Although both letters of reference and letters of recommendation are often used synonymously, they are in fact two different kinds of letters. In general, here are the primary differences between a letter of recommendation and a letter of reference:
Letters of Recommendation
Letters of recommendation are specific, largely glowing accounts of your letter writer’s experiences with you. They are typically longer letters because the reference has more to say about the student, mentee, advisee, volunteer, and/or research assistant. Therein lies the key difference between a recommendation and a reference letter. The recommendation letter speaks to your abilities in a variety of contexts, not simply as a student. A letter of recommendation will provide a more complete overview of your skills, competencies, character, and perhaps some of the struggles you have overcome. This is actually an important part of your character, it includes but is not limited to: How you manage stress, budget your time, the evidence of your intestinal fortitude, and the reference’s perception of your success and aptitude for a given program. The letter is an endorsement of your application for the program. Recommendation letters are on a scale, from a lukewarm endorsement, to a luminous, enthusiastic, exceptional recommendation–these are letters with exclamation points! Some programs even ask professors to rate applicants along a continuum of experience,
“Of the students you have mentored, where does this applicant fall? Upper 5 percent? Upper 10 percent? Upper 25 percent?” Consider that, where do you think you realistically fall along that scale?
Point of Reassurance: Grades are not the only consideration. Some of my most effusive letters have been for students who worked hard, overcame challenges, grew professionally, and who were a good fit for a program. Many of these students, most in fact, did not carry a 4.0 grade-point average.
Letters of Reference These letters are more general. If you have not interacted with the letter writer in a variety of contexts, you will likely receive a letter of reference. Therefore, it is often described as a character reference. But remember it is a reference. By definition, this is an instance, situation, or quality to which the writer is referring. Hopefully this is a positive instance, experience, or account, but it may not necessarily always reflect a sparkling, untarnished history.
As a Rule You want letters of recommendation. This is also what graduate programs and employers want. In light of that, you need to consider carefully when and who you ask for a letter. Ask yourself this question, can this person provide me with a letter of recommendation or just a letter of reference?
A SURVEY OF 10 PROFESSORS Before I started drafting this post, I emailed a variety of professors from several universities within the natural and social sciences, humanities, arts, business, and foreign languages. I received a nice, even number of responses—10 in total, though these are not a representative sample. There were naturally, some disparities in the kinds of things each professor wanted. But there was significant overlap in the expectations for writing a letter of recommendation. I summarize the consensus here (Note: there may be individual differences based on professor, discipline, or institution not within my sample):
1.) Waive your right to read the letter This allows your writer to speak candidly about you. It says something both to the writer and to the program if you do not trust your reference. The writer may still share the letter with you, but do not expect this, letter sharing is not the norm.
2.) Make it easy on your writer This means you need to be organized. Your reference may want materials emailed, they may want them printed, or they may want the request in person. But everyone from my sample wanted the information organized, professional, and detailed. In fact, Professor Brian Jackson (Exercise Science) of Pacific University emailed a great suggestion,
“I ask for a bulleted list of interactions (e.g., classes they have taken with me, advising, research, etc.).”
I love this idea. It is a great prompt for your writer in the event that they have forgotten something. Remember, like you, these are busy people. They have research, service, and teaching that they are also juggling. They also have families, daycare schedules, meetings, deadlines, publication projects, tests to write, tests to grade, research assistants to supervise, papers to read, advising, in some cases they may also have internship sites to manage, etcetera. This certainly, does not dismiss that you too may have all of these kinds of responsibilities, but then again, you are the one asking for the letter. It is a request. *They are not required to provide the letter and may not if they cannot provide an enthusiastic endorsement.*
3.) Provide your Curriculum Vitae This is important, like the bulleted list Dr. Jackson requested, the curriculum vitae (singular) or CV for short, provides a prompt for your writer. This is your comprehensive academic resume, a summative list of your experiences, some of which may not be familiar to your writer. The CV provides your reference an opportunity to see the breadth of your accomplishments.
