Recommendation and Reference Letters

Although the terms are frequently used interchangeably, the purpose of reference and recommendation letters can be different.

Recommendation Letters

A letter of recommendation may be used in the job search but may also be used for other purposes, including applications to graduate or professional schools, application for membership in an organization, or in volunteer situations where the entity requires in-depth knowledge of a person's character.

When writing a recommendation letter, negative criticism or defamatory comments should not be included. Check to make sure you are following the policies within your organization regarding the type of information allowed and use of official letterhead.

Effective letters of recommendation verify experience, confirm competence, and build credibility. The type of information included depends on the type of letter and its intended audience.

Other Resources

Graduate or Professional School Recommendation

Graduate programs may require submission of multiple letters and frequently specify procedures for the letter writers and for the applicants.

These letters are usually written by faculty members, academic advisors, or administrators; however, other people may also write them. These letters are intended to provide information that is not in the application and demonstrate how the applicant stands out from others.

The recommendation writer should have a good understanding of your academic history, interests, goals, and direction. Many programs will require that the letters of recommendation be sent directly to the specific departments or admissions offices. In this case, the applicant may sign a waiver of confidentiality and relinquish rights to access the information in the letters. These types of letters include the following information:

  • Academic performance
  • Honors and awards
  • Initiative, dedication, integrity, reliability
  • Willingness to follow school policy
  • Ability to work with others
  • Ability to work independently
  • Speak to leadership ability
  • Demonstrate maturity
  • Compliment your character
  • Any information not readily apparent from admission scores or transcripts

Reference Letters

A reference letter is generally used by candidates in the job search process to demonstrate skills, abilities, and experience to prospective employers. Reference letters can be long or short, but should be recent and professional in tone and format. Well-written, positive letters can be very helpful in a job search or application process. Reference letters pertaining to previous employment can be written by former employers, direct supervisors, or managers with knowledge of the abilities and experience of the former employee. These letters include any or all of the following information:

  • Previous positions held in the company
  • Summary of job responsibilities
  • Strengths, skill, and talents
  • Initiative, dedication, integrity, reliability
  • Ability to work with a team
  • Ability to work independently

It should be a recent reference letter; letters that are older than a year may not be relevant to the goal. However, a letter written several years ago about a job that is directly relevant to the goal may be just as or more effective than a recent letter from a job that is not relevant to the current goal.

Some employers may request character references that focus on work ethic, dependability, and motivation level. The credibility of the letter writer is very important to all types of reference or recommendation letters, but even more important for character references. Choose people who know you well and who are not related to you.

Requesting a Letter: Choosing the Right Person

The letter of reference or recommendation can have a profound effect on your future. Choose wisely who you approach to write a letter. Make the process as easy as possible for the writer by providing information needed to develop a positive, accurate recommendation. If the writer suggests it, you may offer to compose the letter and provide a draft to be edited and finalized by the reference.

When you request a recommendation letter, explain the need and the reason in a straightforward way. Choose someone who can write well, is a credible reference, knows you well, and thinks highly of you and your abilities. Select individuals with the highest or most relevant job title to add credibility. Provide the writer a copy of your resume, specific instructions, and any additional information which will ease the process of writing the letter.

Ask for the letter far enough in advance that writing the letter is not a burden to already busy professionals. Explain your need and its importance to your goal — whether it is academic or career-related. You want references and letters from people who are genuinely happy to help you toward your goal. Try not to put the letter writer on the spot; if they seem unsure or provide an excuse for not being a reference, accept their reason gracefully.

Writing Your Own Reference/Recommendation Letter

Your chosen references may ask you to write the letter for them. Write a first draft and identify it as such when you present it to your reference so that they may add to or change the content as necessary. Be careful of using the same first draft with all of your references; you don't want the admissions committee or the prospective employer to receive two identical letters of recommendation!

It is easy to supply an electronic draft that the writer may add to or revise according to his or her needs. In your draft, provide an accurate assessment of your performance, strengths, and competence. Don't be shy about communicating your strengths.

  • Provide a list of your strengths, talents, and abilities.
  • Highlight major accomplishments you want to emphasize.
  • Match the information in the draft to the specific goal.
  • Use a professional vocabulary, format, and tone.

Writing A Reference/Recommendation Letter For Someone Else

Only agree to provide a letter if you have the time, know the individual well, and honestly feel comfortable writing it. The more personalized a letter of recommendation, the more effective it is. Include how long and how well you know the candidate; indicate that your judgments are based on sound information. Also, it may be advantageous to include personal insights or anecdotes that cannot be obtained from a resume, transcript, or interview.

Be honest in your assessment of the candidate

However, don't be negative. If you truly are not able to recommend the person in writing, then don't agree to provide a letter. Be honest, yet tactful with the person about your feelings, intentions, and any concerns you may have. Both parties must be aware and informed regarding information or the inability to provide a good recommendation.

Consider what you would want to know if you were the recipient and provide that information

It is possible to ask the requester to provide a draft letter for you to edit; a copy of the resume; or any other relevant documents, including employment history, transcripts, or a short biography.

Letters of recommendation are generally written in a classic format with an introduction, body, and conclusion

However, some specific requirements may be included in the instructions. Ask the requester to provide you with any pertinent instructions relating to the recommendation letter. In most cases, any well-organized format is acceptable.

Letter writing tips

Keep the letter to one page in length. Print on letterhead if possible. Sign it personally.

Introductory paragraph

State the purpose of the letter. Explain how you know the individual and for how long. State the nature of the relationship: subordinate, co-worker, student, etc.

Body of letter

1 or 2 paragraphs addressing pertinent information about the individual's experience, knowledge, abilities, and skills. If relevant, you may need to explain why the person is seeking a new position. Do not assume common knowledge; also do not explain layoffs, company relocations, etc.

Closing paragraph

Express the level of confidence in the individual. Explain how or to what extent he or she is suited to the job or academic program.

Do not use templates available in books or on the Internet

Since they are easily available, then others are also using them and you don't want the letter to contain wording that the recipient has read numerous times before. The letter should be your recommendation of the person in your own words. Be sure that the format, style, and tone remain the same throughout the document. Changes in font or font size indicate text has been cut and pasted which is not a strong indication of the letter writer's credibility or opinion.

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