Just about anyone can be asked to write a reference letter on behalf of a friend or colleague. If you have worked with, supervised, taught, or been associated in any way with someone, he or she might request a reference, if you are likely to have good things to say. Before writing the letter, make sure you are comfortable offering this person your support. When you vouch for someone, you are taking responsibility for their behavior, at least in the immediate future. Be sure you are comfortable standing up for someone and giving your stamp of approval in writing.
Address the Letter to the Right Person
If you believe someone is a great candidate for a job, school, or other position, agree to write the letter. Begin by finding out to whom you should address the letter. Making it personal instead of starting with a greeting such as “to whom it may concern,” gives your letter more credibility. Include the name and address of the recipient on the top left hand corner of the letter, just below the date.
In the opening paragraph of your letter, state your relationship with the referenced and how long you have known the person you are referencing. This is important because it establishes your credibility and puts your relationship into context. You might also include a few details about yourself in this section, or save these details until later in the letter.
Listing Positive Qualities
Next, list the qualities that make the referenced exceptional or particularly qualified for the position or for admittance. Back up the qualities or skills with specific instances. Usually three or four of these are enough to make a good impression, especially if you elaborate with details.
Provide some information about general skills or qualities. You can point out things such as kindness, thoughtfulness, friendliness, reliability. These items do not need specific details to back them up. They are basically just your way of describing the referenced. Though it might be tempting to include a weakness and give it a positive spin, as you would in a job interview, this is not recommended. Your job is to paint the referenced in a glowing light.
You should also avoid referring to religion, race, national origin, gender, disability, or marital status, if the letter is for employment or admittance to college. If you are writing the letter to an organization where these factors are applicable, speak with the referenced about how to address the issue. For instance, if the referenced wants to be appointed the leader of a woman’s organization, her experiences as a woman would be relevant, so you might want to include a statement regarding her gender.
Keep the length of the letter to one page. You want to elaborate with some details, but do not go overboard. Your goal is to highlight the referenced’s positive attributes and establish yourself as an authority on their behavior. The reader should take your opinion seriously and trust you in regard to the referenced, while also viewing your friend or colleague with a positive opinion.
Finally, proofread your letter. Nothing ruins your credibility faster than poor grammar and spelling errors. You might even want someone to proofread the letter for you before mailing.