4.) Statement of Purpose/Intent or Personal Essay Virtually any program, whether it is a graduate program, a scholarship, an internship, or a job application will likely ask for a personal essay of some kind. In the case of an employment opportunity, they may not explicitly ask for a cover letter. But you should provide this. The cover letter can serve as the personal essay.
Note: Students frequently balk at this request. They put off their SOI or cover letter until they are just about to send off their entire portfolio. But the fact that your references want this information shows a commitment to writing you a quality, competitive letter. You may even be fortunate enough to have someone like Economics Professor Phil Ruder as a reference, he wrote,
“I ask students who are applying to graduate school to share with me the essay they are writing for their application. Two purposes for this: One, I want to get an idea of the student’s goals and how they present their experience to the program. Two, there is an essay that virtually every economics program asks applicants to write…if they make a hash of their first attempt, I may end up guiding them through an extensive rewrite.”
Lucky you! That said, do not expect an SOI editor wrapped up with your letter writer. This is a bonus.
5.) Program Details Provide either documentation in the form of soft copy (emailed attachment), hard copy (printed), or as a web link (least preferred) of all programs to which you are applying. If you are applying to a graduate program, it is also a good idea to indicate which mentor or laboratory you aspire. This allows your reference to speak specifically to the ways in which you might be an asset to that program or mentor.
6.) Deadlines and Addresses Provide deadlines for each program. If you are applying to multiple programs, this means you need to create a list (see checklist link at the end of this post). This list should include the program details, the addresses and the deadlines for receipt of printed materials AND the way in which the program wants the letter sent.
Some programs want the letter sent directly to them, others want the letters sealed with a signature and bundled with the entire application. Finally, other programs are moving toward a more streamlined, electronic submission process and will send the professor a web link for the recommendation. Inform your references in what way each program expects to receive the letter.
7.) Channel Emily If you do not know who Emily Post is (or rather was, she died in 1960), she was the traditional, go-to-girl for all things etiquette. Her original Ms. Manners tome, called, “The Emily Post Book of Etiquette” is now, with all of the ways in which we communicate, pretty dated. That said, there are contemporary versions of this writing (it is on its 18th edition); however, you need not read her book to behave professionally or with courtesy. What I mean by “channeling Emily” is remember the magic words from your early courtesy training: please and thank you.
No matter what, college is a profession. You are currently a professional student. Just like with any job, be gracious, professional, and organized. This is implicit, but since all of the respondents hit on this topic, it bears stating explicitly what professional courtesy means.
Be Courteous with Time Provide at least one month from the time you give your references the materials to write their letters to the deadline the application should be received. This is by the way, standard academic etiquette.
Be Organized This goes back to point two: Make it easy. If you have cleared the first hurdle, you received a “yes” from a potential reference, do not think just because your reference has agreed to write you a recommendation that you can casually dismiss professional courtesy. The request for a letter is still formal and is still an interaction. Do not take this lightly, provide a single packet of all materials. Avoid sending your reference several emails or materials piecemeal, wait and provide them everything they need in one email with the appropriate attachments or as printed copies. Remember top-of-mind awareness, or in psychology, the availability heuristic. If the last interaction your reference had with you was a sloppy delivery of application materials, or you made your reference seek out additional needed information, this could influence their letter.
Proofread Just in writing this post, I reread and edited probably a dozen times, if not more (and I still could not get the formatting perfect). Each time I read it, I found another error. More education, does not mean fewer errors. The first draft of anything is typically only 25 percent of the work, the editing reflects 50 percent of the labor, and another 25 percent is in the rewrite. Check for spelling, grammatical, and writing errors. And for God’s sake, spell your reference’s name correctly. The more polished your writing, your portfolio, and your applications are, the better it reflects on you. Also, make sure you have addressed your reference formally: Dr., Prof., or Instructor (this last one is appropriate if they have a MA/MS instead of a PhD). We are informal at my institution, but as a rule, in correspondence it is better to be formal. Your references have earned their prefixes, no one ever gets upset over “Professor,” but some folks get fighting mad over “Mrs.,” “Ms.,” or “Mr.”
