The Riley Guide: Resumes & Cover Letters
Experience and skills may catch an employer's eye, but solid references and recommendations are what really seal the deal. Even for entry-level jobs, most employers will at least check out your references – according to the 2004 Reference and Background Checking Survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 96% of all organizations conduct some kind of background or reference check on prospective hires. And for higher-level positions – a particularly glowing recommendation may be all that distinguishes you from the competition.
But who should you choose for your references and recommendations? How much should you prepare them? What should you ask them to say about you? Read on to find out these answers to these questions, as well as a lot more about the process of working with references and recommendations.
The difference basically boils down to this: References tend to cover the basics, while recommendations tend to be much more in-depth. You'll need at least one reference for just about any job application you submit – and many employers require three. On the other hand, you're less likely to need a recommendation for a job application – unless the position is very high-ranking or otherwise unusual – but you'll use recommendations when applying for many academic programs, particularly at the graduate and postgraduate levels.
References fall into three main categories:
- People like the hiring manager at a previous employer, who can verify your dates of employment and job position with that employer. Some employers prohibit employees from passing along more details than these, so a reference like this is mainly useful for confirming that you held an impressive position.
- People who've worked closely with you for a long time, who can discuss your work habits, your reliability and similar factors. References like these are important for conveying that you're a valuable, hard-working employee.
- People who know you on a strictly personal basis – also known as "character references." These can be people who don't know anything about your workplace persona, but can testify about your honesty, your patience and other personality traits.
It's up to you to choose which of these types to include on your resume, as each one has its own advantages and disadvantages. Some career coaches recommend including one of each type, while others recommend focusing on surface-level references from several significant employers. Your own choices will depend on the level of the position for which you're applying, and which aspects of yourself you want to convey to prospective employers.
Recommendations, meanwhile, can be much trickier to come by – but many high-level academic programs do require them, which is why it's crucial to foster relationships with bosses and company higher-ups who may be able to give you an impressive recommendation someday. In other words, the credentials of the person who writes the recommendation are as crucial as what the recommendation has to say.
A letter of recommendation should come from someone who's worked with you relatively closely over a period of years – for example, an academic advisor or an immediate supervisor. The letter may touch on your strengths as a worker, your personal development over the past few years, and even your character traits as reflected in your work. You often won't get the opportunity to review a letter of recommendation, but some people may give you a chance to read it over.
Managing your references boils down to two main tasks: First, choosing the right people; and second, making sure they'll speak about you in positive terms. These two tasks go hand-in-hand, as this section will explain.
The first task is the simpler of the two. If you're looking for references to offer surface-level verification of employment, you don't have much to worry about, as long as your departure from the company wasn't an utter disaster. On the other hand, if you're looking for references who'll be willing to discuss your work habits and personal character, think about the people in your network who've offered you praise and recognition in the past, who've provided helpful advice, and who've otherwise demonstrated that they care about your success. These are the people who are most likely to speak positively about you to a prospective employer.
Before you list a person as a reference, it's common courtesy to call and make sure you have their permission. You may even want to spend a few minutes running over the basics of the job for which you're applying, and offering a little insight into which of your traits and habits you're aiming to emphasize. It can be counterproductive to over-coach a reference, obviously – but as long as you stick to basics, many will be happy how they can help improve your chances of landing the job.
Far more important than any of this, though, is the principle of maintaining active relationships with the people you plan to use as references. These don't necessarily have to be deep personal friendships – but the simple truth is, people who genuinely like you are far more likely to give genuinely positive descriptions of you. So offer your own help when you can. Make a habit of taking people to lunch or coffee – or at least inviting them to eat lunch with you. Call or email them to check in on important projects, and let them know you support them. A few kind gestures like these will go a long way.
Your persona on the Internet isn't just a footnote in your resume – it's a crucial part of your professional image, and one that employers are very likely to investigate at some point in the interview process. One recent study by executive search firm ExecuNet found that 77 percent of recruiters check out how their candidates behave online; and that 35 percent of those recruiters have rejected applicants because of online posts, photos and profile info. In other words, work life and personal life aren't as separate as they used to be – unless you take some decisive steps to keep them that way.
First off, take a look at your basic Facebook privacy settings. You may want to prevent anyone who isn't a friend (or a friend of a friend) from viewing your profile and posts – or you may want to make some posts public but share others with only a select group of people. Facebook provides easy-to-change settings for both these options, and even allows you to change the privacy settings of posts you've already shared. Whatever privacy settings you choose, make sure your profile photo looks professional, and that your basic profile info is accurate and appropriate.
