Reference Letter vs Recommendation Letter: What’s the Difference? [Examples]

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April 24, 2024
Edited by
Camille Trent
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min read

3 key takeaways

  • A letter of reference is typically used for applying to internships, scholarships, and entry-level positions at companies.
  • A letter of recommendation is typically used to support your candidacy for a specific job or placement.
  • While these letters are great at complementing your job application, Teal’s AI Resume Builder will help you elevate your resume for a comprehensive application. 

Whether you’re submitting your resume to a company you’d love to work for or you’re applying for admission into the academic program of your dreams, you may need to submit a letter that endorses the skills needed to get your foot in the door. 

Differentiating between the reference letter versus recommendation letter—and understanding which one you need at which moment—will help you get where you want to go on your journey. 

Struggling to land interviews with your resume? Get started with Teal’s AI Resume Builder for free.

Reference letter vs recommendation letter: what’s the difference?

Both reference letter and recommendation letter are written with the same goal: to bolster a candidate’s application. Both are written by someone you know who has the authority to speak on your behalf. 

So is a letter of reference the same as a letter of recommendation? Simply stated, no. Because they are similar, these two terms are often confused for one another but key differences set them apart.

reference letter vs recommendation letter
While reference letters share some similarities with recommendation letters, they are not the same

What is a reference letter?

A reference letter is a general endorsement of a person’s abilities or work ethic. It is closely related to a character reference. Broad in scope, it can be used multiple times for various opportunities such as applying for scholarships, career recognitions, or job openings.

Submitting a reference letter, as opposed to adding references to your resume, is optimal in most cases.

Features of a reference letter

  • Focuses on your qualities as a person, student, or employee
  • Created for future or general use
  • Can be used multiple times, for a variety of purposes
  • Less formal than a recommendation letter
  • Can help you get an interview

Reference letter example

A reference letter is broad in scope, so write what feels authentic to you. But if you need help with how to write a reference letter, refer to this example below for inspiration. 

Dear Hiring Manager,

I am pleased to recommend Jessica Michaels for any real estate position at your agency. During her internship with us, she consistently demonstrated outstanding professionalism, dedication, and a deep understanding of the market.

Michaels excels in client communication, negotiation, and problem-solving. Her ability to build strong relationships and face new challenges is a valuable asset to any team.

Please feel free to contact me for further information.

Best regards,

Jack Smithson
Real Estate Sales Manager
Happy Home Real Estate

What is a recommendation letter?

A recommendation letter, also called a letter of recommendation, is a formal document written that discusses a person’s suitability for a role or details their abilities, attributes, work ethic, and specific achievements. Its purpose is to address specific skills as they relate to the position you’re applying for. 

Features of a recommendation letter

  • Focuses on your skills, work experience, and work ethic
  • Requested as part of the mandatory documents
  • Created with a specific role in mind
  • Can only be used for said role
  • Can help you land the next step or the official role 

Recommendation letter example

Dear James,

I am thrilled to recommend Sarah Miller for the sales leadership role at Apex Sales Agency. Having had the pleasure of working closely with Sarah for the past three years at SalesPro Solutions, I can attest to her exceptional leadership skills and dedication to driving results.

Sarah joined our team as a sales associate and quickly distinguished herself as a natural leader and therefore was promoted to a sales supervisor within a year. One particular instance that stands out is when Sarah spearheaded a project to revamp our sales training program. Recognizing the need for a more comprehensive approach, Sarah led a team in developing interactive modules that enhanced the skills of our existing sales representatives. 

What truly sets Sarah apart is her strategic mindset and ability to identify growth opportunities. Last year, she led a cross-functional initiative to penetrate a new market segment. Through meticulous market research and targeted outreach efforts, Sarah successfully secured several key accounts, resulting in a 27% increase in revenue within that sector. 

In conclusion, Sarah Miller is a dynamic leader who possesses the vision, drive, and interpersonal skills needed to excel in the sales leadership role at Apex Sales Agency. I am confident she will make significant contributions to your team and help elevate your company to new heights.


Kevin Williams
Sales Manager
SalesPro Solutions

Recommendation letter template

Need help understanding how to write a letter of recommendation? Fill out this template below with specific examples.

Dear [Recipient's Name],

I am writing to recommend [Candidate's Name] for the [name of role] position. As her former [Position Title] at [Company you both worked at], I had the great fortune of watching [him/her/them] demonstrate exceptional [professionalism/work ethic/dedication] and a deep understanding
and knowledge of the [industry/field] during [former employee’s dates].

[First Name] excels in [relevant skill #1], [relevant skill #2], and [relevant skill #3]. [His/Her] ability to [specific strength #1] and [specific strength #2] makes [him/her/them] a valuable asset to any team.

One of [Candidate's] greatest strengths is [mention a particular strength or attribute]. [He/She] consistently [mention a specific achievement or action] and [mention another specific achievement or action].

