Among all the ambiguities that exist between the types and sub-types of formal business letters, the line that sets a reference letter apart from a recommendation letter is probably the most blurry one. You may have been asked to write a recommendation letter but wrote a reference letter, or made a recommendation letter when it was a reference letter that was required. But, today is the day you clear up all obscurities, as this article gives a sharp focus on reference letters and its disparities from recommendation letters. You may also see Sample Letters.
First things first: how does a reference letter differ from a recommendation letter? Well, they differ in both style and purpose. Although they are both written by an individual’s work or organizational superior, recommendation letters are addressed to a certain hiring manager for a specific job through bold and vivid narratives, while reference letters are not addressed to anyone and only offer a general assessment of a person’s work characteristics through a bland but formal style of writing.
Elements of a Good Reference Letter
- Business Letter Format: A reference letter is a business letter, so it must follow the appropriate guidelines and formatting involved in writing one. This means that the letter should be single-spaced with a skipped line after every paragraph, a colon after the salutation, uniform margin all over with the text fully justified, and a consistent format style that is either a full block or semi-block. A formal reference letter observes the typical parts of a business letter, too, which are the inside address, salutation, letter body, complimentary close, and signature line.
- Individual’s Skills and Qualifications: Although a reference letter does not explicitly endorse an individual, it still enumerates that person’s redeeming work skills and qualities. When you are asked to make a reference letter, make sure that you have worked with the person for a considerable amount of time so you will have enough bases to gauge and recognize his or her strengths.
- Individual’s Background: The most general form of reference letters is one which is written by the Human Resource manager that simply acknowledges the individual’s work involved with the company. However, if you are a direct supervisor or manager for the person and you are requested to write one, this element is the part where you mention the length of time that the individual worked in the company, his or her position, and other company-related backgrounds.
- Neutral Tone: This is one of the major differences between a recommendation letter and a reference letter. Recommendation letters tend to employ the style where the writer recounts the strengths of the individual as if he or she is telling a story. However, in the case of reference letters, the writer does not make use of the storytelling technique but offers a general description of the individual as if it is a professional character report. You can still give specific example and scenarios, but you have to minimize any tone of endearment for the person to make it less personal and formal to read.
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Steps to Make a Great Reference Letter
- Determine if you are qualified to write a reference letter: Writing a reference letter for someone you don’t know that much or have worked with for only a short of time will only do more harm than good for that person. While writing a reference letter for a friend who is an equal is acceptable, writing it for someone who was under your management makes a more effective reference. If you have to reject a person’s request, do it proactively by saying that you cannot provide a strong endorsement to them due to a valid reason and recommend someone instead.
- Start with a direct and simple introduction: Remember that reference letters are impersonal, so you do not need any creative introduction for the first paragraph of your letter. Start with the name of who you are endorsing, their former job title, and your position as their superior. Since reference letters are used in general situations, it does not state what job the individual is applying for.
- Support your endorsement: This is the part where you give an overview or summary of the individual’s performance during their stay at your company. You get to highlight their qualities and strengths and give sample scenarios to support them. A caveat in writing this part is that you have to maintain the formal tone in the letter, so keep the individual the subject and write it as though you are endorsing a product that you have no emotional attachment with. Remain objective, direct, and simple on this part. Write your endorsement in one to two paragraphs.
- State your judgment: Your judgment serves as a summary to you as a work reference and how you are promoting this person. You can write “I am recommending [individual’s name] without reservation” or something similar. And just like every letter, add a call-to-action element that goes along the line of “With the aforementioned qualities, the individual will make for a great addition to your company.” And, for the last line, express your willingness to accommodate further inquiries by stating your contact details. This will be the last paragraph of your letter.
- Double-check for errors: Read your letter again and know if the tone of your letter does not sound too personal. Check for any grammatical errors and rephrase sentences if you need to and submit it to the individual when you think it is already sufficient. Submitting the letter to the benefactor is another characteristic that sets a reference letter apart from the recommendation letter. When it comes to reference letters, the person you are recommending will always able to read it, but in recommendation letters, the person may or may not be able to read the letter as it is sometimes forwarded to the hiring manager or university administrator directly.
Tips for a Great Reference Letter
- Use the passive voice: To ensure that your letter maintains the formal and neutral tone, use the passive voice in your sentences when you are describing the one you are endorsing. Also, minimize the use of “I” as the subject as you try to distance yourself as far away as possible from the narrative in your reference letter.
- Don’t be afraid to use “To Whom It May Concern”: While in most job application letters the usage of this salutation ranges from undesirable to forbidden, reference letters enjoy the leeway of formality and neutrality that they don’t specifically address anyone. So, in this case, “To Whom It May Concern” works just fine.
Types of Reference Letters
- Professional Reference Letters: These are reference letters that are written by an individual’s employer or manager in their former company. Professional reference letters are the most common type and it is commonly used in job applications.
- Personal Reference Letters: Written by a colleague or a head of an organization outside the corporate industry, personal reference letters endorse the individual’s character and willingness to do extra-curricular activities. These letters are used when applying as a volunteer in charity works or as a general character assessment when a person is applying for places to rent.
- Bank Reference Letters: These are reference letters made by a bank so other financial institutions can gauge the individual’s fiscal capabilities. Bank reference letters contain the individual’s loans, most recent bank statement, and length of time that he or she has been a customer to the bank.
Reference Letter Template Sizes
Like any other business letters, reference letters are printed on documents with US sizes of 8.5 inches by 11 inches (letter size) and 8.5 inches by 14 inches (legal size), or A4 size with the specific dimension of 8.27 inches by 11.69 inches.
Reference Letter FAQs
Can I have my former professors write a reference letter for a job?
When you are a fresh graduate and have no former work experience, having your former educators as your referees is acceptable. However, when you already have worked before and have formally resigned from that company, then it is recommended that you tap in your former supervisor or manager to pen an employment reference letter for you. Consider those who know your capabilities and will most likely write you a good judgment.
Should I put a section for a list of my references in my resume even when I already have reference letters?
Actually, you only need either. However, a reference section on your basic resume can only provide contact information of your reference persons and it is insufficient. You are much better off with reference letters instead, where your qualities and skills are discussed in detail by a former work superior. Secure at least three reference letters to append to your application if you need to.
Knowing the difference between a recommendation and reference letter may already be considered nitpicking for some, but for a good business letter writing, it is essential to establish a bold, vivid line between the two to cater to the right target audience and stay true to its purpose.