Tips for Writing any Reference Letter


Always, always type your reference letter. Even if your handwriting is as elegant as a calligrapher’s, never submit a hand-written reference letter. A reference letter casts a reflection on both the writer and the applicant. A typed document always expresses a more professional look and feel, and will be taken much more seriously by the reader or decision maker.

“First impressions are important! Get off to a Great start by submitting a professional looking reference letter. It will make a difference!”

The physical appearance of your letter is so important that it may determine whether your letter even gets read by the recipient.

Always print the letter on good-quality, white paper and on a laser printer if at all possible. Make it crisp, clean, and professional. You may have spent hours filling the letter with excellent content, but if the letter does not have a professionally look, it may just end up in the garbage can.

As a Type ‘A’ Professional Accountant, I appreciate my paperwork “just right”. I personally like to receive an applicant’s reference letter in a 9” x 12” envelope rather than folded and mailed in a standard size envelope. I don’t like having to unfold the letter and there is always a crease through some line of type making it more difficult to read. Go the extra mile and mail or deliver your reference letter in large envelope.

“All of these little things will add up in the readers mind.”


Before composing your reference letter, focus on several different aspects of the person you are writing about.

Be as specific as possible when you’re referring to their skills, performance, attitude, personal attributes, hobbies, contributions, growth, etc. Your comments should focus only on the time period that you have known the individual. Go only with what you know personally, and not what you’ve heard about the individual.

Be honest with your comments. Never attempt to say things that you are not 100% sure are accurate or that you do not firmly believe about the individual.


Reference letters usually contain between five and ten paragraphs with a total word count ranging between 200 and 600 words. Using this format, your letter should be one to two typed pages.

Longer does not necessarily mean better. Remember, the reader is most often too busy to hang on to every word. They are more likely to do a quick review in search of the four dynamics discussed previously.

The more significant the writer’s credentials, the less time they will have to devote to writing a reference letter. In other words, a College Professor would be able to write a shorter letter than, say, a fellow student because the reader will place more value on what the Professor has to say over a fellow student.

If the writer is more personally attached to the applicant, it is safe to assume that they will include personal stories or anecdotes. It normally takes more time to tell a story than mention a simple attribute, so these types of letters will be longer in length than those that do not contain personal stories about the applicant.

Good Luck!

Lyle MacPherson
How to Write a Great Reference Letter

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