Letters of Recommendation: Defined

As I point out on the main page of my recommendation-reference-central.com Web site there is a great deal of general confusion about the differences and similarities between letters of recommendation and letters of reference. For instance; which is which, and why? How are they different? In what ways are they similar?

It's confusing enough for the average person who only has to write one of these letters every once in a while. However, when you look into it in-depth as I have, and 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 very understandable.

Based on extensive research into the subject, I define a "letter of recommendation" as one that is specifically requested about someone, and therefore is always specifically addressed to a particular requestor. Letters of recommendation are usually employment-related, or college program admission and/or scholarship related.

The primary letters of recommendation are:

  • Employment-related recommendation letter
  • College admission recommendation letter
  • Commendation or recognition letter
  • Performance evaluation letter

The following paragraphs provide brief definitions for each of the main types of letters of recommendation that are listed above.

Employment-Related Recommendation Letters
An employment-related recommendation letter is one that is normally requested by the person about whom the letter is being written. Since the requestor chooses the author of the letter, it is usually 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 another person that has worked under their direct supervision. The requestor of the letter normally requests such a letter so that they can submit it when applying for a promotion or a new job.

These letters are always addressed to the specific person to whom the requestor has been asked to submit the letter.

College- and University-Related
Another situation where recommendation letters are a common requirement is for entry into undergraduate and graduate programs at a college or university. Graduate programs often require two or more letters of recommendation as part of the program admission requirements.

Normally, these college-admission-related letters of recommendation are written at the request of the program applicant by people who know them and are familiar with their academic career to-date, and their future education and career aspirations. These people could include: former teachers, community leaders, school faculty members, clergy, 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.

Commendation and/or Recognition Letters
These are normally unsolicited letters, which typically commend or recognize an employee to their supervisor for something outstanding or noteworthy that the employee has done. Usually, the employee would have to do something "above and beyond" what is normally expected of them in their job to warrant such a letter. These letters are always addressed to a specific individual - usually the subject's direct supervisor.

Typically, these letters are written by the subject's co-workers, or by managers from another area of the same organization who were suitably impressed while supervising the person on a short-term project.

Commendation letters and letters of recognition are also used to nominate individuals for special awards or outstanding public service.

Performance Evaluation Letters
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 in their personnel file.

The format and structure for this type of letter is more often than not dictated by the employee performance evaluation system or process that is in-place wherever the subject of the letter is employed.

However, in the academic environment in North America there is often a requirement for a specific "performance evaluation letter" for the assessment of academic staff.

Do Be Careful…
Over the years, the line between "letters or recommendation" and "letters of reference" have become quite 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, 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, when dealing with these types of organizations or institutions, MAKE SURE that you use whichever term they use in the same way that they use it. DON'T try to convert them to your terminology. That will just confuse things and you will pay the price.