Reference and Recommendation Letters

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:

Please note that CaPS and McGill do not endorse any particular websites/services; the listing is for your information only.
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