Based on my observations over the years, there has always been a great deal of confusion about the differences and similarities between recommendation letters and reference letters. For instance, which is which, and when to use which one?
This is confusing enough for the average person who only has to write one of these letters occasionally. However, if you look into it in detail as I have, and you realize that many of the so-called “experts” don’t even know the differences between a recommendation letter and a reference letter, the general state of confusion is understandable.
In addition to writing books about it, I have been monitoring this issue over the years and have concluded the following:
1. Many people and institutions use the term “recommendation letter” to mean BOTH recommendation letters AND reference letters (about 2/3).
2. Many people and institutions use the term “reference letter” to mean BOTH reference letters AND recommendation letters (about 1/3).
3. Both groups are talking about essentially the same type of letter in their minds and they don’t seem to draw any distinction between the two.
4. Thus, those who use the term “recommendation letter” ALWAYS use that term. Those who use the term “reference letter” ALWAYS use that term.
Below are my definitions of the terms “recommendation letter” and “reference letter” based on my research into the issue over the years.
“Recommendation Letters” Defined
In the past, the terms “recommendation letters” and “letters of recommendation” usually referred to letters that made a clear and specific “recommendation” about someone.
Accordingly, I define a “recommendation letter” as one that is specifically requested about someone and is therefore always addressed to a specific requestor.
Generally speaking, letters of recommendation are almost always employment-related or college program admission/scholarship related.
In addition, a couple of other person-specific letter types that come under the general “letter of recommendation” heading are: commendation letters and performance evaluation letters.
“Reference Letters” Defined
On the other hand, “reference letters” or “letters of reference” have traditionally been seen as letters that make general factual statements about someone and/or their situation, and do not make specific recommendations about the person.
I therefore classify a “reference letter” as one that is more general in nature, and is not addressed to a specific requestor. Typically “letters of reference” are addressed; “To Whom It May Concern” or “Dear Sir/Madam”.
Normally, letters of reference include character reference letters and employment reference letters.
Recommendation/Reference Letter Strategy
Nevertheless, somehow over the years the line between the two types of letters has become blurred and many people and institutions now use the two terms interchangeably. As far as those organizations are concerned both letters are exactly the same thing.
Accordingly, please note that many colleges and universities, as well as some companies and institutions, use the terms “recommendation letter” and/or “letter of recommendation” when referring to exactly the same thing as what many other colleges, universities, companies and institutions call “reference letters” and/or “letters of reference”.
So, whenever you are dealing with these types of institutions make sure you use whichever term they use in the same way that they use it. DO NOT try to convert them to your terminology. That will just confuse things and you will pay the price.
For more information and samples please go to the following link: