What’s the Difference Between a Professional Recommendation and a Reference?


A professional recommendation letter is written by a supervisor, client, or professor. They are familiar with the candidate’s accomplishments in a work-type setting. The purpose of this letter is to support the candidate’s application for a specific job, scholarship or program.

A personal reference letter can be written by a family friend or mentor who can attest to the traits that would make them a good candidate for the position they are seeking. This type of letter is a general endorsement that attests to applicant’s personal attributes as they would apply in a job setting.

Types of Professional Recommendation Letters

Such letters are specifically addressed to a particular requestor. The requestor is either employment-related, or university program admission and/or scholarship related.

Letters of recommendation include:

  • Commendation or recognition letter
  • Employment-related recommendation letter
  • University admission recommendation letter
  • Performance evaluation letter

Types of Reference Letters

Reference letters are general and are not normally addressed to a specific requestor. They begin with: “To Whom It May Concern” or “Dear Sir/Madam”.

Letters of reference include:


Essentially, a recommendation letter is normally more specific than a reference letter. A recommendation letter will provide a detailed assessment which includes the overall impressions and the qualifications of the candidate.

On the other hand, a reference letter will provide a general assessment which merely includes references that the writer knows confirms basic facts about the applicant. A reference letter can simply state, “I was Claire’s supervisor at Lawpath’, as well as the former employee’s date of employment and job title.

Structure for a Recommendation Letter

Importantly, the recommendation letter addresses the suitability of the applicant for a certain opportunity such as a job or program. Moreover, it also elaborates on how his or her skills and talents make him or her the ideal candidate for the position. The writer could potentially expressly indicate that he or she recommends the person without reservation for the opportunity.

Structure for a Reference Letter

Conversely, a letter of reference is more general. The writer may discuss general characteristics such as the person’s work ethic, leadership potential or ability to work collaboratively. Once again, a reference will confirm prior employment, providing the dates of employment, and possibly the final pay. There will be no comments about performance in writing.


Another difference between these letters is based on the etiquette behind requesting them.

As a recommendation letter is more detailed and extensive, it requires a lengthy deadline. There is no specified deadline, but applicants should approach the writer well in advance – potentially one month before they need the letter. There may already be a process in place for requesting a recommendation letter such as submitting an official form. The applicant should support the official form with their resume and other pertinent information about their qualifications and the prospective program or job.

The general rule for a reference letter is to ask two weeks in advance. The applicant should elaborate on their qualifications and ask to offer to write a draft letter for the writer to use as a model.

For advice on writing resumes, click here. Lawpath also provides resume templates.

Final Words

In considering which letter is most suitable, applicants must decide on factors such as the prospective position, the right person to write the letter, how much time is needed as a well prepared letter needs a considerable amount of time.

Tip: Be sure to thank your employer or professor, as people want to know when their efforts are appreciated. 

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