There could be some confusion understanding the difference, if any, between a "letter of reference" and a "letter of recommendation". In most cases, the difference is merely a choice of one wording over another, but technically speaking, there are a few ways you could differentiate between the two; primarily by the category of addressee, the level of the detail covered and the specific purpose of the letter.
What is a letter of recommendation?
A "letter of recommendation" is one that is specifically requested by someone for a determined / defined employment position, academic program or award application. Generally, these letters are sent directly to the requestor and not seen by the student. They can be categorized as:
- Employment Related
- Academic Admission
- Commendation or Recognition
- Performance Evaluation
What is a letter of reference?
A "letter of reference" is normally more general in nature and not addressed to a specific requestor. Often you will see these letters addressed as "To Whom it may Concern" or "Dear Sir/Madam". These letters are most often given directly to the student and kept for future use. Situations where they are used tend to be:
- Character Assessment
- Academic Related
- Employment Related
- General Purpose
Who to ask for a letter of reference or recommendation?
Choose someone who:
- Knows you and appreciates your work.
- Can give a detailed account of your abilities.
- Has supervised you directly (boss, supervisor, team leader: past or present).
- You know has something good to say about your work, personality and team work skills.
- Is a key figure in, or familiar with, the field you are applying for.
What information I should provide to my referee?
- The date the recommendation is due.
- Your current contact information, so your recommender can reach you, if necessary.
- The name, title, organization, and address of the person to whom the letter should be addressed.
- Information about the position or program to which you are applying.
- A brief description of your goals and plans if needed.
- Your CV, transcripts and any information you would like your recommender to address in his/her letter.
- A draft of your personal statement or research proposal, if such is required for your application.
A reminder of how you and your recommender know one another; classes you have taken with him/her, the grades you received in those classes, paper topics you worked on, etc. You may wish to include a copy of a successful paper or final exam, and any comments your professor gave you on your work.
Samples & Tips
For sample letters and tips on how to ask for a reference/recommendation letter:
- 100 winner letters of recommendation: For master and PhD candidates - Best samples to write a powerful letter of recommendation (Available at CaPS Resource Centre)
- How to ask for a reference letter (UA)
- Sample faculty reference letter (NACE)
- Sample recommendation letters (PennState)
- Recommendation letter templates (FormsBirds)