Get your references together for your job search
An employer may ask for a reference list when considering you for a job. Get the reference format and protocol right by following these expert tips.
Your resume and cover letter may be all spiffed up, but what about your references? Employers may ask for a reference list when considering you for a job, so it needs to be in top form as well. Create yours by following these expert tips.
Format for references
Create a separate document that includes a list of people who have agreed to speak with prospective employers in support of your candidacy.
“Your references should be listed on a page separate from other job application materials,” says Jeff Shane, vice president at Allison & Taylor, a professional reference- and background-checking service based in Rochester, Michigan. “Your reference list should match your resume’s fonts and format.”
Include the names and complete contact information of each reference, including job title, employer, business address, email address and telephone number, he says. “Their relationship to you—supervisor, etc.—should also be identified,” he says.
The list can also describe how the contact knows you, giving the reference checker context and a springboard for the conversation. “Consider adding a brief paragraph that describes a project that you worked on together or a skill that the person can attest to,” says Chris Nolan, SPHR, a Maynard, Massachusetts-based HR consultant.
How many references?
It’s better to have more references than a prospective employer would likely check. Pam Venne, principal of The Venne Group, a Dallas career-management firm, advises job seekers to create a references pool. “When you’re asked for references, you can strategically choose the best people to represent what you want highlighted for the opportunity,” she says.
Typical job seekers should have three to four references, while those seeking more senior positions should consider listing five to seven, experts suggest. And be sure to list your strongest reference first.
Choosing your references
Your references are your personal evangelists—they should know you very well and be able to speak about your qualifications for the job you’re pursuing.
“Former supervisors aren't necessarily the best references since so many companies have policies prohibiting supervisors to share them,” says Christina Murphy, PHR, adjunct professor at Touro College’s Graduate School of Business.
Instead, she advises selecting people who are intimate with your work and skills. “Individuals with whom you have worked closely can make excellent references, including former clients, teammates, professors or community leaders,” she says.
If you’re concerned about what your references might say about you, have a reference-verification service check your references first. “A single negative reference can damage a candidate’s prospects for future employment,” Shane says.
Unless an employer requests otherwise, professional references are preferred over personal references, such as family, friends and neighbors, whom reference checkers will know are biased.
Building relationships with your references
Ask your references’ permission to add their names to your list. If some time has passed since your last job search, reconnect with each of your references. “It's important to keep close contact with your references,” Murphy says. “If you haven't spoken to a contact in a while, don't expect a glowing recommendation.”
Venne stresses the importance of informing your references that they might be contacted. “I once had a great candidate who didn’t inform his references I might be calling, and two of the three wouldn’t take my calls,” she says. “He lost the job opportunity.”
Be sure to respect your references’ privacy. “Ask each reference if there’s any information they do not want listed—this will help protect your contact’s private information,” Nolan says.
And don't forget to keep your references in the loop. When you're interviewing, reach out to your references and give them an updated copy of your resume as well as the relevant job posting. Keep them apprised of any specific skills you think make you a good fit for the job or anything else you would like them to speak to the potential employer about to help your case.
When to submit references
Unless otherwise requested, job references should be submitted later in the hiring process. “I encourage applicants only to submit references after they have been asked,” Venne says.
Shane agrees that you shouldn’t submit references with the resume. “Your reference list should be included in your portfolio and brought to job interviews, at which time they can be presented upon request,” he says.
Express your gratitude
Your references are doing you a favor that can help you land your next job. Shane offers the following tips for thanking your references:
- Whenever you leave a position, send your former supervisor a note thanking him for your association.
- Send your references a card during the holidays. The more personal contact you have with them, the more favorable they will feel toward you.
- Remember that giving a reference takes time. If you plan to use these references over the years, give something in return. For instance, each time your reference supports you with a prospective employer, send a thank-you letter.
It’s a good time to be a job seeker: U.S. job growth is strong, unemployment is on a steady decline, and openings are at an all-time high.
That doesn’t make the search any less daunting. Differentiating yourself from every other job seeker on the market is no small feat, and the monotony of filling out online applications can make the task downright exhausting. That’s where a killer cover letter comes in.
Done right, a great cover letter is like a secret weapon for catching a hiring manager’s attention. Next to your resume, it’s one of the most important, underutilized tools at your disposal.
Here are some cover letter writing tips, and a free, downloadable template, to make yours stand out.
Every cover letter you write should be tailored to the job you’re applying for — just like your resume. Study the job posting carefully, and make a quick list of any essential qualifications.
“Job seekers really struggle with what to say on a cover letter,” says Jessica Holbrook Hernandez, President and CEO of Great Resumes Fast. “Taking a second to think about why you’re applying, and why you’re a good fit for the company, makes the process a lot easier.”
If you’re adding a cover letter to an online application, use a business letter format with a header and contact information. If you’re sending an email, it’s OK to leave out the header, but be sure to provide a phone number (and an attached resume, of course). Make sure you’re clear about the position you’re applying for.
Avoid nameless salutations — it might take a little Google research, and some LinkedIn outreach, but finding the actual name of the position’s hiring manager will score you major brownie points. “Do not start a cover letter with, ‘to whom it may concern,’” Holbrook Hernandez says. “It concerns no one.”
2. Tell a Story
To grab a recruiter’s attention, a good narrative—with a killer opening line—is everything.
“The cover letter is a story,” says Satjot Sawhney, a resume and career strategist with Loft Resumes. “What is the most interesting thing you’re doing that’s relevant to this job?” Use that to guide your letter.
Ideally, the story that drives your resume will focus on a need at the company you’re applying for. If you’re a PR professional, maybe you have a list of clients in an industry the team wants to break into. If you’re in marketing, a successful promotional campaign might be the ticket in. “A hiring manager wants to see results-driven accomplishments with a past employer,” says Holbrook Hernandez. “If you’ve done it before, you can deliver it again.”
If you have a career gap or are switching industries, address it upfront. “If there’s anything unique in your career history, call that out in the beginning,” says professional resume writer Brooke Shipbaugh.
(Here’s a downloadable sample.)
3. Use Bullet Points to Show Impact
Hiring managers are usually slammed with applications, so short, quick cover letters are preferable to bloated ones, says Paul Wolfe, Senior Vice President of human resources at job site Indeed.
“Make your cover letter a brief, bright reference tool,” he says. “The easier you can make it on the recruiter the better.”
Bullet points are a good tool for pulling out numbers-driven results. Job seekers in creative fields like art and design can use bullets to break down their most successful project. Those in more traditional roles (like the one in the template), can hammer off two or three of their most impressive accomplishments.
4. Highlight Culture Fit
It’s often overlooked, but a major function of the cover letter is to show a company how well you’d mesh with the culture.
As you research a potential employer, look for culture cues on the company website, social media, and review sites like Glassdoor. Oftentimes, employers will nod to culture in a job posting. If the ad mentions a “team environment,” it might be good to play up a recent, successful collaboration. If the company wants a “self-starter,” consider including an achievement that proves you don’t need to be micromanaged.
The tone of your letter can also play to culture. “The cover letter is a great place to show [an employer] how you fit into their world,” Shipbaugh says. “Show some personality.”
5. End with an Ask
The goal of a cover letter is to convince the person reading it to make the next move in the hiring process — with a phone call, interview, or otherwise. Ending on a question opens that door without groveling for it.
“You have to approach this with a non-beggar mentality,” Sawhney says. “Having an ‘ask’ levels the playing field.”
Related: What Your Resume Should Look Like in 2018