Though it may seem old-fashioned to include "references available upon request" in your cover letter, the truth is that professional references are still an essential part of the job application process. After all, talking with the people who worked closely with you is the best way for hiring managers to get a clear picture of what you'd be like to work with. When providing references, it's important you choose the right people and ask them in the right way. Below are our tips for choosing the best people along with an email template for how to ask for a professional reference.
How to Choose Professional References
When deciding who to choose as your professional references, there are two basic qualifications you should keep in mind:
1. Will They Have Positive Feedback?
This one seems obvious, but of course, you will want to select a reference that will have lots of good things to say about you. This could be in terms of the quality of your work, your ability to multitask, the attitude you bring to the work environment and more. If you left your former place of work with some hurt feelings behind, you'll want to keep that in mind and make sure you ask someone who truly wants you to succeed in your career.
2. Did They Work Closely With You?
The second point to consider, which can be a bit trickier than the first, is how closely the reference worked with you on a day-to-day basis. When hiring managers call your references, they're looking for specific, insightful information that they can't get from just reading your resume.
For this reason, you'll want to choose people that can really speak to your skills and work ethic, not necessarily the person with the fanciest title. For example, even if you have a great relationship with your former CEO, if you didn't work with them on tasks every day, they probably aren't a great professional reference. The same goes for your work BFF — just because they'll have glowing recommendations about your personality, doesn't mean they'll actually know, in detail, what you worked on every day.
Some examples of good people to choose as professional references include your direct supervisor, close team members who did similar work to you, or even a former professor if you worked together on research projects. Learn more about writing a reference list.
How to Ask Someone to Be a Reference
Now that you know what to look for in a professional reference, it's important that you ask them in the right way. In decades past sending a formal letter was the norm for requesting a reference, but luckily, we live in the days of the internet. Since no one is able to meet up in person right now, the best way to request a reference is to send an email. Below are a few tips on how to craft the perfect reference request email:
1. Provide Background Information
First things first, you'll want to make sure all the essential information is included in your email. This will allow your reference to get a better understanding of what will help you the most in their recommendation.
- Type of Job: Let them know the title of the position you're applying for, or, if it's confidential, you can describe the type of work you will be doing to the best of your ability.
- Employer: Again, if you are able, tell them who your potential new employer is so they can research the company a bit on their own. If the name of the employer is classified, you could simply tell them the industry.
- Type of Feedback: If you know, or have a pretty good idea, what types of questions the hiring manager will be asking, you should tell your reference this as well. For example, they may call your former professor to ask about your technical coding skills or a former manager to ask how you work as part of a team. This allows the reference to prepare some points ahead of time to make sure they're fully answering the questions.
How to Submit: Perhaps the most important point to include is to tell the reference how and when to submit their recommendation. For example, maybe the hiring manager will be calling them on a specific date, or they need to send an email reference by a certain deadline.
2. Mind Your Manners
In addition to including the information above, it's key to be as courteous as possible. After all, references don't have to pick up the phone and talk to the hiring manager or take time out of their day to write you a letter. Make sure you express your gratitude and make the process easy for them. Here are a few points to keep in mind:
- Don't Wait Until the Last Minute: Let a reference know as soon as you can that you'd like them to submit a recommendation for you or take a call from a hiring manager. Since the hiring market tends to move quickly you may not be able to give them more than a couple of days' notice, but this is still preferable than letting them know the night before.
- Don't Put Them on the Spot: Especially if this is a contact you haven't talked to in a while, don't put them in the hot seat and make them feel responsible for you getting the job or not. Make sure you ask calmly and let them know that providing the reference is purely optional and won't affect your personal relationship.
- Follow Up Once: Job hunting is stressful, and if you don't hear back from a reference it can be tempting to blow up their inbox. However, it's best to give them a few days if possible, then follow up just once. You don't want to burn any bridges you might need in the future by pestering them.
- Say Thank You: Whether you get the job or not, make sure you thank them for their time. Like we talked about earlier, references provide recommendations out of the goodness of their hearts and in order to help you out, so it's courteous to show your gratitude regardless of the outcome.
3. Email Template: How to Ask for a Reference
Asking for a reference can be intimidating or awkward, especially if you're contacting someone you haven't talked to in a long time. To help you formulate your email, here is a template you can use and customize to suit your needs.
Subject Line: Professional Reference Request?
Hi [First Name, Mr./Ms./Professor Last Name]
I hope you are doing well! How are things at [Company/School]?
I know it's been a while since we last talked, but I was hoping you could help me out by providing a professional reference. I'm applying to be a [position] at [Company] and thought you would be the perfect person to ask for a recommendation because we worked so closely together on [project/task].
The position entails tasks like:
And the hiring manager will want to know about my skills concerning:
If you wouldn't mind [speaking with a hiring manager/submitting a letter], could you send your preferred contact email and phone number? They should be contacting you by [this week/specific date].
Thank you so much, and please let me know if you need any more details from me. And of course, if you don't have time to submit the reference I definitely understand.
Appreciate your time!
If you'd like a PDF version of the template to edit, you can download it via the button below.
To share a condensed version of these tips and learn about specific tricky situations, take a look at our infographic below.
We hope these tips on how to ask for a professional reference will give you the nudge you need to request a recommendation confidently. For more advice and tools for job-seekers, check out LiveCareer.