The In’s and Out’s of References

Once you have applied and received your call for an interview, it is time to start thinking about references (hopefully you’ll have thought about this before). An employer who is considering your candidature for a particular position will want to know more about you by contacting your references.  Checking references is typically the final step before an employer makes an offer and it is one that is most crucial and requires careful planning on your part.

Characteristics of a good reference:

  • Willing to give a strong, positive and favourable evaluation of you (ASK FIRST)
  • Has a keen interest in you and your career aspirations
  • Familiar with your work habits, personal qualities, skills and over all potential
  • Able to give detailed and accurate responses to questions about you as a candidate
  • Well-respected in their field or in the local community

Approaching a Potential Reference – WHO TO ASK?

Desirable people to ask:

  • Former supervisors from previous positions. they can communicate your work habits, skills, accomplishments and professionalism.
  • Professors. They can communicate your knowledge in the field of study as well as the quality of your work.
  • Community members/leaders (who may have met you during volunteer work).
  • Coaches and student organization advisors.

People to avoid asking:

  • Friends
  • Family
  • People who do not know you well or have seen you work or not willing to give you a favourable reference

GOAL: Secure at least 5 references

  • Most employers will ask for 2-3 references, but depending on the company, it may be more.
  • Be strategic and have diversity with your references, they should all know you well, but have seen you in different roles/situations.


Get an early start on identifying a list of potential references. You have roughly 5-10 persons on your list to contact (not everyone will be willing or respond to you). Remember, people are busy, so the more notice you can give them, the better.

Be persistent in your follow-ups.

Steps to cover when asking for references

  1. Get their permission.
  2. Give them plenty of advance notice, a few weeks is preferable (or at the time of applying).
  3. If possible, arrange for an in-person or telephone call to share your immediate and long-range goals.
  4. Brief them on your background and types of jobs you are seeking.
  5. Provide them with your most recent resume ensuring that it highlights your specific accomplishments and experiences.
  6. Send a follow-up thank you note.
  7. When possible, give references advance warning when you know employers will be contacting them.
  8. Keep them informed of the specific positions you are seeking and notify them when you accept a position.