What is a Recommendation Letter?

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What is a recommendation letter? A recommendation letter is written by a previous employer, colleague, client, teacher, or by someone else who can recommend an individual's work or academic performance.

The goal of recommendation letters is to vouch for the skills, achievements, and aptitude of the person being recommended. Think of these letters as symbols, intended to represent an important person’s vote of confidence in a candidate – without having to go in person to a hiring manager’s office and make their case.

Most often, a recommendation letter is sent to a hiring manager or admissions officer to facilitate an interview or introduction of the candidate.

What Is Included in a Recommendation Letter

A letter of recommendation describes a person's qualifications and skills as they relate to employment or education.

The letter discusses the qualities and capabilities that make the candidate a good fit for a given position, college, or graduate school program.

The letter recommends the individual for a job or for college or graduate school. Recommendation letters are typically requested on an individual basis and are written directly to the employer, other hiring personnel, or an admissions committee or department.

Who Should Write a Letter of Recommendation

Choosing the best people to write your letter of recommendation can be tricky. It’s not simply a matter of making a list of all your former bosses, professors, and colleagues and picking the ones who seem likely to make the time.

You also need to make sure that the writer is someone who will take the task seriously, and devote some care to the project. A vague or hastily written letter of recommendation is worse than none at all.

Beyond that, the writer should be someone who can speak directly to the quality of your work. A hands-off manager from 10 years ago is obviously not the best choice; neither is that coworker who misspelled your name on the company holiday card last year.

In short, the best letters of recommendation come from people who:

  • Are familiar with your work, and feel strongly positively about it.
  • Have the time to write a letter that will truly impress a hiring manager.
  • Are in a position of authority or otherwise have a reputation that will mean something to the employer.

Tips and Tricks

  • Prepare a list of qualities and accomplishments you’d like to highlight in the letter. Obviously, don’t present these to the recommender as a requirement. Rather, include them as guide. Your initial thank-you email is a good place to communicate these, e.g., “I know the hiring manager is particularly interested in candidates with XYZ skill, so if you feel positively about my contribution on ABC project, that might be something to mention.”
  • Have a friend proofread your communciations both with the people who are writing your letters and the final letters themselves. Pay close attention to the spellings of company names and other branded entities. Do not let common sense be your guide: marketing speak has a spelling and grammar all its own.
  • While it’s best to take up as little of their time as possible, if you notice something seriously awry with the letter of recommendation – an error in dates, for example, or a misspelled company name – it’s perfectly OK to ask the recommender for a quick fix.

    The Difference Between a Recommendation Letter and a Reference Letter

    Unlike a personal reference, most letters of recommendation are written by professionals such as prior supervisors, professors, or co-workers. A letter of recommendation will usually describe the applicant’s background, education, and prior experience in a way that highlights certain skills and attributes.

    While recommendation letters and reference letters are somewhat interchangeable, a letter of recommendation tends to be more specific and directed to one person about a particular position, while a reference letter is more general and can be sent out for multiple postings.

    Examples

    • George asked the supervisor at his last position to write a letter of recommendation for a job at a company he was targeting.
    • The letter of recommendation written by her boss persuaded the hiring manager to invite Sarah in for a formal interview.

      How to Write a Letter of Recommendation
      Advice on how to write a letter of recommendation, including what to include in each section of the letter, how to send it, and sample letters of recommendation for employment and academics.

      Letter of Recommendation Samples
      Reference letter and email message samples including academic recommendations, business reference letters and character, personal, and professional references.