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How to Prep and Choose Your References

It’s difficult for hiring managers to get a read on a candidate’s personality, work style, and motivations, no matter how many “gotcha” interview questions they ask. That’s why so many organizations turn to professional references. Rather than relying on how candidates portray themselves in an interview or on their resume, recruiters can lean on references for an honest perspective on candidates’ behavior and past performance. Hearing raving reviews from multiple references reassured recruiters and hiring managers that they’re hiring the best person for a role. 

Since references are such a helpful tool, it’s hard to find a company that doesn’t ask for them. But often, job seekers overlook just how essential references are, leaving preparation until the last minute. This is a bad habit—springing a reference request on someone can leave a sour taste in their mouth and wreak havoc on the interview process. In this piece, we’ll unpack why references are important and explain how to choose and prepare references in a way that leaves the best possible impression on a future employer.

Why are professional references important?

In a digital world, it’s easy to think that entering your education, skills, and experience into an application form gives recruiters all the information they need to make a decision. But work is about so much more than just your accomplishments. It’s about the passion, energy, and enthusiasm you bring to work, it’s about how you collaborate with peers, and it’s about cultural fit. References can add valuable color to your temperament and work style.

In addition, recruiters want to verify your achievements. Speaking with a candidate’s previous supervisor gives recruiters a more realistic picture of your performance and abilities. Beyond validating your qualifications, references can set your hiring managers up for success as your boss. After a conversation with a reference, they’ll better understand what projects you should work on first, how to recognize and reward you, and how you respond to feedback.

Which people make the best references?

Recruiters want to hear about relevant, recent experience. Former managers and supervisors should be your first choices for professional references. They can endorse your work ethic and expertise. The next best references are leaders in other departments who worked directly with you on one or more projects. If you just graduated, consider asking your professors or advisors for references. Peer references should be a last resort. Have 2-3 references willing to chat before you even interview for a position.

Overall, references should feel highly comfortable speaking on your behalf. They should know you and your work well and be ready to answer questions about your strengths and weaknesses. Lastly, make sure your references have time to talk. Recruiters want to get a hold of them quickly to keep moving you through the funnel.  

How can you prepare?

Thinking about who your professional references should be and making sure they leave an excellent impression can be overwhelming. Luckily, there are a few tried and true ways to prepare, including: 

Make a list – if you don’t already have one, it’s a good idea to make a go-to list of references. Jot down the names and contact information for everyone you can think of who can speak to your capabilities and represent you positively. As mentioned, recent supervisors should be at the top of the list, but consider asking colleagues, advisors, investors, professors, or volunteer or extracurricular coordinators to serve as references as well. Before sending it to the recruiter, clean up your list and ensure each reference has the person’s name, title, company, relationship to you, and contact information. 

Ask in advance – Communicating with your references is critical. It’s rude to catch a reference off guard, and it’s even worse if the reference doesn’t even remember who you are. Start reaching out to the people on your list when you’re first considering switching roles. It may seem too early, but giving people a heads-up far in advance shows you respect their time and usually helps recruiters schedule meetings with references faster. Always remember to ask for a reference in a way that gives the person an out. The reference may have a conflict of interest or be dealing with personal or professional issues that preclude them from having space or mindshare to participate. An added benefit of chatting earlier is that your reference may know of a company hiring for a role you want or may encourage you to pursue something else that’s better suited to your talents.

Get them prepared – Don’t let your references go into their discussion with a hiring manager cold turkey. Give them materials that would remind them of your standout qualities, like your resume, links to anything you’ve published recently, or a recap of what projects you worked on last year. Share the job description for the role you applied to, and review it over a call with each reference if you can. If there are specific things you want the reference to highlight, tell them. As an aside, it’s always good to keep up with your references, so check in with them every year or so. Ask how they are doing and give a brief update on your work. This practice enhances your relationships, making your references stronger in the long run.

Great references pay off

Picking the right professional references means they care about your success, so be sure to let them know how your job hunt goes. They’ll be excited that they contributed to your big win, so reinforce that by thanking them for their willingness to help. Send a quick email or thank you card—it will go a long way, and they’ll remember it next time you whip out your curated list of references. With careful preparation and selective reference criteria, you’re bound to ace your next job search.

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