Career & Internship Services

Career Handbook

References: The Importance of

Whether you are job hunting or applying to graduate or professional school, gathering references is a very important part of the process. Deciding whom to ask and then asking them can be difficult. To make it easier, plan ahead. Develop and cultivate positive relationships with those who may later serve as references for you.

  • Choose your references carefully. References should come from people who know you well from an academic, volunteer or work setting, think highly of you and can provide specific comments rather than vague generalizations. Identify candidates from among people you know such as professors, employers, supervisors, advisors, customers, or business associates. Letters of recommendation are best if written by people who have excellent written communication skills. The positions or notoriety of people are less important than what they have to say about you and how well they say it.
  • To decide who to ask to be your references, think of your audience. If you are applying for employment, generally work references are best. If you are applying to graduate school, faculty references usually carry more weight.
  • Ask in advance and ask for permission to use people as references. Ask people if they are willing to serve as positive references for you. Give them time to write letters; do not ask at the last minute. Provide them with information regarding the type of position or graduate program and application process and ask if they can meet the deadlines.
  • Ask your references what information they need from you. You may want to supply them with a copy of your resume and/or personal statement, a copy of your transcript, a list of courses you have taken from them, a list of contacts you have had with them, copies of research papers you have written and/or a list of skills you possess that you would like them to highlight. Information about the programs or employers to which you are applying may help them provide more effective recommendations. The more information you give them, the more detailed and thorough they can be.
  • Provide your references with recommendation forms, if required. Include envelopes that you have stamped and addressed to the program or employer to help ensure that the letters will reach the appropriate destination.
  • If you do not plan to apply for further education at this time, you may want to collect letters of recommendation and keep them for use later. When you need the references, you can supply the people a copy of what they had written, perhaps years earlier, to help them remember you and remind them of specific details.
  • When applying for employment, you will usually be asked to supply a list of references. The list includes names, titles, professional street and e-mail addresses and telephone numbers of people who have agreed to serve as your references (see example). If you are asked to submit written letters of recommendation, you may either provide copies of general letters of recommendation, which you already have, or request that each of your references write a letter directed specifically to the employer. Three references is usually the standard request, but you may supply up to five. Providing any more than five may suggest to an employer that you are insecure, trying to get as many people as possible to say good things about you, or that you are unorganized and unable to prioritize.
  • If you are not specifically asked to submit written letters of recommendation, you may still want to include copies of ones you already have, particularly if they are especially positive and strong.
  • When applying to graduate or professional school, the programs will usually provide their own reference forms or will provide specific instructions about the type of people from whom they want references and about what they want them to write. The number and type of references depends on the individual school or program, so be sure you clearly understand the requirements. Some programs may ask you to indicate whether you wish to waive the right to see the recommendation. Waiving the right to see a letter may increase its validity.
  • Finally, write each of your references to thank them for their time and let them know you appreciate their efforts. Keep them informed of your activities.