Recommendation Letters Demystified

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, commendationletters, and sometimes even, performance evaluation letters.

This terminology can be quite confusing, especially whenthese terms are often used interchangeably, sometimes tomean the same thing, sometimes to mean something different.

Below are some definitions that should clear up anyconfusion, followed by some tips and strategies on how bestto deal with recommendation 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 letterconveys one person's view of the work performance andgeneral workplace demeanor of a person that has workedunder their direct supervision. The requestor of theletter normally requires it when applying for a promotionor 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 twoor more letters of recommendation as part of the programadmission requirements.

Normally these graduate program recommendation letters arewritten at the request of the program applicant by poeplewho are familiar with their academic career to-date, andtheir future education and career aspirations. These peoplecould include: school faculty members, administrators,academic supervisors, and/or employers.

These letters are always addressed to a specific person andare normally included as part of the program admissionapplication.


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, academiccredentials, etc.

Reference letters sometimes contain a general statement (aslong as a positive one can be made), about the employee'swork record with the company that they are leaving.Employees often submit these letters with job applicationsin the hope that the letter will reflect favorably on theirchances for the new position.

Character reference letters are sometimes required byemployers when hiring individuals to perform personal orresidential services such as child care, domestic services,etc. These letters are usually drafted by a former employerand deal with such characteristics as honesty, dependabilityand 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'swork performance as part of an organization's regularemployee review process. Typically, they are written by theemployee's supervisor and are attached to the individual'sperformance appraisal and placed on their personnel file.


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

1. Write It Only If You Want To

If you are asked by someone to write a letter ofrecommendation 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, byall means write the letter. There is no point saying "yes"and then writing a letter that says nothing good about theperson, or worse still, concocting a misleading positiveassessment of someone.

2. If You Must Refuse, Do It Right Up Front

On the other hand, if someone asks you to write a letterof reference for them, and you know you will be hard-pressedto keep the overall letter positive, say "no" right upfront. No point in hesitating and leading them on to believethat the answer might be "yes". A gentle but firm "no" willusually get the message across to the person. Explain thatyou don't think that 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 maybe helpful for you to suggest someone else who you thinkmight have a more positive and/or accurate assessment ofthe person. They may also be in a better position to do theassessment. Usually there are a number of possiblecandidates, and you may not in fact be the best person.

4. Write It As You See It

Writing a less than honest recommendation letter does noone 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 misleadpeople due to questionable things you may have written ina 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 fairand balanced in your approach. If in your estimation, aperson has five strengths and one glaring weakness, but thatweakness really bothers you, make sure you don't over-emphasize the weak point in the letter, based on yourpersonal bias. Just mention it as a weakness and move on.

6. Balanced Is Best

An overall balanced approach is likely the best one for aletter of recommendation. Even if your letter generallyraves about how excellent the person is, some balance on theother side of the ledger will make it more credible. Afterall, nobody's perfect. There must be some area where theperson being recommended needs to improve. A bit ofconstructive criticism never hurts.

To see a fully-formatted "real-life template" of a letterof recommendation, check out the following link:

© 2005 by Shaun Fawcett

Shaun Fawcett, is webmaster of the popular writing help He is also the author of severalbest selling "writing toolkit" eBooks. All of his eBooks andhis internationally acclaimed f-r-e-e course, "Tips and TricksFor Writing Success" are available at his writing tools site:

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