How to Get Good References

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  • References provide potential employers with insights into your character and experience.
  • Managers, colleagues, mentors, and professors can be excellent references.
  • Avoid listing references who you have not worked with closely.

Many jobs and internships require that applicants provide several references, especially during later stages of the hiring process. According to a survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, eight out of 10 HR professionals report contacting applicants' references during the hiring process.

Students and graduates looking for jobs should build a small collection of potential references who can attest to their skills, professionalism, and character. It is important for college students and recent graduates to make the most of existing networks to help their applications stand out. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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Why Do I Need References?

In a competitive job market, recruiters and hiring managers must sift through large volumes of resumes and cover letters. As the market shifts to include more remote positions and fewer job-seekers are strictly tethered to their geographic locations, graduates looking for jobs must now compete with a larger pool of applicants.

Providing potential employers with good references creates a more holistic narrative of who you are and why you are an employable candidate. By contacting references, potential employers will hear others describe your leadership abilities, communication skills, integrity, and field-specific competencies.

For this reason, it is important not to fabricate information on your resume or cover letter. Any inconsistencies between application materials and references' reports might undermine your credibility and ultimately hurt your chances of being hired.

Who Should I Use as a Reference?

Managers, co-workers, advisors, and professors can all make excellent references. Although it might be tempting to select work references based on the prestige of their positions, applicants should prioritize the likely quality of their recommender's insights over their job title. Potential employers will often be able to tell if a reference does not know you very well.

The best references have solid communication skills and the industry knowledge to assess how your abilities make you a good fit for the desired position.

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It's also important to assess which contacts will represent your abilities and character appropriately. The best references have solid communication skills and the industry knowledge to assess how your abilities make you a good fit for the desired position.


Managers and direct supervisors can provide valuable insights about your performance as an employee. However, don't choose your manager or former managers if you are unsure whether they will discuss your work positively. Try to choose supervisors who have witnessed your professional growth and will recommend you enthusiastically.

Try to have one manager in your reference list. Including two managers from different employers is a good idea if you have had several previous jobs.


Co-workers are often the most intimately acquainted with applicants' work style, experience, and character. Co-workers can also be good references if you don't want to let your boss know that you've started looking for another job.


New graduates and current students, especially those without significant work experience, may list professors as references. Professors frequently act as academic and career advisors and may have insight into your work ethic and career aspirations. Professors can identify and endorse transferable skills that you have demonstrated as a student.

Mentors, Coaches, and Community Leaders

Some students are fortunate enough to connect with experienced professionals who guide them in the early stages of their careers. Other students may have taken on work-like roles in community service groups, clubs, and volunteer organizations.

Were you involved in student government, religious youth groups, fundraising teams, or other activities that involved transferable skills? Coaches, volunteer supervisors, and other extracurricular leaders that know you well may be able to speak to your dedication, punctuality, perseverance, organization, or other soft skills.

How to Ask for a Reference

For some students, asking for a reference may seem daunting. However, asking for references is a normal part of professional life, and the people you ask will likely be happy to help!

Ask all potential references for permission before listing them as references. Also ask them which contact information you should list when submitting their name. Depending on your relationship with the individual, it may be appropriate to reach out by phone, email, or in person.

If you're unsure of the best way to ask, you can't go wrong with email correspondence. Using email also allows you to send resumes, cover letters, and job descriptions that may help recommenders understand how your past experience and skills align with your desired role.

Let your references know the kinds of positions you are applying for so they are prepared to talk about relevant skills. If you are planning on applying to multiple jobs over a longer time frame, let them know your plan and ask them if they would prefer knowing each specific time you list them as a reference.

Which Type of Reference Do I Need?

Professional References

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Professional references include current and former co-workers, managers, and volunteer supervisors. One of the practical benefits of pursuing internships and other career-building programs is the ability to meet professionals who can provide work references as you advance to other opportunities.

The ideal reference will have observed you in roles that correspond directly with your desired position. Though many college students lack work experience in their fields, references from seemingly unrelated roles can still attest to your soft skills and workplace capabilities.

Academic References

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Some students build close relationships with instructors, deans, and academic advisors during their time in college. Academic professionals can be excellent contacts for students without a great deal of work experience. These references can be especially valuable if they have overseen your academic development in a discipline related to your desired position.

Character or Personal References

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Budding professionals can build meaningful networks in a variety of ways. Applicants can list mentors, community leaders, coaches, club leaders, or clients as references. Avoid listing friends or family members, however.

How Do I Use References?

During the application process, you do not need to include references on your resume unless the employer requests them. You may have to submit references when first applying for a job, but it is more common to need references when you have proceeded further in the hiring process, such as after an initial interview.

Your reference list should include each contact's name, job title, organization or school, phone number, email address, and a brief phrase indicating their relationship with you.

Typically, potential employers will contact your references for a brief conversation and your references will not need to write recommendation letters in advance. However, make sure to read all instructions for each individual position you're applying to since requirements vary considerably from role to role.

Frequently Asked Questions About Job References

Who should not be a job reference?

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Don't list friends or family members as job references, as this is seen as unprofessional. Also avoid using references who haven't worked with you closely or who may not speak positively about your performance.

Can a former employer give you a bad reference?

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References are under no obligation to give positive feedback, so it's important to select work references carefully! When listing references, applicants should only include supervisors who have reviewed their work favorably.

Do employers call all of your references?

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Every company has a different approach, but many take checking applicants' backgrounds very seriously. Some companies may only call references at the final stage of the hiring process, saving this time-consuming task for their top applicants. Even so, you should assume that companies will contact all references listed.

What do you do if you don't have three references?

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If you don't have three work-related references, think about your academic, extracurricular, or community service experience. Do you have a professor, advisor, volunteer supervisor, coach, or club leader you could ask? You may want to contact your school's career center to help you figure out who to list and put you in touch with faculty and alumni in your desired field.

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