Reference Letters vs. Recommendation Letters
Reference letters and recommendation letters are different types of correspondence often needed during application processes. Understanding when to use a recommendation letter versus a reference letter can help improve your chances of securing a particular role, academic position or recognition. In this article, we discuss what each type of letter is, when it should be used, who typically writes it and tips for asking people to write one of these letters for you.
What is a reference letter?
A reference letter is a general commendation of a person's character, work ethic or abilities. It confirms that the writer knows you and can verify certain facts about you and your performance or predictive performance. Typically, it's not directed at a specific opportunity but stands alone as a general show of approval to be used as needed.
What is a recommendation letter?
A recommendation letter, also referred to as a letter of recommendation, highlights or emphasizes skills, knowledge, experience and abilities that best qualify a candidate for a certain opportunity, such as a specific role within a company or admission to a clearly defined program. The writer identifies the recommended person's qualities with the intent to verify their strength as a candidate. When crafting the recommendation, the writer of the letter provides relevant examples from personal and professional experiences with the applicant and explains how those examples relate directly to the desired position or program.
Read more: What Is a Letter of Recommendation?
Differences between a reference letter and a recommendation letter
During an application process, you might need to provide a reference letter or recommendation letter. If you're unsure which one to provide, it's also okay to simply ask. Find out what the recruiter is looking for and what their expectations are so you can prepare accordingly.
Here's an outline of some key differences:
You can use a reference letter when you need a character reference now or at a later date. The writer of this type of letter might focus on a person's general strengths, qualities and abilities. You can submit this letter for multiple opportunities—such as internships, jobs and graduate schools—since it's not addressed to anyone specific.
You can use a recommendation letter when you need to be recommended for a specific opportunity. This type of letter is more detailed than a reference letter and elaborates on certain skills or knowledge that would make you an ideal candidate for the position or opportunity. There's also greater influence associated with a recommendation letter due to its authority, depth and specificity. Additionally, it's typically sent directly from the writer to the hiring manager or program director.
When to use it
A letter of reference is valuable if you need a character assessment or letter to have on-hand for employment, educational or volunteer opportunities.
If you need a letter that is for a defined employment position, academic program or other unique opportunity, you should use a letter of recommendation. A recommendation letter can be used for more in-depth evaluation of your performance in a specific line of work or academic concentration. Additionally, these letters can be used for commendation or recognition for particular awards or scholarships.
Who writes it
Both letters can be requested from your former employers or professors.
If you need a reference letter, choose a trusted individual with whom you have a positive personal or professional relationship and ensure they can provide you with a thorough character reference. For instance, you might ask your former supervisor to write a reference letter highlighting your positive attitude at work and the many times that you stayed after closing time to meet a deadline or help a coworker.
If you need a recommendation letter, it's helpful to choose someone who has extensive knowledge of your skills or qualifications and detailed examples to support each one. For instance, if you are applying for a summer internship at a law firm, you might ask your professor in legal studies to explain what you have learned throughout your studies and how that knowledge can help you succeed when working in the legal field. Additionally, if the law firm specializes in real estate, it's helpful to request a recommendation letter from your professor who taught your course on real estate or property law.
Examples of reference and recommendation letters
Here are examples of reference and recommendation letters to help you understand the differences:
Example of a reference letter
Dear Mr. Hopkins,
I have known Jane Marshall for five years since she was a student in my English Literature course. She has taken six courses with me over the duration of her undergraduate career and served as a tutor for my freshman students for two semesters during her senior year.
She is a hard worker, dedicated to her tasks and meeting deadlines. She enjoys completing assignments individually or within a team. Her classmates often go to her with questions, and she is always willing to help. Jane is an intelligent, kind, determined individual with a bright future ahead of her. Her paper on theological themes in British Literature was insightful and expertly written.
I have no doubt she will be an asset to any organization that has the fortune of working with her.
Please contact me with any further questions.
Example of a recommendation letter
Dear Mr. Hopkins,
I am pleased to recommend Jane Marshall for the position of sales manager.
I have served as the Regional Sales Director for Big Game Products for 15 years. Jane began her career with us nine years ago as a junior salesperson. Since then, she has been promoted several times and now leads her own team of 12 salespeople.
Jane's team is consistently in the top 10% of our 25 sales teams. She is well liked by her coworkers and stands out to management for her drive, dedication to improving processes and ability to mesh seamlessly with any group of people.
She encourages her team, and though she is a great salesperson, she is an even better coach and mentor.
I fully recommend her for this position.
Please contact me if you have any additional questions.
How to ask for a reference letter or recommendation letter
Here's a list of steps to help you ask for a reference or recommendation letter:
1. Choose who to ask
If you need multiple references or recommendations, choose a diverse group of people—former employers, supervisors, professors or mentors. When selecting someone to write a reference letter, it's acceptable to choose a friend, but not a family member, to provide you with a personal or character reference. You may also consider coworkers or other colleagues within a related industry.
When asking for a recommendation letter, it's important to choose a person who can really delve into your qualifications for the specific sought-after position or opportunity and your abilities in a professional atmosphere. It's best to choose someone with a fair amount of authority in the corporate or academic fields so the interviewer values their input.
2. Decide when to ask
Timing is important when asking for a recommendation letter or reference letter because you want to give the person enough time to consider what to write and to prepare the letter itself. Often, you receive a deadline to provide a letter or complete an application. Be sure to approach people with your request well in advance of that deadline.
If you were given less time than what is appropriate per acceptable etiquette, ask as soon as possible and apologize for the limited time. It is helpful, especially when provided a tight deadline, to provide as much information as possible to help the writer compose an effective letter within the time constraints.
3. Contact the person or people you select
By speaking with your selected writers ahead of time, you can get an idea of what positive or helpful anecdotes or qualities they have to share about you. Be courteous and professional when reaching out to these individuals, and convey your appreciation for their time.
If a person declines to write you a letter, thank them for their time and consideration and move on to the next person.
4. Provide the necessary details
The managers or supervisors reviewing your applications generally outline specific directions for submitting recommendation and reference letters. Some request digital versions, while others may want all documentation submitted together. Many companies and programs prefer that letters of recommendation come directly from the writer to a specific address or using a designated form. Make sure you are prepared to share any relevant forms, directions and deadlines with the individuals who agree to write your letters.
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