Recommendation Letters Demystified
There is a lot of confusion about recommendation letters.
Recommendation letters are often referred to in a number
of different ways including: letters of recommendation,
reference letters, letters of reference, commendation letters,
and sometimes even, performance evaluation letters.
This terminology can be quite confusing, especially when these
terms are often used interchangeably, sometimes to mean the
same thing, sometimes to mean something different.
Below are some definitions that should clear up any confusion,
followed by some tips and strategies on how best to deal with
LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION
Also called a recommendation letter, it is an employment-
related letter that is specifically requested by the person
the letter is being written about. Such a letter is normally
positive in nature, and written by someone who knows the
subject well enough to comment on the skills, abilities,
and specific work attributes of that person.
Typically, an employment-related recommendation letter conveys
one person's view of the work performance and general workplace
demeanor of a person that has worked under their direct super-
vision. The requestor of the letter normally requires it when
applying for a promotion or a new job.
These letters are usually addressed to a specific person to
whom the requestor has been asked to submit the letter.
Graduate School Related
Another situation where recommendation letters are a common
requirement is for entry into post-graduate programs at a
college or university. Graduate programs often require two or
more letters of recommendation as part of the program admission
Normally these graduate program recommendation letters are
written at the request of the program applicant by individuals
who are familiar with their academic career to-date, and their
future education and career aspirations. These people could
include: school faculty members, administrators, academic
supervisors, and/or employers.
These letters are always addressed to a specific person and are
normally included as part of the program admission application.
LETTERS OF REFERENCE
These are more general letters that are often requested by
employees when they leave the employ of an organization.
Normally factual in nature, they are usually addressed, "to
whom it may concern" and provide basic information such as:
work history, dates of employment, positions held, educational
Reference letters sometimes contain a general statement (as long
as a positive one can be made), about the employee's work record
with the company that they are leaving. Employees often submit
these letters with job applications in the hope that the letter
will reflect favorably on their chances for the new position.
Character reference letters are sometimes required by employers
when hiring individuals to perform personal or residential services
such as child care, domestic services, etc. These letters are usually
drafted by a former employer and deal with such characteristics
as honesty, dependability, and work ethic/performance.
These are unsolicited letters, which typically commend an
employee to their supervisor for something outstanding or
noteworthy that the employee has done. Normally, these are
written by co-workers, or managers from another area of the
organization who were suitably impressed while supervising
the person on a short-term project.
These are usually detailed assessments of an employee's work
performance as part of an organization's regular employee
review process. Typically, they are written by the employee's
supervisor and are attached to the individual's performance
appraisal and placed on their personnel file.
RECOMMENDATION LETTER TIPS AND STRATEGIES
The following tips apply primarily to the writing of
recommendation letters and reference letters as defined above.
(This list is summarized from "Instant Home Writing Kit").
Write It Only If You Want To
If you are asked by someone to write a letter of recommendation
about them, you don't have to say "yes" automatically. If it
is someone you respect for their work, and you have mostly
positive things to say about them, by all means write the
letter. There is no point saying "yes" and then writing a
letter that says nothing good about the person, or worse still,
concocting a misleading positive assessment of someone.
If You Must Refuse, Do It Right Up Front
On the other hand, if someone asks you to write a letter of
reference for them, and you know you will be hard-pressed to
keep the overall letter positive, say "no" right up front. No
point in hesitating and leading them on to believe that the
answer might be "yes". A gentle but firm "no" will usually get
the message across to the person. Explain that you don't think
that you are the best (or most qualified) person to do it.
Suggest Someone Else
If you feel you should refuse, for whatever reason, it may be
helpful for you to suggest someone else who you think might
have a more positive and/or accurate assessment of the person.
They may also be in a better position to do the assessment.
Usually there are a number of possible candidates, and you may
not in fact be the best person.
Write It As You See It
Writing a less than honest recommendation letter does no one a
favor in the end. It is likely to backfire on you, the person
being recommended, and the new employer. Also, many employers
and head-hunting agencies check references. How would you like
to be called up and have to mislead people due to questionable
things you may have written in a reference letter?
Be Honest, Fair, and Balanced
Honesty is always the best policy when it comes to writing
recommendation letters. At the same time, try to be fair and
balanced in your approach. If in your estimation, a person has
five strengths and one glaring weakness, but that weakness
really bothers you, make sure you don't over-emphasize the
weak point in the letter, based on your personal bias. Just
mention it as a weakness and move on.
Balanced Is Best
An overall balanced approach is likely the best one for a letter
of recommendation. Even if your letter generally raves about
how excellent the person is, some balance on the other side of
the ledger will make it more credible. After all, nobody's
perfect. There must be some area where the person being
recommended needs to improve. A bit of constructive criticism
To see a fully-formatted "real-life template" of a recommendation
letter, click on the following link:
Shaun Fawcett is the world's foremost expert on writing ALL types of letters of recommendation and letters of reference for ALL situations: personal, business, character, employment, and college admission. His comprehensive book, with real-life templates, is considered the top resource on this subject on the planet: