A character reference letter is usually written for you by someone you know outside of work.  This can be a friend, neighbor or relative.  It can also be a person with whom you have shared an experience, such as a teammate or fellow volunteer.

Also known as a personal reference or personal recommendation, a character reference documents your positive personal attributes.  This type of reference is important for non-employment related pursuits ranging from memberships and awards to child custody and adoptions.  Character reference letters can also prove useful in landing jobs.

Character References for Obtaining Employment

A good character reference letter from someone you know can be helpful for job seeking when you

  • Lack favorable references from current or former employers
  • Are starting out and have no work history or have been out of the job market for a long time
  • Have not attended college and cannot benefit from professor recommendations
  • Have a potential employer who wants to better understand your background or better understand what you're really like
  • Are seeking a position where particular personal characteristics are important

With the advent of personal computers and printers and the widespread practice of networking, character references are more common than in the past.  Nevertheless, they are more important than ever.

Character references vs. employment references

There are five distinctions between an employment reference letter (from your boss) and a character reference letter (from your friend).  Character reference letters are typically

  • Less formal
  • More personalized
  • Not focused on an economic relationship
  • Subjective in what they cover
  • More straightforward

An employment reference is usually an official document on company letterhead.  It is written in a formal tone and frequently follows a standard, rather impersonal format.  

Employment references are courtesies extended in the business community.  They are "report cards" written from employers past to employers future.  To have any use, they must objectively appraise your job performance.  This means they must cover all relevant aspects of your work and address both your strengths and weaknesses.  

Of course, employment references are unlikely to simply spell things out.  Most such letters contain organizational doublespeak which makes the bad and the ugly sound good when the letters are casually read.

Character references on the other hand usually describe your positive personal attributes.  They are written by people who are loyal to you-- friends, neighbors, family members.  The character traits discussed in these letters are objectively stated, but are subjectively chosen for inclusion.  In other words, the good things go in and the bad things stay out.

For the most part character reference letters do not pertain to an economic relationship. They are written less formally and are by their nature highly personalized.  At their best, they are also quite straightforward.

Personal employment references

A gray area exists between the two types of letters when it comes to personal employment.  However, usually a letter for a babysitter, nanny, tutor, home caregiver, housekeeper or similar personal service provider is more appropriately approached as a character reference.  While pertaining to economic relationships these letters are most effective when personalized.  As a practical matter they are also informal, relatively straightforward and somewhat subjective in what they include.


Non-Employment Related Letters

Sincere, thoughtful character reference letters can be essential to the success of a variety of non-employment related pursuits.

  • Adoption
  • Appointment
  • Awards
  • Child custody
  • Court hearing
  • Foster care
  • Memberships
  • Nominations
  • Parole hearing
  • Scholarship

As far as how they are written, these types of references should be crafted in the same manner as job related letters.  They should be personal, straightforward, relatively informal, and positive.  The only difference should be in their closing section when the recommended course of action is stated (see Writing Tips below).


Writing Tips

These tips will help you understand how to write a character reference letter.  However, keep in mind the strongest character letters are always personal and heartfelt.  So the more you can write yours in your own words the better it will be.

Organize your letter

As a rule, character references have three sections.

Opening.  Usually a paragraph of only a sentence or two, the opening explains who you are and how you know the subject (person you're referring).

Body.  The body is the majority of the letter.  It can be several paragraphs.  Here you make the case for your friend or relative-- describing your experiences with him or her and giving examples of the subject's good qualities.

Closing.  The last paragraph reinforces your belief in your friend or relative and contains your actual recommendation.

Employment related character references are usually best when the recommendation is as open-ended as possible.  For example, your friend John has asked you to write a letter because he hopes it will help him land a sales position at the local hardware store.  John is polite and out-going, and you feel he'd be great in sales.  When closing your letter which is the better way to make your recommendation?

"I enthusiastically recommend John for a position selling hardware"


"I enthusiastically recommend John for any position where patience, courtesy and a winning manner are important"

The second way would be preferable:

  • John could reuse the letter for other job opportunities in the future, jobs that might not involve hardware or even sales.

  • John's qualities drive the recommendation (as opposed to his desire for a job driving it).  This makes the recommendation seem more sincere and therefore makes it more powerful.

Non-employment related letters are usually written in response to special, one-time occurrences (scholarship competition, child custody award, etc.) and the recommendation must reflect this.  That is, by necessity whatever you recommend must be very specific to be effective.

Build your letter around specific traits

Identify your subject's positive attributes.  Then think of the traits that are important to the position, award, etc. he or she is seeking.  Construct your letter around 1 to 3 of the attributes that overlap.

For example, suppose the person you're writing about is friendly, witty, honest, intelligent, hardworking, and reliable.  Suppose also he or she is seeking a security guard's job.  A security guard should be, among other things, reliable and honest.  So it's best to build your letter around these qualities.

Here are some positive attributes often found in character reference letters:

  • Ambitious, wants to learn and grow
  • Charming, has sense of humor, lighthearted
  • Committed, loyal, devoted
  • Considerate, caring, empathetic
  • Courteous, polite
  • Creative, is a problem-solver
  • Detail-oriented, punctual, quality-minded
  • Determined, persevering, goal-oriented
  • Efficient, economy-minded
  • Fair-minded, honest, trustworthy
  • Follows instructions, aims to please
  • Generous, giving, helpful
  • Good leader, responsible, mature for age
  • Good listener, good communicator
  • Hardworking, diligent, industrious
  • Intelligent, is a quick study, naturally curious
  • Organized, methodic, orderly
  • Patient, level-headed
  • People oriented, easygoing, team player
  • Works independently, is a self-starter

Sell your friend by telling a short story

The character reference writer (friend, neighbor or relative) is at a disadvantage to the employment reference writer (supervisor) in several respects.  He or she is not reporting on verifiable work history and is not carrying the authority of company letterhead.  Most importantly, character letter writers are commonly assumed to "pump up" those they recommend.