Thank You As a courtesy, thank your references for their time. Some letters may take several hours to write, especially if the writers are particularly enthusiastic about your application. Consider this, how much time do you spend writing quality comments about your professors in student evaluations? 5 minutes, 10? These evaluations affect your professor’s career advancement, just like your letter of recommendation (or reference). A “thank you” is appropriate.
8.) Follow-Up Let your references know the outcome of your applications. They are invested in you and in your future. Your references, whether they wrote you a letter of recommendation or reference, want you to succeed. Really. They are your biggest cheerleaders. They want to see you go and do big things: be president, become a goodwill ambassador, create a start-up company, get your doctorate, or most importantly, be fulfilled, contributing citizens. Let them know when you expect to hear back from the programs and when you do, tell them what the outcome was. Many folks track this information (I do). Acceptance to a program is not simply a win for you, it is also a success story for the institution, and your mentors. You are an ambassador of your educational history. Remember that your references will be sympathetic if you have bad news, there is no shame in a rejection. Think of Teddy Roosevelt’s speech, “The Man in the Arena,” it is one of my favorite quotes of all time (linked here). On the upside, your letter writers will run a victory lap for your acceptance–or at the very least, depending on their personality, they will give an inner, subdued cheer. Don’t worry about letting a reference down, they are not your parents, they are your professional mentors. They have been rejected more times than they care to count, they can take any news you have.
There you have it. The above reflects the consensus among my colleagues. There were however, some criteria that differed among the professors I surveyed (see below).
i.) Timing Imagine you are going into the Peace Corps for a year after graduating college, you know that you will be applying to graduate school when you return.
Should you: a.) ask for the letter before you leave for the Peace Corps so they can write the letter while their time with you in college is still fresh? -or- b.) should you wait and ask them for the letter the year you need it?
Not everyone is going to write you a letter in advance, but some will, I do for example. So as a rule of thumb, figure out who you believe can write you the strongest letter, ask them in advance if they want to write you the letter now or later. If they want to write you a letter in advance, have all 8 criteria above provided.
ii.) What if they say no? Some professors will not write a letter of reference, others will. Those who don’t are not refusing the letter to thwart your professional goals. They simply don’t feel they know you well enough to write a character reference based on a single contextual situation or event. Or conversely, they may have a lot experience with you, but feel their letter will not do you any favors. Be gracious if a professor declines to write you a letter. This is a gift, be grateful that they told you this up front and find someone else who can.
Letter of Reference Checklist I have a checklist (click the link above) that I ask of students who want a letter from me. It includes the information outlined in the consensus section of the 10 Professors Surveyed. It also includes a link to a FERPA release, something you must provide your letter writers. It is a legal waiver to discuss confidential information. In that checklist, I also ask for your unofficial transcript or program evaluation.
I truly hope this helps clarify any questions you may have about the process. If a question persists, please do not hesitate to contact me directly or pose it on this blog.
An Acknowledgement and Thanks to the Following Academics for their Contributions: Dr. Baine Craft, Psychology, Seattle Pacific University Dr. Stacey Halpern, Biology, Pacific University Dr. Brian Jackson, Exercise Science, Pacific University Dr. Larry Lipin, History, Pacific University Dr. Jessica Ritter, Social Work, Pacific University Dr. Phil Ruder, Economics, Pacific University Dr. Sarah Phillips, Sociology, Pacific University Dr. Dawn Salgado, Psychology, Pacific University Dr. Phil Schot, Exercise Science, Pacific University Dr. Allen Szalda-Petree, Psychology, The University of Montana