How to Write Reference Letters

Originally published March 31, 2002

I recently wrote a reference letter for someone I supervise. When writing one of these, it can be somewhat difficult to know what to say in the letter. You want to write a good letter (unless you don’t like the person who the letter is for, in which case they were stupid to ask you) so the person gets what they are applying for, but you don’t want to go overboard and sound ridiculous.

Without further ado, here are some commonly used terms for reference letters, and what they really mean. This can also be used as a resource to translate a reference letter so you can know what your supervisor has written about you.

What the letter says What it means
Hardworking Not as lazy as coworkers
Competitive Complete jerk
Eager to advance Will stab you in the back
Is a team player Is a doormat
Lives life to the fullest Comes in drunk three times a week
Lively Does methamphetamines
Easy going Total slacker
Has an intense personality Is psychotic
Enthusiastic Loud
Quiet Creepy
Is not intimidated by conflict Picks fights
Works well under a deadline Always procrastinates
Handles pressure well Knows when to shut up
Doesn’t handle pressure well Subscribes to Soldier of Fortune
Dedicated Has no aspirations for better job
Does his best work independently No one gets along with him