Skimm Scripts·3 min read

4 Career Coach-Approved Tips for Writing a Reference Letter

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Design: theSkimm | Photo: iStock
January 27, 2023

Has a friend or coworker ever asked you to write a reference letter for them? If so, then you’ve felt the pressure of trying to help them nab their next job or a spot at their dream college. If not, chances are, you’ll be asked in the future. And when that request hits your LinkedIn inbox, you’ll need to know how to write a reference letter. So we asked career coach Samara Elkins, founder of Coaching by Samara, how it’s done. Plus, she shared a reference letter sample you can use when the time comes. 

When would someone need a reference letter?

They’re pretty common for someone applying to college. And while Elkins says you probably won’t need a reference letter for your next corporate job, other industries ask for them on a regular basis. Like public sector jobs and non-profit organizations.

She also added that having a reference letter from a trusted colleague is great to have on hand — whether that's a physical or digital letter, or in the form of a LinkedIn recommendation — because it'll help you stand out from the crowd.

But does a reference letter really have an impact?

It sure can. “A strong reference letter from a qualified person can add that ‘it’ factor,” Elkins explains. “The letter can serve as a great point of validation or verification for that person." If you’re wondering who would be considered a qualified person to write a reference letter, Elkins recommends tapping someone with the "clout" to be a big deal (like a CEO or business owner) or a close manager.

Got it. Any advice on how to write a reference letter?

Elkins’ tip: Be specific and genuine. Doing both will make a greater impact. “The more personalized the letter is, the more it can resonate with the reader,” she tells us. “Whenever I have written reference letters for people, I work to include specific examples of the qualities I want that person to know the candidate has.”

Oh, and don’t forget to include how you know the person you’re referring. Because Elkins says the context gives good insight. Example: If the reader is the candidate's potential new boss, and you have managed this person before, you can give them the inside scoop on what it’s like to have the candidate as a direct report.

Do you have a reference letter template I could use?

We do — and we have Elkins to thank for it. “A good framework for writing one is to [use] the STAR method,” Elkins explains. Meaning, focus on the situation, task, action, and resolution. 

Instead of: "[NAME] is absolutely wonderful. I fully recommend [HIM/HER/THEM]. We worked together at [COMPANY] for [TIME PERIOD]. [HE/SHE IS OR THEY ARE] bubbly, kind, and a hard worker." 

Say: "I had the pleasure of working with [NAME] at [COMPANY]. [HE/SHE/THEY] joined our team during a year of rapid growth in a new offering. Even without having a ton of experience with the offering, [NAME] jumped right in, learned what [HE/SHE/THEY] could, and helped us develop processes to make sure we were following through with our clients. One of the processes [HE/SHE/THEY] created was used by the whole client experience team. [HE/SHE/THEY] bring(s) a positive energy and a can-do attitude. Plus, [HE/SHE/THEY] always looks for ways to work smarter. [NAME] is a fast learner and creative problem solver. [HE/SHE/THEY] would be an asset to any team."  

Reminder: This is just an example, so adjust it as needed based on your situation and experience with the candidate.


A solid reference letter can really help someone's chances of landing their dream role. Or getting into their top-choice university. The key is to make the letter personal and genuine — and don’t skimp on the details.

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