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What is exactly the difference between a reference letter and a recommendation letter in Academia? According to Wikipedia:

Letters of recommendation are very specific in nature and normally requested/required and are always addressed to an individual, whereas letters of reference are more general in nature and are usually addressed "To Whom It May Concern".

However, I've often seen applications where it was asked to provide letters, without being explicit about whether it should be recommendation or reference letters (according to the previous definition).

I only ask letters from persons with whom I have worked closely (typically my former advisors), because I believe they are the best persons to ask about me, but it seems that some people also include letters from persons they just know.

In other words, what exactly is expected when a job application asks to "give references who can provide recommendation letters"?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

As per the definition given on the webpage of McGill University:

A "letter of recommendation" is one that is specifically requested by someone for a determined/defined employment position, academic program or award application. Generally, these letters are sent directly to the requester and not seen by the student. They can be categorized as:

  • Employment Related
  • Academic Admission
  • Commendation or Recognition
  • Performance Evaluation

A "letter of reference" is normally more general in nature and not addressed to a specific requestor. Often you will see these letters addressed as "To Whom it may Concern" or "Dear Sir/Madam". These letters are most often given directly to the student and kept for future use. Situations where they are used tend to be:

  • Character Assessment
  • Academic Related
  • Employment Related
  • General Purpose

As this site also explains, a recommendation letter is more specifically related to skills and qualifications of a person with respect to a definite position/program, whereas a reference letter is usually more general in nature and refers more to the overall character of a person.

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With due deference to Wikipedia, colloquially, the two terms are used interchangeably.

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Well, according to the link on Wikipedia I gave, they refer to two different concepts :) But I agree that it's likely that they are usually interchangeable, at least for non-academic fields. I was wondering in academia, where reputation is more valued, there was a difference. –  Charles Morisset Feb 18 '12 at 20:59
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@CharlesMorisset - In academia, they are used interchangeably, and outside of academia, they're used interchangeably as well :) I don't know who added that to wikipedia, but that distinction is meaningless in the real world. –  eykanal Feb 19 '12 at 3:16

In my experience, a person can serve as a reference and be contacted by the potential employer/school, usually by phone. Alternatively, a person can write a letter of recommendation which they mail themselves.

So when a job application asks to "give references who can provide recommendation letters," they most likely want their contact information.

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but what about when they ask explicitly "reference letters"? Do they mean "recommendation letters sent by references"? –  Charles Morisset Feb 17 '12 at 23:40
    
@CharlesMorisset Yes, they typically do. As eykanal notes above, these terms are generally used interchangeably. –  Dan C Aug 3 '12 at 14:15

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