With many job searches in full-swing and students working on graduate school applications, many questions about references are popping up in our office. Every situation is different so make sure to look into the specifics, but there are plenty of general rules when it comes to references.
No matter the details, there is certain information you should know as you embark on narrowing down who should serve as your reference and the process for communicating with them. Here’s my advice for these frequently asked questions:
“Who should I ask as references?”
Depending on how many close connections you’ve made with faculty, supervisors, advisors, coaches, etc. the answer could be different here. You obviously want to select people who know you well and can speak to your skills, abilities, and personality. If you can target people who would speak about your skills and experiences that are relevant to the job or graduate school discipline, that is most helpful.
Your references don’t all have to be professors and just the same they don’t only have to be supervisors or colleagues from internships or jobs. It’s nice to have a mix of references who have known you through a variety of experiences as they’ll each be able to share a unique perspective on you as a candidate. Take time to think about people who know you well and have had firsthand experience with you to speak about your skills.
“How do I ask them?”
First off, you should always ask your references if they would be comfortable recommending you – never assume. If it’s someone that you see frequently, like a professor, you can ask in person, but if not then email is just fine. Reach out and let them know what you’re applying to and ask if they would be comfortable serving as a reference for you. This gives them an easy way to say no if they don’t feel like they know you well enough, or if they might not be able to provide a positive reference.
Then, you’ll want to give them the details. If you’re able to tell them about the specific graduate school programs or jobs/internships you’re applying for they’ll have a better idea of what to highlight when speaking about your candidacy. It’s also nice to share your email with references so they have a better idea of your overall experience since they most likely know you from one area whether it’s class, an internship setting, etc.
If you’re starting a search and will be applying to many jobs/internships – it would be overwhelming to send them a position description for each application. In this case, let them know the general types of opportunities that you’re seeking. Usually for jobs they’ll be called or asked to fill out an online form where they’ll be prompted about you vs. grad school letters of recommendation where the writer is structuring their own reference.
Also, don’t forget to keep in touch! If you advance to a final round interview, let your references know. Usually for jobs/internships this is the point where an organization might contact your references and they’ll have a heads up. Let them know when you land a job/internship or get those grad school acceptance letters – references also tend to be some of your biggest supporters!
“Is there a certain number of references I need?”
Usually an application asking for references will ask for a specific number and that tends to be 2-5. For jobs/internships where you’re applying to a higher volume of places than grad school, common practice is to usually have three references on hand that you can use for applications. Some may ask for more and you’ll have to go back to the drawing board to think of additional references.
“Do I need them to write me letters?”
You’ll see letters being asked for more in graduate school application processes than for jobs or internships. The application should provide you information if they have a prompt for your references to follow and it will also let you know how they should be submitted. Some programs may have you submit a letter with your packet of application materials while others may have a system where you submit names and contact information, and your references receive a link to a form to fill out.
When it comes to jobs and internships, organizations may just ask for a list of names and contact information as you advance to final interview rounds, while others may have a portion of their online application where you share reference information. It’s less common to actually need letters of reference in this area, but it is possible – in that case the application should provide you with specific details.
Best of luck as you move forward securing references, and as always connect with Career Services if you have additional questions. Our drop-in hours are 2 – 4 p.m. Monday – Friday in both THC 306 and Q273 where we have advisors on-call for quick questions, no appointments needed!