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It is likely that a prospective employer will ask you to submit the name and contact information for several people who will serve as your references. The employer may request these when you communicate your initial interest in a position via a resume and/or application or after you have become a finalist for the position. Choosing the most appropriate reference(s) is critical. How should you choose?

What is a reference and what is their role in your job search?

A reference is someone who has agreed to support your candidacy for a position and who can speak on your behalf about your intellectual and/or professional capabilities. Your reference's role is to answer questions posed by the prospective employer in an honest way that ultimately contributes to and reaffirms the positive impression you created during your interview.

An honest, credible assessment of your abilities will help the prospective employer better evaluate your candidacy. An overstated, positive reference may not be believed.

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Who should you ask to be a reference?

At times a prospective employer will specify with whom they want to talk (e.g., a former supervisor or a colleague), but generally it will left up to you to decide who you want to speak on your behalf.

Identify people with whom you believe you have had a positive relationship and who have observed you using the skills sought by the prospective employer. Your best choices for references are supervisors, co-workers, or faculty members.

Meet with the person to discuss your goals and then ask if they are willing and able to serve as a positive reference. Be sure to share a copy of your resume. If the person is hesitant to do this on your behalf, it might be best to approach someone else. A negative or less than enthusiastic reference may undermine your candidacy.

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Who should you NOT ask to be a reference?

Avoid asking people who have not observed your professional abilities to serve as references even if they like you very much. Relatives, friends, and influential people who don't know you are weak choices. Members of the clergy are also weak choices unless you are being asked to provide a reference who can speak to your character or they are able to specifically address you skills. Also, avoid people with whom you do not have a solid, positive relationship.

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Is a letter of reference as good as a direct contact?

The advantage to a direct contact is that the prospective employer can determine what they need to know more about your candidacy and then ask those questions. A letter only addresses what your reference chose to discuss about you and that may not intersect with what an employer needs to know to make an informed decision.

Given the choice, opt for the direct contact. However, having a letter as a backup is a good strategy. Your reference may be unavailable during your job search. Additionally he or she may work for an organization that has a policy prohibiting current employees from speaking about former employees with anyone outside the organization. A letter will fill that gap.

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How can you keep your references informed about your job search?

Make it easy for your references to speak on your behalf. Provide a copy of your resume as well as a job description for the positions to which you have applied.

Once you've interviewed and anticipate that your references will be contacted, speak with your references letting them know:

  • What about your candidacy seemed of particular interest to the prospective employer
  • Areas that you'd like your reference to address

Be sure to notify your references once you've secured a position.

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Page last updated: May 31, 2016