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How to Write a Reference

At Ultius, we know that writing a reference for someone can be difficult. It is not an easy thing to simply write about a person's qualifications, and a professional reference is a vital document in the professional world. Check out the guide below on how to write a reference, and if you still need some help, we offer the following services:


Whether applying to an educational program or a job, a professional reference is an invaluable resource for getting your foot in the door and making a great impression. But many influential people in a student’s or job candidates’ life may be reticent to provide a reference because they do not know how to write a reference properly. Consider the audience for the reference needed: is this reference for an admissions office, a human resources department, or a professional society? 

Cater to the Audience

The level of formality and verbosity of your reference will depend on its specific context. Universities will want to hear about academic successes, the character and values of the student, or interesting ways that the student flourished at your place of learning. Human resources will desire information about employee success, including attendance, productivity, communication, or other business related factors. A professional society might want a critical review of the person’s achievements in the field, whether the arts, sciences, or an occupation. A society of lawyers might want a reference that describes the candidate’s courtroom performance, professional ethics, and ways that the individual gives back to the community. When asking how to write a reference, the answer is simple: describe the person positively, precisely, and cater to the audience, whether business internship, job opening, school admissions, or graduate programs.

Despite some differences between these types, professional references follow a general pattern in order to cultivate the main argument that explains why your student, employee, or peer will be an outstanding candidate for the position. Try to stick to three or four main paragraphs. The first paragraph should introduce the candidate with a direct statement of their skills and proficiencies. The second paragraph will discuss the reference’s relationship to the candidate, including how the candidate was observed performing at work, school, or in their personal dealings. Depending on the level of reference, additional paragraphs can be added to support your candidate. The third or fourth paragraph should end with a stated recommendation of the candidate. 

Always stay positive, and focus on ways that the candidate has succeeded, rather than failings or flaws. Challenges that the student or employee has faced and overcome may be used as examples of their courage and dedication, however.

Position of Authority 

Because your authority as a representative of this person’s character is important, make sure to include your name, contact information, and any important occupational or scholastic positions you hold. As a professional reference is a form of letter, the date must also be included. This information can be put at the top left, in a letterhead, or at the bottom of the recommendation, in a signature. 

Make a point of specifically introducing your relationship as a reference in the body of the letter, whether you are a professor, boss, mentor, or other important guide. Unless the recipient is known, for example, John Q. Public, Hiring Manager, then it is appropriate to address your letter to “whom it may concern,” or another generic title, such as “admissions.” The best way to resolve the question of how to write a reference is to follow an example that follows a similar context.  The job opening professional letter of reference should resemble this model:


Professional Letter of Reference

Joe Commendo, CEO

Business Co

123 Office Rd., City, State

Phone or Email January 1, 2015

To John Q. Public, Hiring Manager:

Jane Ambitor is an excellent candidate for any position in your organization. She excels at multitasking and holds herself accountable for a number of responsibilities, including preparing reports, communicating with customers, and coordinating budgets within our department. 

As her direct supervisor, I have personally witnessed Jane’s outstanding communication skills, which she utilized with customers, staff, and management to help our office achieve the highest monthly sales records last year. She is proficient in the use of applications such as Office, Adobe Photoshop, and understands programming for the web. Jane Ambitor has worked hard to develop products for some of our high profile clients. 

Over her tenure with our company, Jane has been an outstanding example to her fellow staff in terms of discipline, as she was rarely absent from work and never called off unnecessarily. I heartily recommend her for any position within your organization, as her wide breadth of skills and steadfast diligence will serve your company well.   


Joe Commendo, CEO


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Develop your main points about how the employee has assisted your business in creating revenue, or in an educational setting, how your student has succeeded at facilitating learning inside and outside of the classroom. For example, for an educational reference:

Educational Letter of Reference

To Whom it May Concern:

Mary Scholasticus is a highly valued student due to her ability to understand material rapidly and assist her fellow students with their own interpretations. She is an honest student who achieves high scores through her discipline and natural aptitude for science. Mary has a cheerful personality that brightens the classroom, and helps to make learning fun. As her instructor for two Biology courses, I have witnessed her growth as a student and scientist over the past year.

She will surely make a positive contribution to your program of study, as she is a diligent, hardworking student. Last semester, Mary completed two projects about sequencing DNA, while most students only finished one. Miss Scholasticus is an exemplary student due to her ability to focus and achieve her goals.

As a volunteer in the community, Mary has helped to coordinate blood drives and other public health initiatives. Her academic and personal skills will shine in your program of study. I strongly recommend her as a bountiful contribution to your university.   


Professor Nye


These examples are effective models to follow when asking how to write a reference describing the good qualities of a person. Sometimes, a professor or boss will ask you to write a reference describing yourself and their relationship to you, which they will look over and approve with their signature. Maintain an even and encouraging tone throughout the reference letter by choosing specific words that highlight your skills and ways that you demonstrated these competencies to your mentor. Universities will value free thinking, creativity, exploration, ingenuity, brilliance, and other aspects of a person’s intellectual character. Businesses will demand employees who are versatile, responsible, punctual, flexible, loyal, sales-oriented, and dedicated. Some of these values overlap, and the unique characteristics of the individual should always come foremost before more general benedictions. Specificity is highly valued when writing professional references: always cite specific circumstances where the candidate went above and beyond your expectations.  For example:

Example of Proper Specificity

John Smith is a fast learner who can think on his feet, as proven by his ability to quickly fix a critical network problem in the department and get our systems back online without resorting to third party support.


Rather than:

Example of Poor Specificity

Job Joberson is a quick learner because he understands information rapidly and can swiftly digest data..


The latter reference leaves the reader wondering how the candidate actually accomplishes the lofty praises that are heaped upon him.

Think of a reference as a review of the candidate that focuses on their strengths, minimizes or transforms their weaknesses, and cites precise reasons why the person will succeed in their next venture. Keep the audience in mind when describing strengths, as the manager for a job opening in business likely desires different strengths than the academic board that oversees the hiring of a professorship. 

Performance Review

A reference is like a performance evaluation, consider the scope of the person’s relationship with you, how they have contributed to your organization, your personal success, and attained their own achievements. Discuss how the candidate has maintained a strong work ethic and high productivity. Or, how creative solutions were part of their contribution to your organization. 

If anyone wants to know how to write a reference: the secret is to identify the best parts about a person and put them down on paper. If a student is witty and generous, that is just as important as their scholastic achievements. Every reference is going to state a candidate is a good student, a good worker, et cetera. Differentiate your reference by describing colorful ways that your candidate is a better choice than others. Ask yourself, why did I personally enjoy working with this student – how were their contributions special? If writing a reference on behalf of your professor, try to imagine the impact you had on the class as a whole, such as participation in discussions, tutoring other students, or engaging in research. 

Writing a Reference

Writing a reference can be daunting at first, as you want to impress the audience, while at the same time avoiding generality or banality when praising your candidate. Be honest and truthful, though embellishment may be tempting, it should be unnecessary in the case of truly inspiring students and employees. Real world examples are the best support for positive words that might otherwise be rendered platitudes. Writing a great reference calls for three ingredients: your mentorship and role in the candidate’s life, his or her personal attributes, and the candidate’s past and potential positive contributions. Emphasize the unique qualities of the candidate, whether a student or job-seeker, and tailor your reference to the individual’s intended audience.

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