Choosing Better References

Choosing Better References
“Send three references with your resume”, the job announcement reads. “No problem,” you think to yourself as you scribble down the email addresses of your three favorite professors.

Ummm…not so fast. Your references can really “make or break” you in the job search process. With a little thought and planning on your part, you can really maximize your potential for success in the job search game.

Before you list anyone’s name on your reference list, consider these tips:

Make sure your references know that you are using their name. Get their permission, and ask which contact information you may give out. Ideally, you will want to list their office phone number, mailing address, and an email address (see sample below). Only use his or her home phone number if they ask you to do so.

Make sure your references actually have something to say about you! Many times students will want to use their academic advisor or pastor. But, if you have never done any “work” for these people, all they can really say is that you “are a nice person”. Make sure you choose your references wisely, and choose people that can give specific examples regarding your interpersonal skills, leadership qualities, and sense of initiative, etc.

Choose wisely. Did you have any professors that tended to assign class projects and lots of presentations? These professors will probably have more to say about your abilities than the professors that simply gave you a midterm and final exam to determine your grade. So, if you are looking for a job as an entry-level marketing assistant, it would be smarter to choose Professor A, who could talk about your creative projects, strong presentation skills, and ability to collaborate with classmates than it would be to choose Professor B, who would simply be able to tell them that you earned a 92% in his class.

Don’t be afraid to “coach” your references. Let them know what kinds of jobs you are looking for, and what kinds of information you would like for them to share. Example: Let’s say that you worked at a retail store for two years while you finished your degree, and now you are hoping to get a job as a corporate trainer. Make sure that your “reference” at the retail job knows to focus on your experiences at the store that are relevant to a corporate training job. Did you help with training at the store, mentor new employees, or help with a high-school career day? Make sure your reference talks about these things, and not just about how fast you are on their cash register!

Think outside the box. There are probably lots of people you could use as references besides the usual professors and job supervisors. Perhaps you were quite involved in a club, sorority, or volunteer effort. If so, consider using someone from that organization as a reference that could speak to your abilities.

If you have any qualms that a reference will be unprofessional, choose someone else to represent you. During my time as a college career counselor, I heard many horror stories from candidates who lost out on job offers because of information that was shared by their references. For instance, one professor talked about how pretty and vibrant a student was, but failed to mention that she was one of the best accounting students in the department. Another faculty member said, “Joan is so organized that you’d never guess she is a single mom of four kids” (and of course, she didn’t get the job because they were worried she might be unreliable).

Help them to be prepared. Make sure your references have a copy of your resume, and keep them updated about your job search. That way, if a recruiter calls them for a reference check, they will be prepared and will be more effective at answering the recruiter’s questions about you.

Make it easy for the recruiter. In addition to giving the reference's contact information, it’s a good idea to also list HOW the reference knows you. So, a sample entry on your reference sheet might look like this:

Dr. Joan Henry, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology
University of the Midwest
3300 West Cornwall Avenue
Chicago, IL 12345
Phone: (972) 466-3311 ext. 2519
* Dr. Henry supervised my thesis project and served as my academic advisor.

One final tip: remember that if someone agrees to serve as a reference for you, they are doing you a favor! Nobody is obligated to serve as a reference. Be sure to thank them for their help in your job search.

To help you get started, take a look at this sample reference list. You can view the sample reference page at this link.

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Sample Reference Page

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