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Letters of Reference Defined
Copyright © Shaun R. Fawcett
As I point out on the main page of my Web site, recommendation-reference-central.com, there is a great deal of general confusion about the differences and similarities between letters of reference and letters of recommendation. 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 reference letter and a recommendation letter, the general state of confusion is very understandable.
Based on extensive research into the subject, I define a "letter of reference" as one that is normally more general in nature than a letter of recommendation and IS NOT addressed to a specific requestor. Typically, "letters of reference" are addressed as; "To Whom It May Concern" or "Dear Sir/Madam".
The most common letters of reference are:
• Employment-related - general reference letter
• College-related - general reference letter
• Character reference letter - general-purpose personal reference
• General reference letter - various subjects
EMPLOYMENT-RELATED Reference Letter
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, educational credentials, etc.
These 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.
COLLEGE-RELATED Reference Letter
These letters are very similar to college-related letters of recommendation, EXCEPT that they are not addressed to a specific individual or requestor. In the college and university context they are typically addressed to officials such as: Director, Admissions or Chairman, Scholarship Selection Committee, etc.
These college-related letters can be as specific as a recommendation letter when it comes to describing the subject/person about which the letter is written, but they are more general/generic in terms of targeted addressees. That's because at the time they are written it is often not clear exactly to which businesses or institutions they will be sent. For example, a person plans to apply to a number of colleges but when the letter is written, the specific colleges are unknown.
CHARACTER-RELATED Reference Letter
Character reference letters are always written about a specific person by someone who knows them fairly well, and usually focus on a person's general personality characteristics. They are often used in business and community service situations. Typically, a person will ask for a general character reference letter when they are leaving a company or service organization.
The focus of character reference letters are such personality characteristics as: honesty, integrity, trustworthiness, dependability, work ethic, values, community service, and other widely accepted indicators of individual character attributes. These letters are almost always used by people who provide personal and domestic services, where trust is an important factor.
These letters are typically addressed in a general way using "To Whom It May Concern" or "Dear Sir/Madam".
GENERAL PURPOSE Reference Letters
These reference letters deal with general situations that are not covered by the other reference letters described above. Typically, they address special situations such as tenant to landlord letters, business customer references, pet owner testimonials, etc. These letters are always addressed in a general way using "To Whom It May Concern" or "Dear Sir/Madam".
Over the years, the line between “letters of reference” and “letters of recommendation” has 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 "reference letters" and/or "letters of reference" when referring to exactly the same thing as what many other colleges, universities, companies and institutions call "recommendation letter" and/or "letter of recommendation".
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.
About the Author: Shaun Fawcett is Webmaster of two of the most visited writing-help Web sites on the Net. He is the author of numerous “how-to” books on everyday practical writing help. He is also the Net’s foremost authority on the definition and writing of ALL types of letters of recommendation and letters of reference. See his comprehensive resource center: