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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 recommendation letters.



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 supervision. 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 requirements.

Normally these graduate program recommendation letters are written at the request of the program applicant by poeple 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.


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, academic credentials, etc.

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.


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").

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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?

5. 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.

6. 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 never hurts.

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

© 2005 by Shaun Fawcett

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

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