Do’s and don’ts for securing job references

From who to ask to what to avoid, a career professional provides her best tips for preparing a list of references for your job hunt.


You’ve updated your resume, polished your LinkedIn page, and rehearsed interviews in your head — but have you prepared a list of people who will serve as your professional references? Job references are a crucial part of your job search — they can speak to your skills, what you’re like to work with, and can even tee you up to negotiate a higher salary when you do get an offer.

The truth is that those who speak on your behalf could make or break a prospective employer’s decision. Senior Associate Director of Career and Professional Development at Indiana University, Erin Erwin, shares the most professional and productive way to gain references.

OMW: Who are the best people to request references from?

Erwin: A strong reference is going to come from someone who has worked with you and with whom you’ve had a professional relationship — this could be someone from your internship, a volunteer role, or even an educational environment. For college students, the educational route is still considered a professional setting — think professor, faculty mentor, or academic advisor.

OMW: What if your network of professionals is small? Who can be a last resort reference?

Erwin: I hope that students today know that it’s not enough to just go to school. It’s really important that you are establishing relationships so that you have professional references. If you work a part-time job and don’t have time to be involved on campus or participate in internships, your supervisor or colleagues can certainly act as references.

OMW: Is it frowned upon to use references from high school?

Erwin: As a freshman or a sophomore, I would say you could still get away with a high school reference or even having high school experiences on your resume. But by the time you’re a junior and senior in college, that high school experience is starting to feel pretty distant.


OMW: When is the best time to ask for a reference?

Erwin: Prepare ahead of time. When you’re writing your resume and preparing to apply for a position, you should also be preparing your references. You never want your reference to be surprised by a phone call from an employer.

But before you even need a professional reference for a job, you could ask your contact to write a brief LinkedIn recommendation for you. This can be a good first step to gauge how comfortable they are speaking to your skills, and a way to touch base as you begin interviewing.

OMW: What is the best way to ask an individual to be a reference?

Erwin: A script or a phrase that students can use is: “Would you be able to offer me a positive recommendation if I listed you as a reference on my resume?” This allows the person to say “no,” if they don’t think they can give you a strong reference.

OMW: How should you contact your references?

Erwin: I personally prefer an email first and then a follow up phone call to discuss the reference request further.

OMW: What should you provide your references with?

Erwin: You need to provide a copy of your resume. This helps refresh their memory about all the good work you’ve done. You also want to provide them with a copy of the position’s description. You might even share with them why you think you’re a good match for the job.

OMW: How many references should a person have?

Erwin: Having three to five solid references should be the goal.