Recommendations and references have a similar role in a selective process. Typically, recommendations are formal, confidential letters provided to a graduate school or other academic-based program while references are used by employers to confirm qualifications before making an offer.

Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation provide a detailed and persuasive argument for why and how the subject of the letter (you) should be admitted to the program you are applying for.

Typically letters of recommendation are used as part of an application, most often for advanced degree programs but also for selective programs like fellowships, scholarships, or experiential learning. For example, a letter of recommendation is required for applications to the Yawkey Nonprofit Internship Program.

In order to ensure honest comments, these letters are usually sent directly to the admissions office or selection committee, rather than provided to the applicant to submit with other materials. Some recommenders also choose to provide a copy to the person they are writing the letter about.


References are individuals who can speak to your work to a prospective employer.

Generally, you will be asked for 3-5 references by HR or the hiring manager after you have gone through the interview process. These individuals will be contacted to share feedback about working with you, either with a short survey or in a phone conversation.

The questions typically focus on employment facts (job title, job duties, punctuality, length of employment) and workplace performance (reliability, integrity, professionalism, productivity).