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Seven Keys for the Perfect Reference Letter

One of the documents that should be included in every career portfolio is a list of three to five references. Those numbers may vary over the course of an entire career span, but that range a good place to start. The ideal list of references may be harder to build for the new job hunter because actual work experience is usually limited to non-career positions. Students may have to other option than relying on character references from former teachers or professors.

Job hunters that are completely new to the career market may want to use references from clergy members or other prominent members of their community. This is perfectly acceptable during the early career stages - as long as the reference comes from a person who can attest to their good character.

For the average person with some career experience, references should be somewhat easier to obtain. There should be at least one person at every job you've held that can provide a solid reference before you leave the company. That person is usually a manager or another authority figure within the organization. It's important to be selective when asking someone to provide a letter of reference for you. He or she should be a qualified representative of the company, and preferably someone with direct knowledge of your work performance.

For more established job hunters, it is also appropriate to use former clients for a reference, especially for people who were self-employed or have sales and marketing careers. Clients can sometimes be the best source of information for a new employer. They are able to share information that an employer may not be willing to disclose. Don't forget that volunteer positions are good references as well. They speak directly to your sense of contribution in a civic or charitable environment.

The question becomes, with all those possible sources of references, what should the letter include? What are the key contents of the perfect letter of reference? What should the letter say that is guaranteed to impress a prospective employer? Here are seven key points that every great letter of reference should contain:

  1. It should be written on the letterhead stationery of the company or organization. Printed letterhead stationery lends credibility to the information it contains. Using anything else could arouse suspicion about its authenticity. Plain paper should only be used as a last resort or in the case of personal references.
  2. The body of the letter should clearly state your beginning and ending dates of employment. This information will confirm the same information contained in your resume as well as your length of service.
  3. The reference letter should support a brief job description and/or titles held at the company. It is more useful to an employer to know what positions you held in addition to the fact that you performed well in that capacity.
  4. The perfect reference letter would make a note of any promotions you received while working there. A new employer is more likely to given consideration to candidates who have demonstrated the ability to grow with a company and take on greater responsibility.
  5. A mention of any awards, achievements, honours and other forms of recognition should always be included. Potentials employers are going to hire the top achievers among a group of candidates and these points will help set you apart from your competitors.
  6. Character references add a different dimension to your credentials and are helpful in painting a more personal picture of a candidate. When a former employer mentions that you were always willing to help others or stayed late to work on special projects, it speaks favourably of your work ethics.
  7. The closing of the letter should offer the name and address or telephone number of the person writing the letter. Potential employers will often want to contact the author to gather more information or clarify job details. If the information is not available and current, the letter of reference becomes less useful.

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