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.
LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION
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
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
LETTERS OF REFERENCE
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
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.
RECOMMENDATION LETTER TIPS AND STRATEGIES
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
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
WritingHelp-Central.com. 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: