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Referrals, References, and Letters of Recommendation

shutterstock_99967517It can seem like the job search process never ends. After you prepare your resume and cover letter, and perhaps fill out job applications, there is still more to do. Referrals, references, and letters of recommendation are all significant pieces of the job search puzzle, and they all require you to ask somebody for something.

Students and job seekers, especially those who may be introverted, are often hesitant to ask for help with these things, but they can make a huge difference in the overall result of a job search, and may even be required by a potential employer. In fact, I recently helped a friend identify who in his network could provide this kind of assistance for a specific application. We walked through different scenarios and created templates for making the requests along the way.

As you are likely all too aware, a job search is not a solo project. Who can you ask for help and what exactly do you need from them? What are employers looking for when they ask for references? Lexie Forman-Ortiz from SmartRecruiters was kind enough to discuss these questions with me and suggest ways to include your professional network in the process.


When I began work as an outplacement counselor in the late 90s, my colleagues and I often advised our clients that employers like to hire applicants who have been referred to them by employees in the organization. Consider the employer’s standpoint here: faced with screening stacks of applications submitted by people they don’t know, they would probably prefer to contact someone that already has a connection with the company. This advice holds true today. As reported by The Undercover Recruiter, a recent JobVite survey found that “while only 7% of applicants come through referrals, this small number accounts for nearly half of hires (40%).”

But how do you get referred? Forman-Ortiz says “asking for referrals is something that should be taken very seriously.” Take a look at your existing network to find opportunities to connect with people already working in companies of interest. Include the following in your research:

  • Professional associations and conferences: Membership can have its privileges, such as access to directories and networking events that encourage conversations about your job search and career goals. These organizations and events also often highlight companies that are hiring.
  • LinkedIn: You may not know all of your connections well enough to approach them for a referral, but this platform makes it easy to see how your connections are connected, to each other and to companies, so that you can further extend your networking and research efforts.
  • Alumni: Even online colleges and programs have active alumni organizations. Identify prior graduates in your field, at companies you are interested in, and contact them to see if they are open to questions about jobs and careers. You never know when one of these conversations might lead to a referral.


The terms references and recommendations are often used interchangeably to refer to people who can respond to questions about your knowledge, skills, and qualifications from first-hand experience. There was a time when it was compulsory to add the statement “References Available Upon Request” at the end of your resume. However, times have changed and most career counselors will tell you that the limited space on your resume is better used in other ways. It’s assumed by most employers that if they ask you for references you will provide them.

How do references help potential employers? According to Forman-Ortiz, “employers are looking for validation of the information you’ve given them, or information you may have failed to give them.” In her experience “references are usually requested once the employer has a good idea they want to hire you.” While you don’t need to provide references until they are asked for, it’s a good idea to have them ready so there’s no delay on your part when they are requested. Here are a few steps to get you started:

  • Identify potential references. Professional references might include previous supervisors, co-workers, and instructors, while personal references could be neighbors, community service connections, or other associations not related to work or school. Be aware that professional references are preferred and should be the default unless you are specifically asked to provide personal or character references.
  • Ask your references to serve in this capacity. Let them know before you provide their names to employers. If they are willing to assist, send a copy of your current resume and information about the type of work you are looking for, and prepare them to be contacted by employers in the future.
  • Provide contact information. Email and phone are perhaps the most common methods of communication, but let your references decide how they want to be contacted. It’s also helpful to give a prospective employer some idea of how the reference knows you (e.g., former supervisor, team leader, co-worker, client).
  • Create a central document. Make this similar in format to your resume (i.e., includes a heading), and file this where you can access it quickly to print, attach to an email message, or to copy and paste the information into an online form. Virginia Tech’s Career Services office provides a good reference list example.

Different employers have different requirements for references and recommendations and how to submit them, so be sure to follow any instructions provided and ask for clarification if you aren’t sure what is expected.

Letters of Recommendation

In some hiring situations and graduate school applications, formal letters may be requested early in the process. Ideally, letters are addressed and tailored to each position you apply for, but more general letters that can be sent to multiple employers are also acceptable. When you ask someone in your network, including those on your reference list, for a letter of recommendation:

  • Be professional: Whether you have been in regular contact or haven’t touched base in a while, rules for business correspondence apply. The Florida Center for Instructional Technology provides a concise list of tips for email netiquette.
  • Let them know what you need. Similar to a reference request, provide a copy of your current resume and a link to the job posting. Be clear and forthcoming with any specific requirements, including deadlines and where to send the reference (to you or directly to the company). As Forman-Ortiz advises, “provide them with the right information. Tell them what kind of jobs you are looking for, what skills they helped you develop that you think should be highlighted, and why you are asking them specifically.”
  • Be prepared to draft it yourself. A harsh reality perhaps, but some people will ask you to do this, and offering to provide some sort of draft letter can give them a place to start if you need a quick response.’s Job Searching resources include a long list of reference letter samples for use in different contexts.

Social Media Options

It’s easier than ever for someone to serve as a reference or offer a recommendation via online networking systems like LinkedIn. This specific platform includes multiple features, including Recommendations and Endorsements, which allow your connections to publically recognize you on your profile page. Not all employers and recruiters find these kinds of testimonials helpful, but it can be a place to start.

Recommendations provide space to write a brief narrative, while Endorsements offer a one-click way for users to recognize each other’s skills. Forman-Ortiz and I have both experienced being “endorsed” by people we don’t know. The validity of this feature is a concern, but some find it valuable. Forman-Ortiz suggests that “Recommendations are a much more powerful source” of information. “If someone is not passionate and confident in your skills set, they are not likely to take the time to write one. It’s more of an investment.”

Keep in mind that you have control over the endorsements and recommendations that appear on your profile. And, as Forman-Ortiz explains, “your potential employer is without a doubt going to check your social profiles, most notably LinkedIn.” If all else is equal among candidates, an employer may be swayed by the “public confirmation of your skills” through Recommendations and Endorsements. Ask people you know well professionally to help you with these elements of your online presence.

Know that new options are also emerging as employers and recruiters seek out more effective ways to screen applicants and vet candidates before job offers are extended. SmartRecuiters recently introduced a new Assessment Center, which includes tools for determining cultural fit, evaluating skills, and checking references. You can also read more about the employer’s perspective on the SmartRecruiters blog.

Reaching Out

It takes time and effort to cultivate relationships with those who can provide a reference, write letters of recommendation, and offer a referral, but the benefits will be immediately evident as you launch your next job search. A study found that “80% of employers say they contact references when evaluating potential employees” and “69% say they have changed their mind about a candidate after speaking with a reference.” As you prepare to contact your network for help:

  • Foster connections with those who can attest to your qualifications and represent a range of perspectives relevant to your experience.
  • Let them know as soon as you decide you are on the market. This initial contact may even spark a conversation or two that eventually becomes a referral.
  • Rest assured, these individuals have been in your position as job seekers themselves at some point. They have had to ask for references and letters, too, and understand the process.
  • Thank those who agree to help you with your job search and keep them in the loop about your progress. Networking is ongoing, even after you land your next job.

One special caveat when contacting others about your job search includes your current employer. According to Alison Green in a post for U.S. News, “the only person who is typically considered off-limits in reference checking is your current employer.” However, you should be aware that “employers don’t always stick to the references in the list you gave them.” If you are looking for a new job while working in another position, practice ethical ways to job search while employed and be purposeful in the actions you take.

Whether you’ve been out of the job market for a while, or are planning for a future search, preparation can ease some of the anxiety often experienced by job seekers just getting started. Keep referrals, references, and recommendations in mind as you move forward in your career, and keep in touch with those with whom you’ve established positive professional relationships. You may even find yourself in the position to provide a reference for someone else in the not-so-distant future.

June 10th, 2013 written by Staff Writers

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