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Written by Susan ShorSusan Shor

Reference letter vs. recommendation letter: what's the difference?

9 min read
Reference letter vs. recommendation letter: what's the difference?
Whether you’re applying for a job, an academic award, or another opportunity, you will need the backing of people who know you and your work. Understanding the difference between a letter of recommendation vs. a reference letter can make all the difference in getting your candidacy to the next step.

As you look to the future of your career, one thing is certain: you will need the backing of friends, colleagues, or trusted professors and advisors, probably in the form of a reference or recommendation letter. These letters offer a future employer or admissions committee a view of you from the perspective of those around you. But which one do you need and what’s the difference between the two?

In this blog, we will discuss the answer to that question plus the following topics:

  • What is the purpose of reference and recommendation letters?
  • Reference letter vs. recommendation letter
  • When to use a letter of reference vs. a letter of recommendation
  • How to ask for a recommendation or reference letter

What is the purpose of reference and recommendation letters?

Before comparing a letter of reference and a letter of recommendation, it’s important to understand why these messages are valuable. Employers, recruiters, prize committees, and other groups who will be judging your resume, cover letter, and application statements see only what you choose to reveal. While that is valuable, they may also want to know how others assess you.

The purpose of either type of letter is to create a more rounded view of your skills, talents, and how you relate to others. These letters also offer evidence that the way you have presented yourself is accurate in the eyes of your friends, colleagues, or bosses.

So what’s the difference between a letter of reference and a letter of recommendation? Let’s get right to it.

Reference letter vs. recommendation letter: what’s the difference?

These two types of correspondence have much in common. Both aim to bolster your application by explaining the great qualities you have that make you an excellent fit for the position. Both may be written by a person who knows you well as a worker or student.

That’s where the similarities end. The major contrast between a reference letter and a recommendation letter is that a reference letter is a general document that can be used for a variety of opportunities. It extolls your virtues as a person and points out your strong work ethic, communication skills, or other abilities that apply to a wide range of positions.

A recommendation letter, on the other hand, is written as evidence of your qualifications for a specific job or opportunity and goes into detail about what the letter writer believes makes you the right choice.

Reference letter: Recommendation letter:
A general assessment of character, skills, or philosophy of work An assessment of the requirements for a specific opportunity

When to use a letter of reference vs. a letter of recommendation

There are times when it is appropriate to include a reference letter and others for which a recommendation letter is a better choice. How do you know when to use a reference letter or a recommendation letter? 

Letter of reference

A letter of reference is a great idea if you are looking for an informational interview, know you will be entering the job market, but have not identified a specific position, or are applying to many positions, awards, or fellowships with different requirements.

This letter is more of a character reference since it does not target one position. The writer may introduce you and address the qualities you possess that make you an upstanding person, student, or employee. Since it is more general, you may use this letter multiple times. This is valuable if you are applying for scholarships, career recognitions, or requesting a meeting with a representative of a company where you would like to work, but which does not have an appropriate opening at the time.

Letter of recommendation

A letter of recommendation is the preferred choice if you are applying for a job opening or a defined internship or fellowship in a field in which you already have experience. Why? Because a recommendation is just that—a message from a person who believes you are right for the job to a person who is evaluating your qualifications.

A recommendation letter’s purpose is to address the skills, attributes, and experience that the letter writer has observed in you and your work that apply to the position you seek. It speaks directly to your job or academic performance and may end with a clear statement of confidence in you. The writer may directly state, “For these reasons, I believe [your name] will be an excellent [the position you seek]” or something to that effect.

Statistical facts between the differences of a reference letter vs a recommendation letter
Statistical facts between the differences of a reference letter vs a recommendation letter

How to ask for a recommendation or reference letter

Before you ask for a letter, you need to ask yourself two important questions:

  1. Which do I need: a recommendation letter or a reference letter?
  2. Who should I ask to write it?

The purpose of the letter will dictate which of the two you need. Who you should get to write the letter is, however, a bit trickier.

Who to ask

If you are a student or recent graduate, the best people to ask are academic advisors or professors who know your achievements well. Also, consider any mentors you have had at an internship or other work environment. The best letters will come from people who can address the skills required for the situation to which you are applying.

If you are already in the workforce, your top choices should be former bosses and colleagues. If you have a great relationship with your current boss and they already know that you are looking for an opportunity that doesn’t exist at your company, you may ask them for a recommendation. However, we don’t suggest springing your job dissatisfaction on your boss if they don’t know you are looking for a career change.

Of course, only ask people who you know can honestly give you a great review.

Expert tip

Understand that not everyone will be comfortable writing a referral or recommendation, so be courteous and offer them the chance to think about it.

What to include

When you approach a potential letter writer, make sure to give them both plenty of time to write the letter—meaning, well in advance of your application deadline—and a clear list of what the letter must include. 

To ensure that the letter meets the requirements of your application process, you should include pertinent information that will help them write the letter. For students, this may be your date of graduation, GPA, fields of study, and any information about the program or job to which you are applying.

For professionals, you may attach your resume, if you have an up-to-date version, the listing for the job you want, and any other information you feel will help your contact write a more complete letter.

In both cases, make sure you include any forms that must be filled out and all information on how the letter needs to be submitted.

Expert tip

Say thank you

It never hurts to follow up with a thank you email after a person has written your letter. It takes time and thought to write a letter of recommendation or reference and you want the writer to know you appreciate their efforts.

Key takeaways

  • A letter of reference is a great idea if you are applying to many internships or scholarships or want to talk to a company about future opportunities.
  • A letter of recommendation offers support for a specific job or placement and should include praise for your skills and accomplishments.
  • Be deliberate with who you choose to ask for a letter and understand that not everyone will be comfortable doing so.
  • Make sure you include all the information your letter writer will need to develop an excellent letter of recommendation or reference.
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