We've all had to do it, whether for a job, a volunteer position or an application for school. Finding someone to act as a reference for you can be tough, and asking for a reference can be even tougher. These tips will help you deal with references from start to finish. (For related reading, be sure to check out Top 8 Ways To Get Your Resume Thrown Out)
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Whom Should I Ask?
This is probably the most important step of the process. The right reference will depend on two things: that person's position and their experience with you. Consider the job or program you are applying to and try to find someone who works in that field, or who holds a position that is related to the job. For example, if you are applying to law school, the best reference would be a lawyer you worked with at an internship. However, since not everyone may have that direct of a connection, a personal reference from someone who is a lawyer, or your teacher from a law-related class would certainly be appropriate.
Just like your resume, your references should emphasize the skills required for that particular job. For example, if the job requires a lot of customer service experience, why not include a previous client or vendor that you have had a good professional relationship with in the past? Take the job posting or description and highlight all of the keywords, then think about who has seen you demonstrate those skills.
When Should I Ask?
Once a potential employer calls you for references, you will have scant time to supply them, and the hiring manager is likely to call them up right away. Ideally, you want these references in line before you even apply to the job. You may have references on "stand by" who are willing to sing your praises at any time. However, you should make sure to give them a heads up as soon as the application deadline passes; no one likes to be caught off guard, even if they aren't the ones up for the job! (If the reference works out, you may be up for an interview. Find out some interview tips in Taking The Lead In The Interview Dance and 7 Interview Don'ts.)
How Should I Ask?
The obvious advice here is to be polite and professional in your request and appreciative if they say yes. Leave plenty of time in case you can't get a hold of them right away so that your would-be reference doesn't receive a panicked desperate phone call from you begging them to speak on your behalf. Once your reference says yes, provide them with a copy of the job posting and the name of the company, and let them know which characteristics or experience you would like them to highlight. Never ask a reference to lie for you.
If possible, provide them with an approximate date and/or time they can expect a phone call. Be sure to get their up-to-date contact information, especially if this is someone you worked with a long time ago, since that information may have changed. Never give out contact information - especially personal contact information - without express consent.
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Where Should I List Them?
Do not list your references on your resume. Instead, have a separate reference sheet that matches the formatting of your resume. Be sure that all of the information is correct, including job titles, companies as well as contact information. If your would-be employer can't contact your references, they may not bother to follow up with you. Reference letters are generally only appropriate when applying for schools that request them. You do not have to submit your reference sheet with your resume when you initially apply; only do so when the hiring manager requests it.
If you land the job (or even if you don't), it's a nice gesture to follow up with your references. Thank them by email or phone (or in person if you still see them), or by sending a small token or taking them out for coffee. You'll know which is most appropriate based on your relationship with that person. Remember, just because you have used them as a reference doesn't mean you won't need them as a reference again in the future. You also never know when that reference may hear about a job that's just perfect for you, so you'll want them to have a positive impression.
The Bottom Line
It can be intimidating to ask for a reference, but just remember that everyone has to do it - including the person from whom you are requesting a reference - and that as long as your are courteous and professional, the worst that person can do is decline.
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