Writing Services

What Should Be Included In A Reference Letter?

A reference letter can include:

  • A positive testament for the applicant: Reference letters are positive. They speak highly of the applicant and feel like the writer is bragging about them. The testament will be objective and authentic.

  • List of character traits and personal attributes: A specific list of traits and attributes should be included to help illustrate the applicant’s work ethic and positive qualities.

  • Specific examples: Examples help to support your testament and demonstrate the skills used to better illustrate it all for the employer.

How To Ask For A Reference Letter

To ask for a reference letter, you’ll want to:

1. Choose The Right Person To Ask

Before getting the courage to ask for a reference letter, you will need to identify who to ask first. This can be someone like a former or current coworker or supervisor, a fellow student or college professor, etc. It’s best to avoid asking family.

It will be someone who knows you and has worked alongside you. They should be objective and be someone who can talk about your positive attributes.

2. Pick A Communication Method

After choosing who you want to ask for the reference letter, the next step is to choose a communication method:

  • An email
  • A phone call
  • Handwritten, delivered letter
  • Face-to-face request

Join The Break Community

To give the person time to think about it and prepare a response, email is probably the best option here.

It gives them time to take in what you’ve said and think about your request without being put on the spot, which would happen if you asked them in a phone call or in-person.

3. Ask Nicely

When you make your request, be nice about it. Be courteous and understand that you’re asking this person for a favor. They are putting their reputation at stake and taking time away from their schedule to help write you a reference letter.

4. Explain What You’re Looking For

Make it easy on them by sharing exactly what you’re looking for:

  • Tell them the job and employer you’re applying to, including a copy of the job description
  • Provide a list of traits or attributes the position is looking for or ones you think you have
  • Sharing a template of a reference letter can be helpful so all they need to do is customize it based on you

5. Include Additional Information

This supports the previous point of explaining what you’re looking for and providing as much information to the writer of your reference letter as possible.

Give them more information than you think they might need. This is better than not providing enough details and not getting the reference letter you envisioned in your mind.

6. Send A Thank You Note

Lastly, don’t forget to thank them and send a thank you note. It’s a courteous follow-up and a kind gesture to thank them for writing you a reference letter.

Who To Ask For A Reference Letter

You will ask someone you know that can testify to your skills, personal attributes and character traits for a reference letter:

  • A coworker
  • A supervisor or manager
  • Client
  • Coach
  • Professor
  • Neighbor
  • Friend
  • Mentor
  • Fellow student

Reference Letter Sample

Here’s a reference letter sample you can use:

Dear Hiring Manager,

I have worked alongside Sally Bread for more than three years. She’s been an invaluable part of our organization, the XII local chapter of the Brownies Girls Club.

Sally is one of the most hardworking and dedicated people I’ve had the pleasure of working with. She is well-organized, has great attention to detail and is very helpful. If there’s an opportunity to help others, she’s always the first volunteer.

She steps up to perform her best, even in the most stressful situations. There were several occasions where she stayed late into the evening for work, to ensure the project was complete before the weekend started.

Sally is the type of person you would want on your team. She works well with others and has a glowing, positive attitude. She would be an asset to your team.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.


Georgia Brown


Frequently Asked Questions 

What do you write in your reference letter?

A reference letter will speak to the applicant’s character and personality traits. Providing examples of how they use their skills and character traits are also helpful to include.

How do you write a reference letter for a friend?

Writing a reference letter for a friend is common. The letter should be:

  • Factual
  • Objective
  • Speak positively about the applicant
  • Refer to specific tasks or projects
  • Provide examples, if possible

How do you start a reference letter?

Start a reference letter with a salutation like, Dear Mr. Wilson, for example. You can also use the salutation To Whom It May Concern.

How do you write a reference letter for an employee?

When writing a reference letter for an employee, explain who you are, your relationship to the applicant and list specific character traits and attributes, including examples. Close the letter by offering your time for follow-up questions and include a phone number and/or email address.

The Bottom Line

Choosing the right character reference for your reference letter is important. Take your time with the process and provide as much information to the person writing your letter as you can, to make the process easy on them. While a reference letter is not a mandatory part of the job application process, many times, it’s very helpful to have and will make your application stand apart from the competition.

Now that you know how to get a reference letter, you can take the next step toward your dream job! Start applying on ZipRecruiter today.