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How To Get A Kickass Reference For The Job Of Your Dreams

At the ripe old age of 26, between college, fellowships, job hunts and grad school, I’ve spent a lot of time asking people to be my references — which, as someone with a ridiculous case of impostor syndrome, is always accompanied by a lot of anxiety. Does this person actually like me?? Are they actually going to say nice things?? Am I just creating a ton of extra work for them???

That being said, I’ve also had the chance to be a supervisor to several people, which has put me on the other end — of being the reference. Between the two, there’s a lot I’ve learned about how to get the references you need for the job (or grad school, or fellowship) of your dreams. Here (in some particular order) are the biggest things I’ve learned.

Choose your references well. In the hiring process, I’ve seen some pretty interesting people listed as references, from college RAs (no) to friends (absolutely no). Here’s the thing. The best references are always, always going to be the people who know you best and can speak, objectively, to your professional strong points — and weaknesses! That means your parents — even if you’ve worked for them — are out. (They love you! They want you to have a job! This makes it highly unlikely they’ll be able to provide a totally objective perspective.) Your college RA might be able to let me know you always respected post-10 PM quiet hours, but that doesn’t tell me much about the strengths you’ll bring to the job. Especially when you’re starting out, asking professors or TAs is usually a good bet — many jobs require great research and writing skills.

Famous people are not better than people who know you well. During every hiring cycle, there’s always someone who lists like, a senator or a minor reality TV star as a reference, and on the occasional times I’ve actually made the call, it turns out they’re a family friend of the applicant’s parents or some other equally vague connection. I’m probably not going to be impressed into giving you a job because your parents are friends with a Kennedy (an actual listed reference I once had the pleasure of calling), unless said famous person can actually speak to your strengths as a future employee. People who know you well/will sing your praises > famous person who last saw you as a ten-year-old.

Your references will probably change depending on the job you’re applying for. Your references should be people who can speak to the skillset required for the job you’re applying for. That means you’ll probably have different references when applying for an au pair position than you might for a PR job — listing the mom of someone you babysat probably works for #1, but wouldn’t work for #2. Make sure your references can speak well to the qualifications in the job listing, not just that they’ll say nice things about you in general!

Think twice before asking co-workers: This is probably going to be the most controversial point on this list, but IMO, unless you’re specifically asked to provide a co-worker reference, don’t. As well as your co-workers probably know you, they’re generally not the ones supervising you, or giving feedback on your work. They might be able to vouch for you as a good colleague and a team player, but if they can’t speak to your specific strengths and weaknesses as an employee, there’s a limit to how helpful they’ll be. There are exceptions — for instance, if you’re keeping your job search on the DL and can’t let your boss know, having a co-worker listed is better than nothing. But by and large, again, unless your co-workers have actually supervised your work, they’re not going to be the best references.

ALWAYS ASK. Probably one of the worst things you can do is list someone without asking — or at least giving them a heads-up — first. I’ve had occasions where I’ll call a reference (usually a college professor) and that professor basically says “who?” Even if you’ve listed someone for a reference before, it’s always helpful to give them a heads up when you’re applying for a new position, particularly so you can update them on everything you’ve done in the meantime!

Most of the time, people are delighted to say nice things about you. I’m one of those people who generally always worries about asking for references, even with people I feel I have positive relationships with, because I’m so deeply afraid it feels like I’m imposing on their time, or they secretly dislike me, or even just don’t want to move themselves to put in effort on my behalf. And guess what? Every single time, the people I’ve asked for references have been delighted. And coming at it from the other side, I’m always pretty touched when someone asks me to be theirs — being asked is as much a vote of confidence in your recommenders as vice versa, and for the most part, people are always happy to go out of their way to help a younger person they’ve got a relationship with.

