Asking for references or recommendations

My last post advised staying in touch with those college professors who know you well so that you can ask them for references as you apply for jobs—either right after graduation or even a few years down the road. Today I want to talk a bit about how to ask for references or recommendations, and explain what I see as the differences between the two.

When you apply for a job, you may be asked to provide references. Many employers will ask for three references, and some will specify that they should be academic references, especially if this is your first job after college. When you ask someone to serve as a reference, you are asking them to respond to an email or telephone request for information about you as a potential employee. Being a reference is not a particularly time consuming task, so you should not hesitate to ask people who know you well to serve as a reference.

Here are a few key things to consider pertaining to references:

  • Do not put “References available upon request” on your resume. It is just wasting space. If you want the job, you’ll provide references when they’re requested, and all employers know that.
  • Create a list of references before you need it so you have it handy when it is requested.
  • Ask the people whom you want to serve as references for their permission to use them as such and how they would like to be contacted (email/phone). Be sure you have their accurate contact information.
  • When you ask former professors so serve as a reference, remind them what course you took with them, when you took it, and attach a copy of your resume. Even if they remember you well enough to serve as a reference, they may not remember exactly when you took a class with them (or which class it was).
  • Have at least three, and preferably five or six, names on the reference list so that you can choose the individuals most appropriate for a particular job.
  • Even though you have asked their permission ahead of time, let your references know whenever you give their name to a specific employer. If possible, also provide them with a job description of the job you’re applying for, which will help them tailor their answers to make you look more appropriate for the position.
  • In additional to professors who know you well, you may want to add work-related references, such as your supervisors from internship or co-op experiences or part-time jobs.
  • Keep your reference list updated. You never know when you may need it!

If you apply to graduate school, you will be asked to provide letters of recommendation. Writing a letter of recommendation requires a great deal more time and effort than serving as a reference, so you need to think carefully about who you ask to do this. Here are a few things to think about if you need to ask for letters of recommendation:

  • Graduate school letters of recommendation are almost always written by professors from your undergraduate program. However, in some instances, you may consider asking an employer. For example, students who apply to the MS in Technical Communication at my school, North Carolina State University, are often full-time employees in the field of technical communication, so for them a combination or academic and non-academic letters of recommendation are appropriate.
  • Choose who you ask carefully. Think about the type of work you would be doing in the graduate program, and ask professors who are familiar with that type of work. My students often ask me to write letters of recommendation for them for graduate school, and my answer depends not only on how they did in my class, but on what class they took with me. If they took a class that involved a lot of research and writing, and they did well, I will write the letter. If they took one of my internship classes, which does not involve scholarly research and writing, I’m likely to deny their request because the nonacademic assignments students complete are not typically relevant to graduate programs.
  • Give the people you ask plenty of notice—no less than a week and preferably at least two weeks. Believe it or not, your professors are busy people! You may only see them in class for a few hours a week, but they have lots of obligations beyond teaching!
  • Only ask professors with whom you have developed a solid relationship by participating in class, seeking their advice during office hours, and doing well on their assignments. If you haven’t done those things, they’re not likely to know you well enough to write a letter for you.
  • As with references, when you ask them, remind them what course you took with them, when you took it, and attach a copy of your resume. Even if they remember you well enough to serve as a reference, they may not remember exactly when you took a class with them (or which class it was).
  • Provide them with information about the program you hope to enter so that they can address the skills or experiences you’ve gained that will be relevant to that program.