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reference letter guide

As a jobseeker, there can be so much you need to do during your job search that sorting out references can seem like another overwhelming task.

The use of references  and reference letters in particular vary from employer to employer, so use this guide to help prepare yourself and to get your personal references ready for when an employer asks for them.


What types of references are there?

Generally there are two types; personal and professional.

Professional references are provided by your current of previous employers and may only contain confirmation that you worked at the company and the dates you worked there.

Personal references are exactly that – personal. They focus more on your individual characteristics as a person rather than just you as an employee. It gives potential employers a little more information about what you are like by somebody who can vouch for you. Because of this, personal references can actually have more weight than the things you say about yourself on your CV.


Who should I ask for a personal reference?

Anybody that is well-respected in their field and/or community, and can be trusted to write a sensible reference letter and importantly, actually knows you. Family friends or your old teachers can be a good source, as they will often have known you a long time and will say good things about you.


Who shouldn’t I ask for a personal reference?

Friends. Of course your mates are going to write excellent things about you but their reference could end up being slightly over-the-top and biased.

It may also reflect badly on you as it looks like you don’t know anybody more suitable to provide you with a personal reference. The same assumption may also be made about references from family members, so try not to ask them either.


What should a reference include?

Details about your positive attributes. If these attributes can be backed up with an example of when you exhibited that certain characteristic then even better.

References are there to “sell” your good qualities, make you appealing to employers and generally compliment your CV, whether it’s focusing on you as an employee or your more personal side.

Positive attributes might include (but not be limited to):

  • Maturity
  • Responsibility
  • Ability to get on well with others
  • Ability to learn quickly
  • Enthusiasm
  • Politeness
  • Cheerfulness
  • Able to follow instruction
  • Able to work on your own initiative


What shouldn’t be in a reference?

It shouldn’t include overly enthusiastic language such as “absolutely incredible” or “the world’s greatest” as it will sound excessive.

Although a personal reference still needs to use appropriate language and content, it shouldn’t include anything unprofessional. An example of what not to include might be: “I was very impressed when I was privileged enough to witness John down a pint in 6.2 seconds”. Although arguably this might be considered an impressive feat, it’s not relevant to the workplace or an appropriate “skill” to bring up with an employer.


Personal reference letter template

When it comes to personal references, there is no set length, although it shouldn’t really be longer than one A4 side.

There is also no set format, but below is a guide to give you an idea. You might have your personal reference written before you have been asked for one, in which case your referee will not have a name to address it to, and will need to sign it off with “Yours Faithfully”. Alternatively, if they do know the name they should address it to them and sign it “Yours Sincerely”


Dear …. /To whom it may concern,


I can confirm that I have known …. for… years.


The next paragraph should detail how you are known to your referee and those positive attributes – remembering to keep colourful language to a minimum. This should include the fact they would recommend you – either in general if the reference is for multiple use or if you are applying for something specific include the company name and/or role you are applying for. Such as:


I would highly recommend …. as an employee at Company X. I have no doubt he would make a great (insert job role)


Lastly the reference should end with the referee offering their availability to provide further information or clarification if required.


Yours Faithfully/Sincerely

Referee Name

Related articles:

How to get a reference

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Need more information on how to get a reference? We explain who to ask, how to ask and when to ask.

Can I get a bad reference?

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Confused about the rules around bad references? We set the record straight.

Job offers and your rights

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Can a bad reference mean your new employer can change their mind?. We take a look at job offers and where you stand.

Is your reference illegal?

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Think you lost a job because of discrimination? Check out these guides to find out what you can do.

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Ageism discrimination

Disability discrimination

Sex discrimination

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