…but sometimes they’re not, so listen really carefully to their response. A great reference will always be enthusiastic and excited to vouch for you. If you sense hesitation, reluctance, or anything along the lines of, “Okay, but wouldn’t XX be a better person to ask?” think twice. It’s never easy to tell someone you can’t vouch for them professionally, but it happens. And there’s pretty much nothing worse for your job prospects than a reference who describes you as “meh” (also true story). And often, it’s in no way personal — the only time I had to decline to be a reference was for a former intern who I really liked as a person, and was deeply committed to social justice work, but who’d had some struggles with her writing skills. After we talked, she decided that the writing-intensive jobs she was applying for weren’t really what she wanted to do, and ended up getting a fantastic community organizing position (which I was extremely happy to endorse her for). So even if someone declines to be your reference, it’s always worth having a conversation with them about what you might be able to do differently — the answers may surprise you!

Prep your references well. The easier you make your reference’s job, the better your recommendation is going to be. When you send out your initial ask for a reference, offer to provide (at a minimum) the job description, your resume, and cover letter. Ask them what their preferred method of contact is (email? are calls okay?) and note that on your reference list. Always ask if there’s any other information you can provide them, and be responsive! Sending someone prep materials is only helpful if you also give them enough time to go through it (aka not the night before).

Annotate the job description. While giving your recommender your resume/ cover letter is great, something I’ve found particularly helpful actually came from a former intern, when she sent me a copy of the job description she was applying for, and then annotated it with a line or two for each qualification listed with something she’d done while working with me that demonstrated those skills. This was INCREDIBLY helpful because, for one, it gave me a sense of what was most helpful to emphasize when recommending her, but also, it really refreshed my memory of a lot of the little things she’d done well.

Don’t abuse the favor. Always remember your recommenders are going out of their way to do you a favor, and while many recommenders are happy to put in the effort, the more you do to be respectful of their time, the better. Always make sure you provide them with enough advance notice, and give them a rough idea of the number of calls they can expect to get. For instance, late spring and summer are often the busiest times for professors between exam season and prepping for the new school year. If your job search coincides with a particularly busy time for your references, make sure you let them know well in advance so they can make sure to make time for you with everything else you have going on.

Keep in touch with old recommenders. As an entry-level person starting out, some of your best references are always going to be the people who taught you in college — from professors to TAs — but the farther you get from college, the less likely it is you’ll stay in touch with them without some serious effort from your end. It’s always, always worth it to send your recommenders, past and present, regular updates (we’re talking like yearly or every six months) so they have a sense of what’s going on in your life and what your future plans are. The older I’ve gotten, the more both my former professors and my former interns have become friends, and that’s just a really nice plus point in addition to everyone’s reference related needs.

Send thank yous, regardless of the outcome. This applies whether you get the job or not, but your recommenders are investing time and effort on your behalf. Some expression of gratitude — even just a thank-you card — goes a long way, both because sending thank you notes is something every ~adult~ should be doing, but also because karma is a good thing, and being nice to the people who are nice to you can only do great things for your future — regardless of the outcome of one search in particular.

Meghan Koushik is a cheese enthusiast and law student in California. You can find her on Instagram.

Image via Unsplash

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  • Nom

    One of the best articles i’ve seen on TFD! So helpful… some of these lessons i have learned the hard way (i.e. check with your references even if you have used them before.

    One thing i would add about using co-workers: I have been in a situation where I had a terrible, narcissistic boss who would have been a terrible reference. Unfortunately this was my first job so i definitely had to have a reference from there. I listed a coworker but she was someone who had a higher title than me and had also had managed me on certain assignments, so she was able to speak to my responsiveness to feedback, quality of work with little direction, etc. If you are stuck not using your boss, think about people who have overseen your work in other ways.

    • meghan

      thanks for reading! totally agree– having an unfriendly/nasty boss is such a problem when it comes to references, but sounds like you handled it perfectly!

  • anon 5

    Meghan, your articles are always so good. I selfishly wish you weren’t so busy with law school so I could read more of these. Lol.

    This is advice is actually implementable.

    • meghan

      awww thank you! i know, i miss writing for TFD more regularly but law school has taken over my free time HARD (even over summer). thanks for reading & commenting as always!!

    • Holly Trantham

      Good news, we have other posts from Meghan coming soon! 🙂