As a student life administrator, I have been asked for literally hundreds of references from students I have supervised or advised over the years. Conversely, I myself have asked for my own professional references when I searched for different positions across the country. Given my experience on both ends of the professional reference spectrum, I would like to offer some practical advice on how to obtain strong references.
Earn the recommendation. Give recommenders a reason why they should recommend you to potential employers. Do not simply expect someone to be a reference because you were in their class or you worked for them. If you’re simply their student or employee with little interaction, that person may not have much to speak about. Even worse, if you are sub-standard in their estimation, they may provide a poor evaluation or may even refuse to give one at all. Therefore, work hard in that person’s presence so that they are willing and eager to speak about your positive attributes.
Ask, don’t tell. It is common professional courtesy to ask for a reference rather than telling someone. Do not just drop off a form or written request for a letter without first asking the person if they are willing to do so. The same goes for phone references. Many times I’ll get a call from an employer for someone who didn’t let me know they were listing me as a reference. Ask ahead of time, and do not take it personally if someone refuses to do so. You want a quality reference to speak about your skills and qualifications. When in doubt, do not include someone as a reference if you think they may not speak or write well of you.
Give sufficient time. It is a big pet peeve for many professionals when someone asks them for a written reference shortly before it is due. I have had instances when someone needed a letter written or form filled out the day before it was due. This request is unprofessional and clearly speaks to the requester’s lack of planning and lack of respect for the person being asked. Give the person plenty of time to write the letter or fill out the form; two weeks or more is generally advisable. A week or less is generally too short of a time period to ask. Understand that they are busy and by adding another task to their plate you want to make sure their have sufficient time to write a decent reference for you. If they are rushed, they will either tell you no, write something half-heartedly, or simply not do it at all.
Make it easy for the person making the recommendation. Along with giving sufficient time, do everything in your power to give the person all of the resources needed to make a written recommendation for you. This includes the forms if something needs to be filled out and stamped envelopes addressed to where they need to go. This way it is easy for them to complete the form, put it in the envelope, and drop it in the mail. Also include your resume and a specific listing of accomplishments or skills developed while working with the person you are asking. This way the person has some context from which to write. Bonus advice: If possible, ask the person to write a letter for you and provide you with multiple copies of the letter so you can use them for different occasions and thereby not have to ask that individual again if the need arises for a written letter. They can make the letter out to “Dear search committee,” which will generally cover requirements for most employers who ask for a letter.
Make it count; ask people who know your work. To this day I continue to see employee candidates who list relatives and friends as references and have them offer written recommendations as well. Obviously, these are going to be perceived as biased and not an honest assessment of skills and experience to an employer. Unless a friend or a relative has a direct connection with the employer in some shape or form, do not include them as a reference. Likewise, I receive requests from students whom I barely know and cannot speak about their qualifications for a particular job or graduate school candidacy. Ask people whom you clearly know from a work and project standpoint, and give them something good to say about you. If necessary, sit down and meet with the person ahead of time and list items that they can discuss if they happen to get a phone call from an employer.
Dr. Scott M. Helfrich, D.Ed. is the Director of Upper Campus Housing at California University of PA and a managing partner of Student Life Consultants. You can find more resources from Dr. Helfrich at http://www.studentlifeguru.com.
* Photo courtesy of Neil Gould.