Choose Your References with Care

by Laura Westmoreland

Job applicants have many things to focus on, namely the résumé and cover letter, writing and rewriting them to perfection. When all that word-crafting pays off and those carefully shaped documents lead to an interview, your focus shifts to preparing for potential questions you might be asked in the interview, perhaps even to developing a presentation to share with your prospective employers. These processes are integral to obtaining a position, and all the time and effort devoted to them is certainly well spent.

One thing that tends to fall by the wayside during preparation, however, happens to be one of the most important: references. While most people agree that what your references say to a potential employer has a significant impact on your being hired, choosing references and ensuring they are prepared to provide useful information about you often comes as an afterthought. Investing the same time and effort in selecting references as writing cover letters and résumés and preparing for interviews could be the difference between getting hired and being passed over. There are several important factors to consider when determining who to ask to serve as references, and ways to make sure that doing so is not a burdensome process for these people.


This sounds obvious, and it is safe to say that people generally avoid references who they believe will say flat-out bad things about them. But, it's also easy to incorrectly assume that every supervisor you have ever had will have substantial things to say about you and your experiences. First of all, do they remember you well enough to provide pertinent information to your employers? Did you work closely enough with that person for them to truly know your skills and strengths? And, of course, there is the very painful question that must be asked: are you sure they do, in fact, have a high opinion of you? Although the usual tendency is to select your supervisor and/or former supervisors to serve as references, do not rule out colleagues with whom you have worked closely. A positive, informed reference from a coworker can be just as powerful to a potential employer as a reference from a supervisor who may not be entirely familiar with your skill set and day-to-day work style.


Seek out references who have worked with you in a setting that allows them to speak to how you would perform the job duties specified in the position description. While some skills and traits are transferrable and desired at many types of jobs, your references will be much more effective if they can describe specific skills you have exhibited that are applicable to the job you are seeking. Keep in mind that more often than not, employers will want to hear about your practical skill set, so if you are still a student, consider carefully how well your professors will be able to speak to the specific skills that you would use on the job. If you have completed a library internship or something of that nature, your supervisor and/or coworkers may be more familiar with your practical skills.


Since it is important for your references to be able to speak to the qualifications of the job you are applying for, do not assume that you should use the same references for different positions. If you are applying for jobs that require significantly different skill sets, be sure to consider in each case who can best speak to the qualifications of that particular position.


References basics: always ask people to serve as references prior to listing their names. Your references will probably not be prepared to provide your potential employers with useful information if they are not aware that they may be called upon to do so. Truthfully, they might be a bit annoyed, and you certainly do not want that to be the case when they are speaking to your potential employer.


No matter how closely you work with a person serving as a reference for you, chances are that they are not as intimately familiar with your skills and accomplishments as you are. If your references are willing, take the time to speak with them about how your experiences make you qualified for the job. Offer to provide them the position description, and the cover letter and résumé you submitted to the employer. While not all references will be interested in this level of detail, many are grateful that you are saving them the trouble of having to connect all the dots on their own.

Following these guidelines when selecting your references could make your job hunt much more fruitful. At the same time, they are not always easy to abide by.