Letters of recommendation, vouching for your skills and character, are needed in special situations but also good to have on hand in case you are suddenly in the position of looking for a new job, applying for a scholarship or any situation in which you need a reference. Some experts suggest that people who expect to be looking for work should have at least three reference letters on hand. When it comes to references, it never hurts to be proactive.
These is some debate as to the exact definition of the terms "recommendation" and "reference" when it comes to letters such as those described and offered for free printable download on this site. Here, we've decided use the terms somewhat interchangeably. But according to several sources, the main difference is that a reference letter is more general and written without a specific recipient in mind, while a recommendation letter is specifically requested and generally targets one person, often by name. Either way, the important thing is that the person requesting the letter and the one writing it are on the same page as far as knowing what's expected. Just call the letter whatever the recipient company, academic institution or other intended recipient calls it.
There are three main types, or categories, of recommendation letters or reference letters: employment, academic and character. Each is intended for use in different settings or circumstances, but all have several things in common. They are all carefully written, with the goal being to communicate information about a person's skills and/or character. Typically, they are intended to verify qualifications and qualities and ultimately build confidence in a person.
Employment-related reference letters are written by someone in a position to know a job applicant's skills, as well as something about his or her relevant character traits. They are commonly written by former employers, immediate supervisors and even collegues.
Academic letters of recommendation are used in a variety of situations. Someone applying for a fellowship or internship, a student applying to graduate school and a high school student applying to colleges or for a scholarship are among those who would ask someone to write a reference letter on their behalf. There can even be some overlap between "employment" and "academic" letters of recommendation, such as a teacher seeking recommendations for a position at a school.
Character reference letters or personal references come into play in anything from child custody cases to adoption applications to parole hearings to housing applications to requests for membership in an exclusive club or society. What character references have in common is that they are typically (but not always) written by a friend or family member. An employer might offer a character reference in some circumstances as well. Character reference letters are generally less formal than employment or academic letters.
There are also recommendation letters that are a combination of the above. For example, a candidate for public office might seek a recommendation letter, a businessperson might ask someone to recommend a product or service, or a salesperson might ask a colleague to make an introduction in the form of a referral letter. You might also be called upon to write a commendation letter or evaluate someone's performance.
The most modern incarnation of a recommendation or reference is in the case of business or social networking Web sites such as LinkedIn or Naymz. Rather than a one- or two-page letter, people are asked to vouch for someone in the form of a short "blurb" of just a paragraph or so.
Index of letter of recommendation templates