If you use any other social networking websites, like Twitter or Tumblr, run through the same checks on those sites as well. You might think your name isn't associated with your "anonymous" posts and artwork on certain sites, but it's surprisingly easy for a determined person to track down other accounts associated with your name or email address. Your safest bet is to assume that anything you post publicly can potentially be traced back to you – so guard your online privacy as carefully as you'd guard the privacy of your own home.
The other side of this equation is your positive online reputation. If you haven't created a profile on LinkedIn yet, take a few minutes and fill one out with your photo, resume and project samples. Not only will this add to the professional info a prospective employer will find when Googling your name – it can also help you expand your network and discover even more job opportunities. You can also boost your reputation by creating a professional Twitter account and tweeting links relevant to your field. Profiles like these can help enhance your reputation, and act as effective supplements to your traditional resume.
Unlike references, letters of recommendation should only come from people you've known for a long time – and they take a while to put together, because they're more in-depth. While a reference will mainly focus on your work habits and basic traits, a letter of recommendation essentially makes an argument for your eligibility for a program, based on specific experiences that the letter's writer has had with you. But the ideal writer of a letter of recommendation should know about more than just your behavior – he or she should also know something about the institution to which you're applying, and about the proper way to format a recommendation letter.
Like references, recommendation should be genuinely positive – so be sure you've cultivated a mutually respectful relationship with anyone you ask to write a recommendation letter. Beyond this, it's important to give the writer plenty of time to put the letter together – ideally two weeks or more – and to provide him or her with some well-organized background basics on the institution to which you're applying. Take some time to review your goals and achievements with the writer, and explain why you're intent on getting accepted into this program. You might also want to touch on some anecdotes about you that'd be worth including in the letter – although, as with references, you don't want to over-coach the person who'll be recommending you.
Be sure to provide the writer with an addressed and stamped envelope, along with any forms necessary to ensure that the letter gets processed properly. Remind the writer to save a backup copy of the letter, because there's always a chance that it'll get lost in the shuffle somewhere. And follow up with the institution after a few weeks, to make sure they received the letter and added it to your file.
When someone you know asks you to provide a reference, your first step depends on whether you and that person worked for the same company, and whether you still work there. If so, you'll need to make sure you're up to speed on company policy for discussing former employees. You may be limited to verifying job title and dates of employment, or you may be free to discuss the person in more detail. In this case, you'll probably want to talk with the person for whom you'll be providing the reference, and make sure you're on the same page about what to discuss.
The person for whom you're serving as a reference may want you to speak kindly about his or her work achievements, about his or her personal character, or some of both categories. If you don't know the person particularly well, it's probably best to stick with hard facts – the speed at which he or she rose through the ranks, the achievements for which he or she is best known, and so on. On the other hand, if you've spent enough time with the person to know something about his or her values and goals, you can offer the interviewer a more complete picture by providing a positive spin on this info.
Writing a letter of recommendation carries its own responsibilities – but even if you've never done it before, you shouldn't have much trouble with the formula. The person who's asked for your recommendation knows that it'll carry weight – so all you've got to do is stick to the script and convey your respect for this person. As long as that respect is genuine, all you've got to do is speak up on behalf of the person, as you would for any friend whose career you care about.
Still, a few simple tactics will help make your letter especially effective. Be specific in your praise, and stay away from overly generic descriptions like "hard worker." Instead, share some anecdotes that demonstrate the person's positive qualities. Compare the person to others in the industry or field, explaining what makes him or her unique. Point out how those qualities make him or her an ideal fit for the program in question. Length isn't a major issue – if your letter runs on for a few pages, that should be fine, as long as it's not unnecessarily wordy. And if you're not sure how well it's worded, don't be shy about asking for constructive criticism from someone you trust.
In an ideal world, you'd have complete confidence that your references will speak warmly about your positive qualities; but sometimes it's not so easy to be sure. This is especially true in cases where you don't have control over who those references are – for example, if you're required to list your most recent employer, and you're still involved in an ongoing dispute with them. When you run into circumstances like these, you can hire a reference-checking service o call the people in question and ask about you, to see for sure what they say.
Companies like References-Etc.com and CheckMyReference.com provide fairly similar reference-checking services. For a fee, they'll run a background check on you, find out firsthand what your references and former employers have to say about you, check on how your credit report looks to people who investigate it, and even look into your driving records. If there's any dirt on you that can be dug up, a company like this is likely to find it, so you can deal with it yourself before someone else discovers it.
SBA.gov Resources on Starting a Business — Huge library of detailed answers on many aspects of launching and running a new business.
Managing Your Refereces — Helpful list of pointers on helping your references work effectively on your behalf.
Fixing a Faulty Social Media Reputation — Tips for cleaning up a problematic online reputation, from short-term fixes to long-term maintenance.