5 Things Every Job Seeker Should Know About References and Recommendations

1. Why References and Recommendations Matter

Excellent references and recommendations can mean the difference between getting a job offer and receiving a rejection letter. In today’s competitive job market, it’s important to have reliable references lined up (and potential recommenders in mind) as soon as you start hunting for a new position.

For entry-level positions, it can be helpful for a hiring manager to hear that a job-seeker is enthusiastic, willing to learn, and prepared for a full-time role in the field. For higher-level positions, a recommendation focusing on a specific technical skill may distinguish you from the competition.

References often fall into three main categories:

  • A supervisor or hiring manager at a previous employer, who can verify your dates of employment and job position with that employer. 
  • Mentors, professors or long-time coworkers who can speak to your work ethic, reliability, and knowledge. References like these are important for conveying that you’re a valuable, hard-working employee.
  • Character references, who are people that know you on a strictly personal basis. They might not know much about your profession, but they can testify to your honesty, your patience, and other personality traits.

Recommendations, meanwhile, are more involved. Because many high-level academic programs require them, it’s crucial to foster relationships with professors, 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 has worked with you over several years in a professional or academic capacity. The letter may touch on your strengths as a worker, your personal development over the past few years, or even your character traits, as reflected in your work.

Building others up is rewarding in and of itself and will help you create a network of peers who are eager to do the same for you.

2. How to Stay Connected with Your References

Investing in your network and being supportive of both your peers and your mentors will help you build a strong community around your profession. For example, email a past coworker with congratulations if you hear they’ve won an award or honor in their field. Consider “Liking” something they posted on LinkedIn or emailing them with a link to a professional article you think they’ll enjoy. Building others up is rewarding in and of itself and will help you create a network of peers who are eager to do the same for you.

If your reference helped you get a job, send them a thank-you note right away. A few months into the position, send them a quick check-in email, letting them know how you’re settling into your new job. Or, if you got a promotion, send them a quick note telling them that you’ve appreciated their support along the way and that you’re moving up the ladder.

3. Tips for Asking for a Reference

As soon as you decide to apply for new jobs, consider who you’ll ask for a reference. Think about the people in your network who’ve offered you praise and recognition in the past. These should be connections who have provided helpful advice, and who have otherwise demonstrated that they care about your success. In short, they are the people who are most likely to speak positively about you to a prospective employer.

It’s imperative to ask someone to be a reference before listing them on a job application. When asking for a reference, consider taking the following steps to ensure you and your reference are on the same page:

  • Reach out via phone or email, and quickly let them know what you’ve been up to lately and that you’re now looking for a job.
  • Give them some details on the types of jobs you’re applying to (or if it’s one specific job, let them know the company) so they have a clear sense of your goals.
  • Mention a couple of reasons why they came to mind as a reference. Perhaps they helped you with your project management skills, or you think they can speak to how you’re a team player.
  • Then, make your ask: Would you be willing to be a reference for me for this position or others like it?

If they agree, congrats! You’re one step closer to your dream job. Now that they’ve decided to be a reference, check in with them about the following:

  • Ask for their most up-to-date email, phone number, address and job title.
  • Ask if they would like to see a copy of your resume, so they have the most accurate information about you and your work history.
  • Offer 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 to know how they can help improve your chances of landing the job.
  • Thank them and let them know how much you appreciate their support.

If your prospective reference declines, maintain professionalism, and thank them for their time. It might be disappointing, but it’s better that were honest with you rather than agreeing to be a reference and speaking negatively about you to your potential employer.

Got a good reference? Create a resume that speaks just as highly of you

Your persona on the web isn’t just a footnote in your resume; it’s part of your professional image

4. How to Ask for a Recommendation Letter

If you are requesting a recommendation letter from someone, it’s common courtesy to ask for the letter two weeks or more before your deadline. When you ask for a letter of recommendation, you should also:

  • Update them on what role and organization you’re applying to and why you’re excited about the program or position.
  • Let them know what you’ve been doing recently, especially if you’ve received any special recognitions or achievements.
  • Mention why you are asking them for the reference. Did they see your personal growth over the course of a job? Did they mentor you during your senior thesis? Did you work on a project together?
  • Let them know the deadline for submitting the recommendation in your initial email or phone call.
  • Thank them in advance and let them know you appreciate their help.

If they agree to write a letter, you should follow up by sending them:

  • Any instructions they will need to email, upload or mail in your letter, including addresses and a stamped envelope, if necessary.
  • Your resume, so they have your current information.
  • Any other information they ask for, which might include background on why you’re applying to the program or what makes you a qualified candidate.
  • A couple of relevant anecdotes about your academic or professional experience that you think are relevant to your application. As with a reference, you shouldn’t over-coach them, but they will likely be grateful for these reminders.
  • The due date and any other essential information or updates, like if your last name changed because you got married.
  • A reminder that they should keep a copy of the letter for their files (you might not get to see it), in case it gets lost or anything happens to the letter.

Soon after the due date, check with the company or organization you are applying to and make sure your letter arrived.

5. Remember: Your Online Presence Is Its Own Reference

Your persona on the web isn’t just a footnote in your resume; it’s part of your professional image – and one that employers are likely to investigate at some point in the interview process.

Create a LinkedIn profile if you don’t already have one and include your work history, project samples and a professional headshot. Connect with former professors, colleagues, supervisors, classmates and peers. You might also want to join groups on LinkedIn, like professional groups related to your field or your alumni association. Increasing your presence on LinkedIn will magnify the amount of professional info a prospective employer will find when Googling your name.

Check your privacy settings on your social media accounts and delete any unflattering pictures or posts. If, for example, you only use Facebook to connect with family and friends (and not for professional purposes, as is now expected in some creative fields), consider adjusting your privacy settings to limit what a potential employer can see. The same goes for other social media channels, like Instagram and Twitter. If you use social media outlets for work purposes, keeping those outlets public and professional can show your range of influence and connections in the field.