Moreover, [Candidate] exhibited exceptional [leadership/mentoring/communication] skills and a natural ability to
work effectively with [his/her] colleagues. [He/She] played a pivotal role in [mention any specific leadership or mentoring roles] and [share an example or anecdote demonstrating leadership or mentorship].

In summary, I have no hesitation in recommending [Candidate's Name]. [He/She] is an exceptionally talented individual with a proven track record of success and a genuine passion for [the industry/field]. [His/Her] dedication, professionalism, and outstanding work ethic make [him/her] a valuable asset to any organization.

Please feel free to contact me if you require any further information or clarification regarding [Candidate's Name] qualifications and experience.

[Your Name]
[Your Position]
[Your Company/Organization]

You can see these two letters have their own specific purpose. A recommendation letter cannot replace a reference letter and vice versa. 

Need help writing the specific achievements for recommendation letters? Teal’s AI Resume Achievements feature can help you manage your wins. Use it to guide your letter writer on how to mention your professional achievements.

Should I use a letter of reference or recommendation letter?

Now that you know the key differences, how do you know when to use a reference letter over a recommendation letter? 

When to use a letter of reference

In a job setting, drumming up a few great letters that assess your skills or abilities could influence if the hiring manager or recruiter will invite you to an interview. 

In an academic application setting, these can influence whether you’re considered for an open-ended opportunity such as a scholarship or award.

A letter of reference is best if you are:

  • Looking for an informational or first-round interview
  • Planning to enter the job market, but don’t have a specific position in mind
  • Applying to many awards or fellowships with different requirements

When to use a letter of recommendation

In both a job and academic setting, a recommendation letter supports your candidacy for an opportunity at hand. If you already have experience in your field and you’re applying to a specific position, this is typically the right fit. 

A letter of recommendation is best if you are:

  • Creating the letter of recommendation at the organization's request
  • Putting together an application package for an academic opportunity, such as grad school 

How to ask for reference and recommendation letters

Both letter types should be written by someone who can attest to a person’s character traits, such as a former employer, mentor, or teacher. Unlike a recommendation letter, a reference letter can also be written by a coworker, colleague, or long-time friend, since it focuses more on a character reference rather than specific skills and work ethic. 

How to ask for a reference letter 

  • Ask coworkers or superiors soon after leaving the workplace.
  • Ask instructors or mentors soon after the semester or school year is over.
  • Send a request to whomever can provide a positive review.

If you don’t have the right person’s email address or feel their schedule is too busy, consider requesting a LinkedIn recommendation.

How to ask for a recommendation letter

  • Choose someone with a job title relevant to the opportunity, who’s able to speak to your qualifications.
  • Give context on the specific opportunity and how it relates to your past work.
  • Provide suggestions to the letter writer or consider writing sample achievement bullet points for them.

Always thank the person for their time, and for writing the recommendation letter.

How to use letters to complement your resume

Along your journey, there will be a slew of letters that have pertinent information you may need—from recommendation and reference letters to two weeks' notice and cover letters.

But there is one constant: Your resume. Letters are intended to complement your resume as part of a job application package. They should never replace your resume. 

To send them correctly, follow the application instructions. These will outline the company’s preferences.

To understand when to list references on your resume, read this post: Should you list references on your resume?

Tips for submitting reference and recommendation letters

  • Send your resume, cover letter, and reference or recommendation letter as separate attachments. 
  • Label each attachment clearly, e.g., "John_Doe_Resume.pdf," "John_Doe_Cover_Letter.pdf," "John_Doe_Reference_Letter.pdf."
  • If sending an email, mention that you have attached your resume, cover letter, and reference letter(s) for their review.
  • Avoid sending documents in a zip file unless explicitly requested.

 Now that you know the dos and don'ts of including these letters with your resume, you should implement resume best practices to ensure your resume stands out. Elevate your entire application—not just your job letters—with Teal’s AI Resume Builder. Sign up for Teal for free.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does a letter of recommendation replace a reference?

A letter of recommendation cannot replace a reference and vice versa. Each letter has its own specific purpose and use case.

What is the difference between a letter of recommendation and a personal reference?

A personal reference is broad in scope. It can be used multiple times for various opportunities such as applying for scholarships, career recognitions, or job openings at companies.

What is an example of a reference letter?

A reference letter should follow the standard business letter format. It speaks directly to your skills and characteristics and may state something along the lines of “For these reasons, I believe [your name] would make an excellent [general position you seek].” 

What is the purpose of a reference letter?

A reference letter is created to bolster your application by explaining the great qualities you have. This helps the application reviewers understand who you are and see how you could fit in the role.

Are reference letters still relevant?

Yes, a reference letter is still a valuable part of the application process. If you get a glowing review from a respectable professional contact, it can help influence the decision making process.  

Kaleena Stroud

Kaleena is a freelance copywriter enamored with helping people catapult their careers. Originally from California, she's currently based out of Barcelona, Spain. When she's not reading or writing, you can find her picnicking by the sea with her family.

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