How to write a character reference letter

How to write a character reference letter

What is a character reference?

A character reference is a letter written for, and about, someone you know very well on a personal level. It’s often called a personal reference and differs from a more typical employment reference you may have provided by a current of previous employer. Where an employment reference will outline how you performed tasks and handled responsibility in your working role a character reference will outline your personality and all the positive traits you show in your personal life. It’s much more about who you are as a person and less about how you perform at work.

Who might it be for?

Often a character reference will be used in an application for work where the applicant doesn’t have a strong record of employment to offer references from previous employers. Alternatively it can be used as an additional recommendation to back up an employment reference with positive aspects of their personal life. This extra information could add value to an employer’s decision when considering the applicant for a position.

A character reference can also be utilised when making applications for non-employment roles; such as for volunteer posts or charity work; it could be used as part of an application for a university or educational course or post; or as part of the application process for a professional body or an important society membership.

Character reference letter for court

Another important and often required use for a character reference is if it is to be used as part of a court case. You may be asked to supply information regarding a friend or family member who is involved in a trial and this additional material may have an important bearing on the opinions of the judge and jury.

Who might write one?

In employment, association or voluntary position applications the reference would be ideally written by a close contact that holds some relevant information to whatever the reference pertains. You could choose a neighbour, a teacher, a group leader, your minister or priest, or somebody you already know who operates in a similar position to the one you’re applying for.

Generally a character reference shouldn’t be written by close family members or your best friends — these will often be assumed to be biased and may not be regarded as seriously as you would hope they might.

The exception to the family rule is for references written regarding court cases. These are often specifically required from family members and close friends, or from somebody who knows how the outcome of the case would affect the accused or of any special circumstances that may shed additional light on the behaviour of the person in question. This type of personal information is often only known by the closest people to the person on trial.

What should they say?

The reference should be full of the positive aspects of the person involved. It should speak of their personality including how trustworthy, loyal and ethical they are, activities they might undertake which show them in a good light such as any charity work, voluntary activities, babysitting, gardening, handyman help they’ve carried out for neighbours or friends, or of any time they might have gone above and beyond what was expected from them when you needed a friend or specific help in a particular situation.

You will also need to outline how you know this person, your relationship to them, how long you’ve known them and also your contact details in case the recipient requires any further information from you.


First you should ask whom the reference is to be sent to and why they need it. The position or reason for this will often dictate specifics in how you will write the letter and what it should contain. A reference for a court judge and one for a voluntary position should contain quite different elements and should also be written in very different tones. The seriousness of the matter will determine how official or how palatable you should come across in your writing.

Whatever the reason make sure you include details that are relevant so they are of real use to the recipient.

If it relates to a court case then make sure you know how the person you’re writing the reference for feels about their position in the matter. Make sure you write material to support their feelings and hopes instead of potentially making the situation worse for them.

Try to find out whom the letter will be directed to — if you can personalise the letter in each case it will add to the quality of your information. It shows you have taken the matter more seriously than just creating a general address. If you are writing to a board of peers or an unknown group though you should begin your letter with ‘Dear Sir or Madam’.


Your relationship

The opening paragraph should be background on how you know the person, how long for and your relationship with them. Outline whether you know them through work or pleasure, from a club or society or whether you do voluntary work together. It’s also important to mention how often you see the person and how much time you spend together. A reference won’t be taken too seriously if you barely spend time together and don’t appear to know each other all that well.

On some occasions it might be relevant to mention where you met and how you became friends. Try and decide if these matters are relevant, and if so, make sure to include them.

Their character

The second paragraph and any subsequent paragraphs required for further information should outline the positive aspects of their personality and behaviour. It should also contain the efforts and activities that will make the recipient view them more favourably than if they hadn’t previously known these factors.

All information should all be as positive as possible including achievements, goals, donations of time, money or goods, rewards, praise and acts carried out by them that in any way will add to the positive outline you hope to create for them.

Finish on a positive

You should close the letter with comments that make the recipient look at the details of this person in a respectful and a highly favourable manner. Only by achieving this have you fulfilled your purpose to whoever asked you to provide this information for them.

Be thorough

Once you’ve completed your letter make sure you re-read it and correct any grammar errors, spelling and punctuation. Check that it reads well or ask somebody with more proficient English skills than you to check through it if you’re in doubt to whether it comes across as literate and enlightening.

You should always confirm with the person you are writing for that it meets up to their needs and that you haven’t missed any important details that they’d hoped you would include.

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