When asked what to include in a character letter, a self-proclaimed authority replied, “Write about positive aspects of the individual’s personality.”
Excuse me, but I didn’t ask what to include in a personality letter. I asked what to include in a character letter. Are they the same?
No, they are not the same. The main objective of a character reference letter is to tell the recipient what you know about the person’s character, i.e., moral beliefs and actions. Personality deals with emotions and feelings, not character.
Let’s look at what you must include in a good character reference letter.
Include Your Qualifications
You must include your qualifications in the letter, so be sure you are qualified before accepting the responsibility. A qualified writer will know the person well enough to attest to his or her true character. Ask yourself if you know whether the person holds firm convictions or simply preferences when it comes to moral values. Do you know whether he or she has shown the courage to stand up for convictions? Can you really say that you know the individual’s day-to-day behavioral characteristics – traits of character – well enough to testify to them in a critical situation? If you are not qualified, refuse politely.
The Intended Audience
You must include the intended audience, of course, so you must identify that target. Will a potential employer or property owner read it? Will it affect college or military enrollment? Perhaps a judge will read it before court sentencing. You are not writing a generic “to-whom-it-may-concern” note. The category of the intended audience determines much of what to include in a character letter, so ask before accepting the responsibility. Certain recipients such as courts and universities have specific rules. These rules not only detail the letter’s contents, but also define who is qualified to write the letter – which sends you back to the question of your qualifications.
Other Necessary Elements
As stated, certain recipients of character reference letters have specific requirements regarding the elements you must include in addition to your qualifications and the audience. Before agreeing to write, ask to see all instructions provided to the person who wants the letter written. Pay attention, for example, to the legal implications of signing a letter for court, an immigration board, or a similar group. You may have to swear to the truth of your statements.
Aside from such concerns, the necessary elements of a basic character reference letter include the following.
Truth: One thing you absolutely must include in a character letter is the truth. Avoid the slightest attempt to deceive. Weigh every statement to be sure it is accurate. In many settings, the letter will act as sworn testimony, so lying in your character reference letter is as serious as lying in the courtroom.
Relationship: Tell how you know the person. Are you a friend, co-worker, short-term acquaintance, or long-term best friend? Give the length of the relationship. How many months or years have you known him or her? Establish the fact that you know this person well enough to have witnessed moral behavior in a variety of situations.
Positive: The meat of your letter is a story about the person, highlighting positive character traits. Be specific. Refer to a list of character traits if you need help. Discuss actions that show “respect” toward co-workers, neighbors, or others. Give an example of her exercise of “self-control” in a difficult situation. Tell about the consistent exercise of “responsibility” that keeps his shoulder to the wheel until a task is done completely and well. Cover the subject’s strongest character qualities specifically, but briefly. Refrain from mentioning negative traits. Everyone has them, but if you believe they are serious enough to merit mention, politely refuse to write the letter.
Your Belief: Affirm your belief in the person’s character in one clear sentence.
Recommendation: State your recommendation of the person, if applicable. This would be included if the person is applying for a job, property rental, college, etc.
Contact Information: The recipient may want to ask you additional questions. Provide contact information to facilitate that. Include your name, address, and phone number.
Re-write until you can include everything on a single page, if possible. If your letter spills over onto a second page, the reader may quit before reading your most important statements. With that in mind, place your most important statements near the beginning. They will capture attention while avoiding the risk of being missed.