If you’re applying for jobs or internships, you will likely be asked to provide references. Many people include the line “References Available Upon Request”, but are you ready to provide those references?
References vs Letters of Recommendation
Some companies will ask you to fill out an application including contact information for all companies you’ve worked for. References, on the other hand, are hand-picked by you. This is great if you have a mostly-stellar work history, but one blemish – a supervisor you didn’t get a long with or a job you were fired from. You choose 3 – 5 people you think would speak well of you and your skills. Letters of recommendation go one step further, and this is where your references write a brief letter outlining your strengths and skill level. Typically when a job asks for “References” they are looking only for contact information, and not a full letter.
Who is a good reference?
This is the hard part for many young professionals. References are professional contacts, unless you are explicitly asked for personal/character references. An ideal reference is someone that you know well, and ideally there should be a power difference. For example, a supervisor, an instructor, a student organization advisor. Even better, choose people who will look impressive to potential employers. Good references are also easily accessible. Three days of phone tag might delay your offer, so try to choose people who can be available for reference checks.
Once you have identified references, give them the proper care and prep so they can talk you up:
1) Get permission. Clearly you only want to pick people who will say good things about you. Asking references if they are willing gives them a chance to say no if they have a less than positive impression of you, or simply don’t feel like they know you well enough.
2) Give them a copy of your resume. They likely knew you in one setting; giving them a resume allows them to see the full picture. It can add a lot for them to know you were a stellar intern who also balanced a part-time job and a full course load.
3) Tell them what you are applying for. Think about how you prepare for job interviews and how many questions/scenarios you try to rehearse. References have the same experience- prepare them as best you can! Common questions asked of a reference include: “What are _____’s strengths? How well did she work as part of a team? Did she work well with deadlines?” They want to make you sound as good as possible, so help them along by giving them all the information they need.
4) Be grateful! Keep your references updated on your search progress. And definitely send a thank you note when you find something. People offer to be references because they like you, so try to give them reasons to continue to like you.
When do you hand them over?
Almost every job will ask you for references, it’s just a matter of when. You can hand them over with your resume (for internships and full-time work, these go on a separate page labelled “References”), or simply bring them with you to an interview. Reference checks are usually the last part of the application process – after an interview and before an offer.
Building better references
The best time to build your reference list is well before you need it. Seek out experiences that will help you build contacts – volunteering and working events related to your industry is a great start. Making connections with your instructors by visiting their office hours can help forge stronger relationships. And finding ways to stay in touch – via LinkedIn or periodic check-ins – with past supervisors will help keep professional relationships going.
And by the way, you can leave “References Available Upon Request” off of your resume. They are so standard these days that it’s like writing “Willing to come in for an interview” on your resume. Save the space for great work you’ve done. Just make sure you have them ready to go.