References and Letters of Recommendation

When interviewing candidates for employment or vetting candidates for graduate or professional school, interviewers often request references and letters of recommendation. Good references can elevate a potential candidate to a top choice candidate.

Ask at least three individuals if they would be willing to serve as a strong reference to be listed on your reference list, and/or if they would possibly write letters of recommendation for you.

Who Should You Ask?

Select people who are able to provide first-hand examples of your expertise, character, and work ethic. Good references are people who are professional and who hold positions of responsibility. Examples include professors, academic advisors, graduate assistants, internship/work supervisors, teachers, coaches, or community leaders.

Who NOT to Ask

Unless you have worked with them in a professional setting, you may not ask family and friends to be a reference. High school teachers are not appropriate to include after your first year of college.

How Should You Ask?

Depending on your comfort level with the individual, you may choose to visit, call, or email. Ask them respectfully if they are willing to be your reference, and wait for their reply; don’t just assume they will say yes.  If you are requesting a reference by email from someone you haven’t seen in a while (such as a past professor), jog their memory by naming the context where you met. You can even say why you are asking them, e.g., “I really learned a lot about XYZ in your course.”

Important: Be sure to give your references enough notice, particularly if a reference letter or form is required. A minimum of two weeks is generally expected.

Someone may decline to be your reference because they feel they don’t know you well enough, or because they would not be able to provide a glowing recommendation of you. Keep in mind that you want a good reference, so if someone says no, it is probably for the best.

Preparing/Coaching Your References

Once you have your references and letters of recommendations secured, it is important to speak with each person individually about the image you would like conveyed to potential employers. Be sure to share a copy of your résumé, as well as the position description with each of your references. Make sure they know what your career goals are and why you believe you will succeed in that career. Discuss your strengths, weaknesses, leadership skills, and communication abilities with all references. Make sure you like what they have to say about you, otherwise you may need to obtain additional references.

Information to Provide to Employers or Faculty

When requesting letters of recommendation or references from professors, faculty advisors, or employment supervisors you need to provide them with the following information.

Also, be sure to give your references a time frame for when you will be conducting your job search and how soon you will need the letters of recommendation. Keep references updated on the progress of your job search and be sure to thank them for their support.

For Professors
  • Your full name and complete contact information
  • Your current résumé
  • A list of courses you have taken that relate to your major and major papers and presentations
  • A list of your strengths, skills, abilities, and notable accomplishments as they relate to your career objective
  • The purpose for which you intend to use the letter/reference
For Employers
  • Your full name and contact information
  • Your current résumé
  • The title of your position, responsibilities, dates of employment, and any honors, awards, or salary increments you received while employed
  • A list of your strengths, skills, abilities, and notable accomplishments as they relate to your career objective
  • The purpose for which you intend to use the letter or recommendation

Following Up

As you progress through the interview process, be sure to keep your references apprised of your interview status. Regardless of whether or not you were successful in obtaining the position, be sure to thank your references for their assistance.

Your list of references should be in a separate document from your résumé. The list should look similar to this:

References for (Your Name)

Company Address
Daytime Telephone

(List three or four professional/academic references. You may also add how long you have known this person.)



If headed to graduate school, consider using Interfolio to manage and send your Letters of Recommendation, Transcripts, and more.


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