Recommendation Letters Demystified

Letters of Recommendation
Fast and easy: Instant download of 79 actual recommendation letter templates - here.

There is a lot of confusion about recommendation letters.

Recommendation letters are often referred to in a numberof 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 theseterms are often used interchangeably, sometimes to mean thesame 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 withrecommendation letters.


Also called a recommendation letter, it is an employment-related letter that is specifically requested by the personthe letter is being written about. Such a letter is normallypositive in nature, and written by someone who knows thesubject well enough to comment on the skills, abilities,and specific work attributes of that person.

Typically, an employment-related recommendation letter conveysone person's view of the work performance and general workplacedemeanor of a person that has worked under their direct super-vision. The requestor of the letter normally requires it whenapplying for a promotion or a new job.

These letters are usually addressed to a specific person towhom the requestor has been asked to submit the letter.

Graduate School Related
Another situation where recommendation letters are a commonrequirement is for entry into post-graduate programs at acollege or university. Graduate programs often require two ormore letters of recommendation as part of the program admissionrequirements.

Normally these graduate program recommendation letters arewritten at the request of the program applicant by individualswho are familiar with their academic career to-date, and theirfuture education and career aspirations. These people couldinclude: school faculty members, administrators, academicsupervisors, and/or employers.

These letters are always addressed to a specific person and arenormally included as part of the program admission application.


These are more general letters that are often requested byemployees when they leave the employ of an organization.Normally factual in nature, they are usually addressed, "towhom it may concern" and provide basic information such as:work history, dates of employment, positions held, educationalcredentials, etc.

Reference letters sometimes contain a general statement (as longas a positive one can be made), about the employee's work recordwith the company that they are leaving. Employees often submitthese letters with job applications in the hope that the letterwill reflect favorably on their chances for the new position.

Character reference letters are sometimes required by employerswhen hiring individuals to perform personal or residential servicessuch as child care, domestic services, etc. These letters are usuallydrafted by a former employer and deal with such characteristicsas honesty, dependability, and work ethic/performance.


These are unsolicited letters, which typically commend anemployee to their supervisor for something outstanding ornoteworthy that the employee has done. Normally, these arewritten by co-workers, or managers from another area of theorganization who were suitably impressed while supervisingthe person on a short-term project.


These are usually detailed assessments of an employee's workperformance as part of an organization's regular employeereview process. Typically, they are written by the employee'ssupervisor and are attached to the individual's performanceappraisal and placed on their personnel file.


The following tips apply primarily to the writing ofrecommendation letters and reference letters as defined above.(This list is summarized from "Instant Home Writing Kit").

  1. Write It Only If You Want To
    If you are asked by someone to write a letter of recommendationabout them, you don't have to say "yes" automatically. If itis someone you respect for their work, and you have mostlypositive things to say about them, by all means write theletter. There is no point saying "yes" and then writing aletter that says nothing good about the person, or worse still,concocting a misleading positive assessment of someone.

  2. If You Must Refuse, Do It Right Up Front
    On the other hand, if someone asks you to write a letter ofreference for them, and you know you will be hard-pressed tokeep the overall letter positive, say "no" right up front. Nopoint in hesitating and leading them on to believe that theanswer might be "yes". A gentle but firm "no" will usually getthe message across to the person. Explain that you don't thinkthat you are the best (or most qualified) person to do it.

  3. Suggest Someone Else
    If you feel you should refuse, for whatever reason, it may behelpful for you to suggest someone else who you think mighthave 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 maynot in fact be the best person.

  4. Write It As You See It
    Writing a less than honest recommendation letter does no one afavor in the end. It is likely to backfire on you, the personbeing recommended, and the new employer. Also, many employersand head-hunting agencies check references. How would you liketo be called up and have to mislead people due to questionablethings you may have written in a reference letter?

  5. Be Honest, Fair, and Balanced
    Honesty is always the best policy when it comes to writingrecommendation letters. At the same time, try to be fair andbalanced in your approach. If in your estimation, a person hasfive strengths and one glaring weakness, but that weaknessreally bothers you, make sure you don't over-emphasize theweak point in the letter, based on your personal bias. Justmention it as a weakness and move on.

  6. Balanced Is Best
    An overall balanced approach is likely the best one for a letterof recommendation. Even if your letter generally raves abouthow excellent the person is, some balance on the other side ofthe ledger will make it more credible. After all, nobody'sperfect. There must be some area where the person beingrecommended needs to improve. A bit of constructive criticismnever hurts.

To see a fully-formatted "real-life template" of a recommendationletter, 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: