All about references

Who to ask, how to ask and more

All about references

You’ve got a killer cover letter and a first-rate resume. You’re just about ready to send it all in and hope for the best, but there’s one last piece to the puzzle you should figure out now: references. As excellent as your application and charming interview skills may be, many employers will want to hear what others think about your potential—especially if you’re seriously being considered for the position. Here, we tackle the most common questions.


Who are the best people to ask?

At this stage in your life, you need references that can speak highly of your professional capabilities—not your family and best friends. “For permanent positions, references can be a mixture of professors, supervisors, advisors and/or professional connections,” says Stephanie Kinkaid, Program Coordinator, Wackerle Career and Leadership Center at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Il. And consider this: The higher the reference’s position or title, the more impact their words could have. “If you know the dean of students well, use him/her for a reference if possible.” That said, if anyone hesitates when you ask, give ‘em an easy out. 


How should you ask, and what should you ask for?

In person, if possible. “Describe the job and why you believe this person is the best reference to help you accomplish your goals,” suggests Kinkaid. She also recommends you give them a copy of your resume and transcript—and of course, be polite and say thanks. “A hand-written note sent after the meeting is a nice touch.” Can’t ask in person? Email is okay, too. Just make sure you get everything you need: the person’s full name, title, company, email and phone number, if possible.


What if one of your potential references no longer works in the same position?

Say you interned at a magazine directly under one editor who you know would vouch for you in a heartbeat—but that editor is no longer at the same magazine, or perhaps, even editing anymore. Sound familiar? Don’t omit that person just yet if the work you did is relevant for the job you want. “It's completely fine to use a person as a reference who is no longer at the position in which you worked with them, pending that they still have a good reputation in the industry,” advises Jacqueline Twillie, MBA, career coach and speaker. However, if that person left their position on bad terms, she adds, you don't necessarily want to be associated with that.


How many do you need?

Sounds like three to five is the popular answer here. “Ideally, students should have more than three, so they can choose the best combination for the position they seek,” says Marilyn Santiesteban, Assistant Director of Graduate and Alumni Career Services at Bentley University in Waltham, MA. And start working on that list now. “Students should think long before graduation about who could serve as references for their skills and work ethic,” she says.


Is it better to write “References available upon request” on your resume, or list them all out upfront?

Here’s where things get tricky. Some experts are adamant about not listing them out; one reason being that you may want to change up who you connect the employer with after hearing the exact job skills required. Meanwhile, other experts tell us that employers often appreciate having that information from the get-go and not having to track it down. What’s a college senior to do? Read the job description carefully (it may make it easy for you and ask that you include, say, two to three references), ask a current employee for their take if you have a relationship with one, or simply use your discretion. When it comes to interviewing, however, there’s a clear answer…


Should you bring a list of references to an interview?

Absolutely. “It's always best to come prepared, and have a list of references available,” says Bill Barnett, CEO of Zip Intro Video, a free tool that showcases job seekers via videos. If your interviewer is looking to hire right away, he or she may ask you to follow up with a list, so why not be ready? Candidates can also offer their list of references near the end of an interview, adds Barnett. That way, the interviewer will have them…just in case.


Should you be in touch with your reference at any point?

Another affirmative. Ray Rogers, director of career services at Rollins College in Winter Park, FL, told us: “If you suspect a potential employer is about to contact references, let your references know about the specific position and where you are in the process, sharing your excitement and enthusiasm about the position. This gives your references the ability to share with the prospective employer your excitement about that opportunity.” In addition, he adds, let them know if you get the job or whether you’ve moved on to other opportunities. “You never know when you may need to call on them for help in the future.”

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