Difference between Recommendation and Reference Letters

by lobobrandon

There's a huge difference between Recommendation and Reference letters - you can compare them to chalk and cheese actually. Also, you should know what you need - Read on to know.

Very often people use these terms interchangeably. However, they’re making a big mistake when they do so, because there’s a huge difference between recommendation and reference letters. Recommendation letters are specific in nature and are usually written to promote a particular individual. However, reference letters have a broader spectrum and consists of letters written in, what you say – a more general nature? They are almost always addressed in the following way:

To whomsoever it may concern,

……… till the final salutation and signature.

Both letters are different in just a few ways literally; but, practically speaking, like I said, they’re comparable to chalk and cheese and therefore, you should know what to write, how to write it and when to write it. These facts will be explained later in this very article.

But, for now let’s take a look at the similarities between the two; because, you shouldn’t leave out any of these key points on the pretext that they don’t belong in your letter. Both these letters – recommendation letters as well as reference letters speak of ones skills, character, capabilities, interests, integrity as well as abilities and the way you react under pressure (In case it’s a letter for a job post).

What is a letter of Recommendation?

Let's take a look at (what/when) a letter of recommendation (is/is needed).

Now that I’ve already explained (Or stated) the similarities between recommendation letters and reference letters, let’s take a look at each of them specifically beginning with a recommendation letter


If you’re applying for a job or admission into a school or university, you would need to provide your employers/selectors with information related to your past achievements, skills as well as qualifications. In such cases you would need a recommendation letter as it’s specific and used for securing admission into a prestigious institute (Schools or work places).

The major point to note in case of a recommendation letter is the fact that they aren’t seen by the person they recommend. So, if a letter of recommendation is written for you to secure admission into MIT (Say) then you would never end up reading it. In other words, they are sent directly to the requestor.

When do you use Recommendation letters?

Well, there are plenty of cases wherein a letter of recommendation is needed. However, some of the popular cases include:

  • Scholarships
  • Job Placement
  • Internships
  • Commendation as well as recognition
  • Evaluation of one’s performance
  • Academic purposes such as admissions and university scholarships.

Recommendation Letter writing help

Some of them Contain advice whereas others have sample letters to guide you when you write your own
How to Write Powerful Letters of Reco...
$19.1  $3.21
Writing Effective Letters of Recommen...
Only $16.95
How To Write Recommendation Letters -...
Only $8.97
Letters of Recommendation: All the Hi...
Only $24.99
Perfect Phrases for Letters of Recomm...
$15.27  $1.85
Instant Recommendation Letter Kit - H...
$9.55  $5.84

What is a letter of Reference?

Let's take a look at (what/when) a letter of reference (is/is needed).

As previously explained a letter of reference is more of a general letter wherein it’s not addressed to a specific requestor. In most cases, the person writing the reference letter doesn’t even know who’s going to be reading it; especially in terms of academic letters.

In such cases, the person gets a chance to view the letter and therefore, you can pass it on only if you’re happy with the content. These letters are addressed in a more general sense and may go on as:

To whomsoever it may concern, (As I stated earlier)


Dear Sir/Madam


Respected Sir/Madam

and so on. 

When do you need to submit a reference letter?

There are plenty of cases wherein you’d need to use a reference letter. The uses are similar to that of a recommendation letter, but in case of Academic purposes reference letters are preferred rather than recommendation letters. Uses:

  • Academic Purposes
  • Employment opportunities
  • Character assessment is one of the common uses

I need a reference/recommendation letter – Whom do I ask?

One of the biggest challenges when it comes to getting reference letters or recommendation letters is that of choosing the right people. Therefore, you should know who to choose. Preferably choose someone who:

Whom to ask?

  • You know well – make sure they know you too and it’s not a one sided familiarity. Everyone knows the Queen of England right!
  • They should appreciate you and your work
  • Be either your teacher, boss, co-worker or anyone you’ve been in direct contact with, and moreover they should be in your particular field.
  • A prominent person in your respective field (if possible)
  • Make sure they have something good to say about you, negatives are a definite no-no!

Since you now know the difference between recommendation and reference letters, make sure that you explain what you need to the person writing it - if they don't know the difference already. 

If you want to know how to write a reference letter along with samples, these books have explained it in detail - especially the How to Write A Reference Letter Book
How to Write Letters (Formerly The Bo...
Only $9.49
How to Write a Great Reference Letter
Only $3.97
Updated: 06/19/2012, lobobrandon
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


Only logged-in users are allowed to comment. Login
lobobrandon on 06/29/2012

I just learnt about them a few weeks back. I didn't know there was a difference either :)

Jasmine on 06/29/2012

Thanks for pointing out the difference between recommedation and reference letter. I would've easily made a mistake before.

lobobrandon on 06/22/2012

Your welcome Brenda, I enjoyed writing it :)

BrendaReeves on 06/22/2012

Thanks for the info. I didn't know this.

lobobrandon on 06/22/2012

My brother needed plenty of reference letters as well as some recommendation letters a few months ago, I wondered what was the difference and did a bit of reading at that time. Just thought about it again the other day, so wrote down this article. I do hope it would help people understand the difference, was a real challenge finding a decent explanation at that time.

katiem2 on 06/22/2012

Very clear description on the difference between professional letters of recommendation and reference. My daughter has gotten several offers of letters for college applications. She's a high school junior this coming fall.

You might also like

How to Write a Letter of Recommendation for a Student

If you want to know how to write a letter of recommendation for a student, yo...

Planning for Grad School

How to search for the best academic institution re your professional goals an...

How to Write Publishable Academic Articles

Getting academic articles published is not an easy task. I give you the basic...

Disclosure: This page generates income for authors based on affiliate relationships with our partners, including Amazon, Google and others.
Loading ...