You can make it through the first rounds of the application process based on your résumé or curriculum vitae, your portfolio, and your own interviewing skills. But for most jobs, contacting references is part of the process of narrowing down the candidate pool to the finalists.
As someone who teaches more than 400 college undergraduate and graduate students each year, I frequently am contacted to be a reference. I typically am glad to serve as a reference — writing a letter, completing an online reference form, or answering questions in a phone reference call — but several steps will help make the process more effective for the person who is the reference, which should mean that you will receive a better recommendation.
As Eilene Zimmerman’s recent Career Coach column “The Groundwork for Good References” advises, the best approach is always to be “cultivating your references.”
If you are a college student, stay in contact with the faculty member who you see as a potential reference. At least once a semester, drop by during office hours or send an email to update the faculty member on your progress and express your appreciation for what you learned in class. After graduation, send an occasional email update or call. The same is true for work references, stay in contact even if you no longer are working for the department or business where your potential reference is. Connecting through social media can be another way, as well as sending a holiday greeting that provides a brief update on what is going on in your life.
Some students violate one of the primary guidelines that Zimmerman provides:
Always let people know that you are going to use them as a reference.
You don’t want your reference to be surprised to receive an email request or a phone call to request a reference interview. A few times I have been called to be a reference and haven’t had contact with the job applicant since he or she was in class several years ago. I don’t even know what the individual is doing now.
When you are applying for jobs and are asked for references (or know that you will be asked for references if you become a finalist for the job), contact the individuals you want to be your references. In some cases, you may be reconnecting after several years. That’s OK. Explain why you are asking that person to be a reference.
What is it that I know about you, your work skills and/or attitude that makes me the person to be recommending you. You should remind the reference of specific issues, such as a special group project or individual accomplishment. We can provide stronger references when we have specifics to cite about you.
Send your reference your updated résumé/vitae. You also may want to include a link to the job announcement and to your online portfolio.
Be sure to have an updated LinkedIn profile. In her column, Zimmerman includes a comment from the managing partner of a staffing firm that one of the first things he does when checking on an applicant is check the person’s LinkedIn profile.
See my previous posts on developing a LinkedIn profile:
Let your reference know that you appreciate the time and effort involved in serving as a reference. Writing a letter of recommendation — even updating a letter that was written on your behalf for a previous job — or participating in a phone reference call takes time. Be sure to send an email expressing your appreciation. (I don’t advocate handwritten thank-you notes, but I do recommend doing more than sending a tweet or text message.)
And be sure to let your reference know what happens about the job! Numerous times I’ve written a letter of recommendation or participated in a phone reference call but never know what happens about the job. The student/former student never lets me know. So I’ve now started adding to my response to the student who is asking me to be a reference: “And be sure to let me know what happens.”
A highlight of my job is being able to help my current and former students obtain internships and jobs by writing strong letters of recommendation for them. The whole process of staying in contact — or getting reconnected — to former students and hearing about their accomplishments and goals is very rewarding. But being a good reference requires being informed about your and the specific job (grad program) and taking the time needed to write a solid letter or participate in the interview. So help your references be prepared and feel appreciated.