To offset these disadvantages, your character reference letter should provide evidence that your high opinion of the subject is valid.  This is best done by recounting specific events concerning the person you are referring.  In essence, your letter should tell one or more short, believable stories that you know personally about the subject.

  • The body should be a narrative that recounts 1 to 3 specific incidents regarding your friend or neighbor.
  • The incidents should demonstrate his or her positive attributes. They should be examples of how he or she behaves.

If you can't say something nice

If you've been asked to write a letter by someone you're uncomfortable recommending, it's best to come up with an excuse for not doing so.  If something must be written, construct a short letter basically containing only the introduction and closing sections.  In other words, do not include examples of why the subject is worthy of the reference.


Sample Letters for Character References

For sister- Problem solver, committed

To Whom It May Concern,

I felt quite honored when my sister Barbara Jacobs asked me to write a reference letter for her.

In addition to raising a family and being a good wife, daughter and sister, Barbara has always found time to get involved in life around her. Unlike many people these days, whenever she adopts a cause or pursues a new interest she is guaranteed to be highly committed.

Barbara is only six years older than I, but in terms of the influence she’s had on my life she might as well have been my mother. She was an honors student in high school and studied Spanish for five years. As a thirteen year old, I often went with her to a special program run by our church that helped Hispanic immigrants learn to speak English. I watched Barbara take a deep interest in the lives of many of the people there. Sometimes she would bring me home, only to go back and spend additional hours helping old and young alike with their personal problems. By example, Barbara taught me not only the value of helping others, but the importance of loyalty and commitment.

Barbara is also a problem solver. Much thought goes into the things Barbara does, and she has an unusual ability to notice what others overlook.

I remember one Christmas her women’s club took gifts of food to families in need. Noticing that a number of the families had been referred by the free clinic, she checked for cases of diabetes. She found that several families had diabetics in them. So she carefully replaced all high sugar foods with fresh fruits and vegetables- items she purchased herself.

I could continue with descriptions of Barbara’s many other good qualities- her work ethic, her energy, and her creativeness to name three. Instead I would simply like to say how much I think of Barbara and how strongly I recommend her for any task that requires problem solving and a high level of commitment.


Doris Martin


For babysitter- Diligent, caring

To Whom It May Concern,

Our babysitter, Sarah Anderson, is a delightful young woman who has cared for our two children over the last several years.

Sarah is not your usual sitter. Our children do not endlessly sit for hours in front of the television while in her care. She goes to extra effort to bring books from the public library that both of our children would enjoy. Sometimes instead of reading to them herself, she will help our son Tom read a story to his young sister.  Other times she will bring board or card games to play with our son after his sister goes to bed.

Sarah has even managed to convince Tom that carrot and celery sticks along with an assortment of fresh fruits are really “fun foods”.

In addition, Miss Anderson shares her love of music with our children. Her musical interests run from classical to contemporary. Sometimes they all sit quietly and listen to music. On other occasions you can find them dancing or exercising to their favorite songs. Even though Tom is only six years old he enjoys singing. As a result of this, Sarah teaches him little tunes that he proudly performs for us.

Often my husband and I return to find drawings, paintings or small craft projects that the kids have made with Sarah’s patient assistance.

We have found her unselfish and diligent care of our children a true blessing and confidently recommend her to you as a sitter.


Gary and Darla Benson


For friend/neighbor- Enthusiastic, hardworking

To Whom It May Concern,

I am very pleased to write a character reference for James Norris.

James and my son are good friends and go to the same high school. I have known James for seven years. During that time I have always been amazed at his level of enthusiasm. Two years ago he participated with my son in planning and financing a school club trip to New York City. He not only raised enough money for his expenses but also helped finance my son’s, along with four other club members.

Another example of James’ enthusiasm occurred last summer. James cuts the grass and trims the hedges each week for the Johnson family. When they went on a two week vacation they asked James to cut the grass twice while they were gone. Even though they wouldn’t have known if he’d only cut it once, he cut it twice. But not only that, when he found out they’d be gone an extra three days he cut it a third time-- right before they came back so it would look nice for them.

James also washes and waxes cars for people. While eating out recently I overheard two neighbors comparing their cars and how good they looked. Neither knew at first that James did both of their cars, and each bragged about a “super kid” that stopped at nothing short of the perfect shine.

I would certainly recommend James for any task where enthusiasm, hard work and trustworthiness are valued.


Ray Ludwig


20 additional sample character reference letters*

20 personal references reflecting a variety of positive attributes.  All in one RTF file for you to download and save on your computer.

  • 100% editable
  • Opens in any word processor
  • References for friends, neighbors, relatives
  • References for childcare, home healthcare, housekeeping, tutoring
  • References for child custody, adoption, foster parenting
  • Available immediately, just download
*This product is intended to aid and inspire your writing.  We encourage you to copy or adapt any part for the purpose of creating personal reference letters issued in your name and written for the benefit of individuals you wish to recommend.  However, by clicking the purchase button you agree you will not copy the sample character reference letter file, in whole or in part, for the purpose of selling or giving the product to others.  This product is a Rich Text Format (.rtf) file.  Open in WordPad, Works, Word, WordPerfect, StarOffice or virtually any word processing application.  To obtain product: once payment is confirmed continue to download page.  ALL PURCHASES ARE NONREFUNDABLE.
20 sample character reference letters   $5.00

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