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How to Write a Referral Letter

  1. Explain how you know the applicant.
    How long have you known the person and in what relationship or circumstance?
  2. State your qualifications for writing the referral letter.
    Why should the reader be interested in your referral? How many other people of the applicant's caliber have you known, and why does the applicant stand out?
  3. List the applicant's exceptional qualities and skills
    Especially list those that are specific to the applicant's field of interest or job requirements. For example, competency in his/her field or prior experience, organizational and communication skills, academic or other achievements, interaction with others, sound judgment, reliability, analytical ability, etc.
  4. Emphasize key points that you want the reader to note on the applicant's resume or job application.
    Be sure to elaborate meaningfully; don't simply restate.
  5. Give your judgment of the applicant, his/her qualifications and potential.
    Why should he/she be considered over other people? How does he/she compare to other people you have known? Do not state weaknesses. If you can't write a positive letter of referral, you should respectfully decline.
  6. Give specific examples to back up what you have said about the person's qualifications and character.
    Remember, generalized praise is a waste of space.
  7. Unless it is absolutely relevant, do not state (directly or by implication) the applicant's race, religion, national origin, age, disability, gender or marital status.
  8. Don't be too brief.
    One or two short paragraphs are death to a referral letter. On the other hand, be succinct. Make every word count. Here is a rule of thumb: a letter of referral for employment should be one page; a letter of referral for school should be one to two pages.
  9. Make the ending statement strong without overdoing it.
    Undue praise can be viewed as biased or insincere.
  10. List your contact information if you are willing to field follow-up correspondence.
  11. Proofread!
    The letter of referral represents both you and the applicant.

How to ask someone to write a letter of referral:

  • Ask for a referral letter from people who know you and your capabilities, i.e., former employers, teachers, coaches, community or corporate leaders, influential friends—people who have known you a long time. Relatives are not a good choice. Three referral letters are enough.
  • Be sure to give them enough time (3-4 weeks, if possible) to write the referral letter.
  • When you talk to them, state your goals and suggest what they might write to help you achieve those goals. Coach them to be specific; general praise is a waste of space. Don't be shy. A referral letter is a sales letter to sell you. Now is the time to brag!
  • Follow up your request for a referral letter by writing a review of your conversation. Give suggestions for your referral letter. You may need to put words in their mouths. When you send them the follow-up letter, be sure to include a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Then, feel free to contact them in a couple of weeks to confirm that they are aware of your deadlines.
  • Once you receive your referral letter, send a thank-you note. Tell them about your success and how they helped you.
  • Write only complimentary, yet factual, observations. Avoid unflattering or derogatory remarks. If you cannot do this, you should decline to write a letter of referral.
  • Remember that potential employers are adept at 'reading between the lines,' and any negative implication may destroy a person's chance at getting the new job.

How to respond if someone asks you to write a referral letter:

  • Are you the right person to write a letter of referral? If you are asked to write a referral letter, you need to discuss the subject candidly with the requester. A letter of referral is most effective when a person writes it who knows the requester and his/her reputation.
  • What is your company's policy regarding letters of referral. Many policies have been established as protection against potential lawsuits. The common rule is write only positive, factual referral letters.
  • Do you qualify? Another consideration is your integrity—can you honestly write positive things about the requester? If not, you need to bow out gracefully without hurting feelings. On the other hand, if you qualify, you should brainstorm with the requester to write what he or she wishes to be said. Be sensitive to deadlines.

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