Job Applications 101: Choosing the Best References (French version available)
When applying for jobs, providing high-quality references is a valuable skill that can set you apart from other candidates and help you secure the role. It is as essential to the job search process as writing resumes, sending cover letters, and attending interviews. Even universities and colleges will sometimes request a letter of reference, especially if you’re interested in a highly specialized program.
But how do you know who to ask (or how to ask them)? This article reviews some strategies for identifying potential references and avoiding common mistakes.
- Consider the Focus: Personal, Professional, or Academic
It’s essential to pick the best reference for the opportunity at hand. The first step is to think about which type of reference makes the most sense in your situation.
Most of the time, a hiring manager will ask for professional references. In this case, you would ask someone you know from past work experience, such as a former manager, to provide a reference.
However, if you didn’t have a great relationship with your last manager or don’t have much work experience, you may submit personal references instead. You could ask a coach, camp counsellor, landlord, or mentor to provide you with a statement that speaks to your good moral character and a few key strengths. These references may seem less intimidating, but the trade-off is that the person you choose may not be able to speak directly about your performance as an employee.
For students, academic references are another option. You could ask a teacher or professor to write you a positive reference. Since they’ve supervised and evaluated you as a student, they can likely comment on your work ethic and general abilities. If you’ve done well in a particular class, you might consider asking that teacher for a reference.
- Find Supervisors and Mentors, Not Family or Friends
You should not use references from family members or friends for a job application. There are some exceptions to this rule – for example, if you’ve worked for a family business, it would be okay to provide a reference from whoever supervised you most closely, even if they’re a relative. But most of the time, references should come from people who have connected with you in the community through work, volunteering, or extra-curricular activities. Even “personal” references should come from people who know you in a more official capacity, such as a landlord or a coach.
- Pick Someone Who Knows You Well
Remember that a good reference comes from someone who has a lot of positive things to say about you and your achievements. They should know you well enough to answer specific questions about you and elaborate on your past experiences (whether paid or unpaid). You need to pick someone who can provide specific examples to support your job application and verify the qualifications you’ve listed on your resume. If you’ve never spoken to this person one-on-one, they’re probably not a great choice.
Always Ask Permission & Give Them Options
Once you’ve identified the people you want to ask for a reference, you must reach out and ask for permission. This is an essential point: you must always ask each person for permission before listing them as a reference. Even if they’ve agreed to write you a reference for past job applications, you should ask again before beginning your next job search.
It’s also polite to give them an easy way to decline your request. You don’t want to make them feel pressured or put on the spot. Some recommended phrasings include:
- Would you feel comfortable providing me with a reference at this time?
- Do you feel like you know me well enough to write a detailed reference?
- Do you have enough availability to provide me with a reference?
If you haven’t spoken to them in a while, it’s a good idea to write a brief email that outlines your relationship with them and what you’ve been up to since you last connected. For example, what jobs have you held since then? What have you achieved? In addition to reminding them of your qualifications, this prompting gives them material they can use to draft the reference.
Alberta Alis. (n.d.). “How to Choose the Best Job References.” https://alis.alberta.ca/look-for-work/resumes-and-references/how-to-choose-the-best-job-references/.
Huhman, H. (2015, January 29th). “5 Tips to Choose Your Best Job Reference.” Glassdoor. https://www.glassdoor.com/blog/5-tips-choose-job-reference/.