Reference Letter vs. Recommendation Letter: What is the Difference?

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Moving forward in your career by achieving your educational and personal goals often necessitates a reference letter or a recommendation letter from those who know you well. Whether you’re applying for admission into a rigorous academic program or for a job position, you’ll likely need a letter from a trusted source to support your application. This article explores the similarities and the differences between reference letters and recommendation letters.

What is a reference letter?

A reference letter provides a general endorsement regarding a person’s knowledge, work ethic, character and skill set that helps employers, schools, landlords and other professionals make informed decisions. Reference letters are often less formal than a recommendation letter and serve a variety of purposes.

What is a recommendation letter?

Recommendation letters typically support a candidate’s career or academic goals. For instance, someone may apply for a scholarship or job position with a company. You usually send recommendation letters directly to the employer, university or program director who has requested a confidential letter. Recommendation letters tend to have a deadline for submission, are more specific than reference letters and address a candidate’s qualifications as they pertain to an opportunity.

Reference letter vs. recommendation letter

These are some of the basic differences between the two types of letters:

Reference letters

Key elements:

  • Not always addressed to a specific individual
  • Ideal when submitting multiple applications
  • Commonly used for general academic and employment purposes
  • Great for character assessments
  • Given directly to the requestor for future use

Recommendation letters

Key elements:

  • Usually addressed to an individual or committee
  • Very specific about a person’s qualifications, skills and how they relate to the job or opportunity
  • Requested as part of the mandatory documents needed for academic admission and specific job listings
  • Used to describe work performance and scholarly achievements

How to choose between a reference letter vs. a recommendation letter

Here are some steps to help you decide which type of letter would serve its purpose better for your application:

1. First, consider the reason you’re requesting the letter

Think about the letter’s importance and what it means for your future. If you’re applying to multiple jobs and wish to include a generic letter of reference with your application, then a reference letter is a great choice. If you’re required to submit a professional letter (or two) of recommendation for an important scholarship opportunity or specific job role, then recommendation letters are the best option.

2. Second, plan the details of your request and decide who you want to write your letter

If possible, the recommender should be someone with excellent writing skills who has known you at least for a year and who has a positive relationship with you. Consider your history with them and how their level of influence may help your cause. Choose someone who will follow through with your special request. Give them any supporting documents like a resume or cover letter that may guide them through the letter.

3. Third, remember the differences between the content and structure

Recommendation letters tend to be more specific regarding content and more formal in structure. The recommender explains how several aspects of your strengths, skills and talents make you the best candidate for the position or opportunity. They may end their letter by reaffirming their declaration of support. In reference letters, the recommender provides general thoughts about your work ethic, ability to lead and overall impression of your strengths.

3. Lastly, know proper etiquette regarding both letters

When requesting a reference letter, the recommender often hands the requestor an unsealed envelope containing the reference letter. From there, it is given to a potential landlord, program director or employer to review. If you choose to request a letter of recommendation, you typically don’t know what the recommender said about you because their confidential letter goes straight to the source.

Reference letter tips

Here are some helpful tips to consider when writing a reference letter:

Consider the request

You should only agree to write the letter if you support the person asking for the recommendation. If you have any reservations, it’s okay to decline the request. Make sure you have enough information about this person to write a good letter. Before you start, ask questions about the format, deadline and recipient’s information.

Format your letter properly

Before you start your letter, it is important to format it properly. Use one-inch margins and leave spaces in between paragraphs. Use Times New Roman or Arial font in size 10 or 12, just to be safe.

Include contact information and a greeting

If you know the name of the recipient or committee, your letter should begin with their contact information in business letter format, followed by a greeting like ‘Dear Mr./Ms. Last Name’ or ‘Dear Hiring Manager.’ If it’s an academic letter, you may write ‘Dear Admissions Committee,’ or for general letters ‘To Whom It May Concern.’

Start with an introduction

Your first paragraph typically includes the nature and length of your relationship with the letter requester. Include the name of the company and your roles if the relationship is professional.

Describe skills and qualities

As you’re writing the middle paragraphs of the reference letter, include details and examples of the requestor’s strengths, skills and overall qualities.

Finish with an affirmation

The last paragraph of your letter should reiterate your support of the letter requester. You may include your contact information for further comments.

Leave a signature

If you’re providing a hard copy, it looks more professional to write your signature above your typed name. If sending an email, your typed name and contact information works great.

Recommendation letter tips

Here are some helpful tips to consider when writing a recommendation letter:

Consider your relationship

Your letter of recommendation is likely an important piece of fulfilling the requestor’s goals. Before you begin writing this letter, make sure you know them well enough to speak truthfully of their character and skill set, and how it applies to their main objective.

Get the details

Request the necessary information to write a strong recommendation. Get the contact information for the recipient or committee, the requestor’s resume, cover letter, the company’s job listing, information about the scholarship or other documents related to the special opportunity.

Follow business letter format and open with a formal salutation

Since this letter is most commonly used in a professional setting, your format should follow suit. Set all page margins to one inch, select Times New Roman font style in size 10 or 12, then begin typing the letter by stating your contact information (full name, address, phone number, email), followed by the date, then their contact information (full name, title, company, address) before you start the salutation. If you don’t know the recipient’s name, use ‘To Whom It May Concern.’

Introduce the student or requestor

Much like the reference letter, introduce your relationship with the requestor including how long you’ve known them and in what capacity.

Include details and examples

Following the first paragraph, go into further detail about the proposed opportunity and how the requestor’s unique skills and abilities make them the best choice for the job or scholarship. Provide an example of how this person proved their potential to you, and use numbers if possible.

End with an invitation to follow up

Let the recipient know how they can reach you if they have further questions before your closing signature.

Submit your letter as requested

Most recommendation letters have specific instructions regarding how they should be submitted. See if you need to mail a hardcopy or send an email. Pay attention to the recipient’s name.

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