Understanding Letters of Recommendation, Reference, and Endorsements

No matter what your background is, better understanding letters of recommendation, reference, and endorsements will only serve to help you stand out in the crowd.  No one wants to receive a letter like the one below which is clearly the recommendation letter employers don’t want.

Most of these red flags are mistakes that many people make when they don’t know the details behind the details.  The average person isn’t going to learn what I’ve learned in college in a week and be able to pin-point major faux pas the way professionals can so don’t be to hard on yourself.  This is why I’m here.

First of all, (trigger warning: hard truth), you can’t expect a glowing letter of recommendation, reference, or an endorsement if you’ve acted contrary to who you claim to be or are misrepresenting any aspect of yourself, skills, abilities, or education.  You simply won’t get what you expect so either get in check with the reality of the situation and fix it, or try to explain why you’re unable to provide at least three people to go on the record supporting you.

Second, you should understand the differences between a letter of recommendation, a reference, and an endorsement.  Many people use these terms interchangeably but the three differ in both style and purpose.

  • A recommendation letter supports the candidate’s application for a specific scholarship, program, job or other opportunity.
  • A reference letter is a general endorsement of the person’s character, knowledge and skills.
  • In an endorsement letter you are providing support for a person, product, organization or concept.

The endorsement letter is typically more specific than a letter of recommendation, followed by letters of reference which tend to lean toward more non-specific language.

An endorsement letter addresses either support for a person (e.g. their skills or abilities; unique experience, education, or training), a product, organization, or a concept.

  • Make sure to use clear, specific language when asking for or giving these letters.
  • Explain why you are requesting or sending the endorsement, what it will be used for, why you feel that the endorsement is necessary or why you merit giving or receiving the endorsement, and so forth.
  • Include guidelines for the format, length, or content of the endorsement letter. Also, indicate anything else that the reader or sender needs to do to provide the endorsement, such as filling out attached forms and the like.
  • Indicate by when you need the letter of endorsement.
  • Substantiate (or give reasons for) why you are sending or asking for an endorsement.
  • If you are endorsing a person for a particular position, role, job, etc., (or asking for an endorsement) include how long you have known the person, in what capacity, the positive qualities of the person that make him/her a suitable candidate for endorsement (including accomplishments and abilities), etc. Be as specific as possible.
  • If necessary, indicate the next step that should be taken or what will happen next. Include a time frame, if appropriate.
  • You may want to include your contact information and offer to give further information upon request.

A letter of recommendation addresses how well an applicant is qualified for a certain opportunity such as a fellowship or job. The writer not only comments on the person’s strengths and personal and professional qualities, but also elaborates on how his skills and talents make him the ideal candidate for the position. The writer might also expressly indicate that he recommends the person without reservation for the opportunity.

A letter of recommendation is “expert testimony” regarding the ability of a person to perform a task. The tasks may include performing a job, succeeding in graduate school, or profiting from a particular experience (such as foreign study/travel). This purpose is the ultimate reason for a letter of recommendation; everything in the letter supports the act of making an informed recommendation.

There are two basic types of rec. letters: field specific/expert and character/non-expert.

  1. The “field specific” letter writer is an “industry expert” within the applicant’s field – a restaurant manager can give an industry perspective on whether an applicant should be able to succeed in the restaurant business. A science professor provides specific feedback on a future scientist’s likelihood of success in the field.
  2. A “character” letter is usually written by someone who is outside or on the fringe of the
    applicant’s industry. This person comments on other traits the applicant possesses that should lead to success. A “character” letter is still an expert’s testimony; in this case, the expert comes from outside the applicant’s intended field. Character letters often come from volunteer or work supervisors, internships, outside professors.

A letter of recommendation succeeds on the same merits as any forms of persuasive writing:
good control of vocabulary, solid essay structure, appropriate content, and details details
details.

  • Use strong, vivid language in both nouns and verbs; may get a little creative
  • Use essay Structure – as in the standard 4-5 paragraph essay with a “thesis,”
    well-organized body including an introduction and conclusion – this actually makes the letter easier to write and much easier to read.
  • Make sure to use only appropriate Content – the letter must not exaggerate or lie; writer must not speculate outside knowledge base; must follow some of the “business” like aspects of form.
    • 1st paragraph – state how long writer has known applicant, in what context (employer, instructor, supervisor, etc.), and general “thesis” statement regarding applicant’s abilities/suitability for position.
    • Body Paragraphs – should have 2-3 well explained examples or qualities – each
      example or quality should have its own paragraph – must include not only details, but interpretation (i.e., what should the reader learn about the applicant from the example and why does it matter for the position?).
    • Conclusion – may begin with brief additional info (good place for “non-essentials” such as personality traits), then states EXPLICITLY level of recommendation (strongly/highly [my strongest/highest], recommend, recommend with reservations [must provide explanation], do not recommend [must provide explanation]) with farewell close and contact info.

A letter of reference, on the other hand, is more general. The writer might discuss general characteristics such as the person’s work ethic, leadership potential or ability to work as part of a team.  Use your best judgement in writing these letters.  If you must express your personal feelings remember to structure it as a claim backed with evidence to make it more professional and well rounded.

So,  a terrible employee (current or previous; doesn’t matter) just had the nerve to ask you for a letter of recommendation.  Either this person doesn’t care what you really think of them and figures that you’ll just write a stunning letter to shut them up or they really don’t know they’re a terrible employee.  Regardless, now you’re stuck. So just say “no thank you, sorry, not sorry” and walk away.

That is all…

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