At some point during your job search, a potential employer will request references. Typically, it will be when the company is seriously interested in you as a potential candidate. This can “make or break” the opportunity for you, so your references need to be carefully chosen and nurtured. In some cases, your references may also be helpful in your networking process. It is important to provide a list of references who can attest to the skills and qualifications that you have for the job to which you are applying.
Prepare ahead of time so that you have your references together before you need them. This will save you from scrambling to put a list together at the last minute. Good references who are willing to attest to your capabilities may be the deciding factor in securing the position.
When Do I Supply References?
Potential employers usually request your references at the conclusion of the interview so be sure to keep a list of references with you when interviewing so that you are prepared to present them when the employer asks.
If an employer requests a ‘resume and references’ in the job posting, send your resume and include your references on a separate sheet.
How Many References Do I Need and Whom Do I Choose?
Although there are variations – the typical requirements for a recent university graduate are: two work-related, one personal and one academic.
Choose those people who are most appropriate for the position and/or organization to which you are applying. Do not underestimate the power of your references - the employer is preparing to make a big investment in hiring you and wants to be sure you are who you say you are. Choose carefully – are you certain that these individuals will give you an excellent report?
Professors, former employers, advisors, coaches and co-workers are often chosen as referees.
Having a few good references can help you clinch a job offer or gain admission to a professional or graduate program. Similarly, having one bad (or even lukewarm) reference could cost you the job/program admission. Former supervisors do not have to be references, especially if they did not know all your accomplishments or you fear they will not have glowing things to say about you. Sometimes former co-workers or supervisors in other departments who know your work make the best choices. See “How to make your letters of reference stand out” below.
Your personal reference should be somebody who has known you for a number of years and who is not a family member. A professor or TA may be a good academic reference. Again, the key is people who know your strengths and abilities - people who can speak highly of your accomplishments, work ethic, skills, education, performance, etc.
Do I Need to Let People Know I am Going to Use Them as a Reference?
YES. You need to ask permission to have someone act as a referee. Most people will be flattered - or at least willing to serve as a referee - but you still need to ask to be sure.
If possible, set up a meeting with your referees, in person or by phone if necessary.
Letters of reference that stand out:
Those reading letters of reference find that they often sound the same despite different authors. It is common for referees to describe the person in question as “nice,” “bright”, “personable” and other such positive statements. To stand out, your letters need to go up and beyond the basics.
Letters that stand out will describe how you think, your character, what makes you memorable, how you’ve contributed. They may include a description of an interaction with you.
To obtain letters of reference that stand out, you need to do two things:
Start with cultivating professional relationships with your supervisors, professors and TAs.
Visit TAs and professors during their office hours. Talk about their academic/research interests, not just about the next assignment.
Provide as much information to your referees to speak to these points such as how long you have known each other, what stands out about you, how you’ve contributed to the work, your accomplishments, education, work ethic etc.
Ask your referee if they can speak to the qualities you hope to have represented in letters of reference.
Ensure your referees know when and how to send in a letter of reference. Some letters will be sent by post, so the referee will need to have the necessary contact information. Some letters are submitted online.
Always keep your references informed. It is also courteous to let your referees know to whom you have given their names and for what position so they will be prepared.
Don’t forget to thank your references once your job search is complete, even if they were not contacted, they were willing to help you and thanking them is a common courtesy.
Questions a Potential Employer Might Ask One of Your References:
Can you please describe how you know the candidate? And for how long?
How would you rate the candidate’s skills in (e.g. organizational skills, accounting skills etc.)?
Describe the candidate’s communication abilities?
How well does the candidate work under pressure?
Can you describe the candidate’s attitude toward work?
How well does the candidate take constructive criticism?
How well does the candidate interact with co-workers?
Is the candidate a team player?
How would you describe the candidate’s honesty and integrity?
Can you describe the candidate’s key strengths and weaknesses?
How receptive is the candidate to new ideas and procedures?
Given the description of the position, do you think the candidate is a good match?
If you were in a position to hire this candidate again, would you do so?
Can you describe the candidate’s leadership, managerial or supervisory skills?
Do you have any additional information or comments that might help us make a better decision about this candidate?
For an idea of how to write a reference page see our references template or ourreferences example. Always have your references on a separate sheet of paper and use the same header and style as your resume and cover letter.