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How to Ask for a Professional Reference

Asking for a Professional Reference

For adult students, starting a search for a new job or a master's degree program can feel like adding another job to your already busy life. But, taking the time to do it right is critical. One huge part of your search process is ensuring you have people who can speak to your qualifications, skills, and abilities: these people are your professional references.

You’ll want to start pulling together your references as soon as you’ve decided to initiate your search, as having this information up front will make the entire process easier.

Here's How You Can Kick Off the Process!

Who Should I Ask?

Your professional references should be people who know quite a bit about your work ethic, technical skills, abilities, and experience such as current or former supervisors. However, if you don’t have at least three or more prior supervisors to call upon, a co-worker, peer, or someone you supervised would also work, so long as they were quite familiar with your abilities and worked closely with you.

Ensuring you have several quality references can be key in landing a job, so putting some time and effort into approaching your potential references and following up with them can help you succeed.

Lacking Employment History or Changing Careers?
If you don’t have a lot of employment history or are looking to change career fields, your professional references could be those who have spent a fair amount of time getting to know you such as a faculty member. Additionally an academic advisor, community member, mentor, or even a volunteer or work-study supervisor would be great references.

Think carefully about what your potential references know about you and how they’ll be able to answer common questions from the hiring manager. If you’re changing to a new field, consider what each person knows about you in relation to that new field.

How Many References Do I Need?

Create a list of five to seven recent references, with the understanding that you usually need just three. This way, if someone you ask is unable to serve as a reference, you'll be prepared to secure at least three.

You may want to categorize each reference by the type of information they know about you such as industry knowledge, leadership, initiative, work ethic, tech skills, etc. If you don’t have a recent reference that can speak to the kind of work you’re looking to do, using someone from further back in your past should work, but you’ll certainly want to be diligent in reaching out to them and refreshing their memory.

How Should I Approach Them?

From here, you’ll want to approach each person to ask their permission to be sure they feel comfortable speaking positively on your behalf. Giving them a call is always the gold standard, but if you’re unable to do so, an email will also suffice. Be sure you ask your references for their support in such a way that they are able to decline gracefully. Not everyone feels comfortable or qualified to give a reference. If they do decline, be courteous and move on to another choice on your list.

Another reason it’s essential to reach out to your potential references is that it gives them a heads up that they may be contacted and you certainly don’t want them to feel unprepared and fumble when giving answers to your prospective new manager. Second, it gives you the chance to re-establish a connection with them and explain your job search and current interests. Making sure you’re connected on LinkedIn is also key! When you reach out you’ll also want to send them your current resume and job goals.

Once your references have given you the greenlight to share their contact information, prepare your references sheet, which is a separate document from your resume but should share the same formatting and heading information. You’ll use this document during your job search as you complete applications, when asked directly by the hiring manager, or by bringing it with you to an in-person interview.

When Do I Follow Up With Them?

Once you’ve had a successful in-person interview and you feel you may be selected as a candidate, you should reach out to your professional references again to let them know that they may be contacted and by whom.

This would be a good time to resend your resume (if it’s been a while since your first contact) and the job description as well as any salient points you’d like them to cover when speaking with the hiring manager. Refreshing their memory on your skills and experience is never a bad thing!

Whether you’ve learned you did or didn’t get that new position, always reach out to your references to thank them and let them know the status of your job search. Thanking them is imperative because they’ve spent their precious time helping you land a new job. Offering some praise about how you enjoyed your time working with them is beneficial as well.

The “Ask”

Here’s some language to use when reaching out to your potential references:

Dear Professional Reference (use their name),
I’m writing (or calling) today to let you know that I’m starting a new job search for a position in the field of “XYZ.” As we’ve worked together in the past (explain how/where) I was wondering if you’d be willing to act as a professional reference for me during this search? Attached you’ll find a recent copy of my resume for your perusal. In particular I was hoping you could speak to the following skills and abilities:

  • “XYZ” Abilities
  • “XYZ” Abilities

If you feel you’re unable to act as a reference for me at this time, I completely understand. However, if you are available to speak on my behalf, can you confirm for me your contact information so that I may provide it to appropriate hiring managers?

I’ll reach out again if I believe you may be contacted with the job description and the hiring manager’s information.

I truly appreciate your consideration into this matter.


Your Name

Have Confidence!

If you're serious enough about your professional goals to be considering a more challenging position or a graduate degree program, those around you have likely taken notice. What feels like an "out-of-left-field" request from your end, may not come as a surprise to your references: they've probably observed your motivation and drive already, and they'll recognize how serving as a reference will benefit your master plan. Also, it's always extremely flattering to be asked, so have confidence and know that you just may make their day!


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