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References - guidelines for your job search

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On this page:

Who should serve as your references

Getting permission from your references

When to give your reference list to a prospective employer

Where to list references

Reference page and sample

What should references say

What about generic letters of recommendation

Legal issues relating to references



Who should serve as your references

In selecting people to ask to serve as references for you, think about what those individuals know about you and if they can discuss your work-related qualities.


Past and present employers usually know about such things as your honesty and integrity, reliability, initiative, quickness to learn and take on responsibility, and your ability to work with others. This type of information is valuable, even if your employment was not career-related.

Faculty members may know about your academic ability, productivity, and timeliness, honesty and integrity, and perhaps have observed how you work with others.

Advisors and coaches may also be aware of information about you that could be relevant to a potential employer — such as honesty and integrity, reliability, maturity, initiative, interpersonal skills or leadership qualities. 

Don't list references who only know you in a social capacity. While family friends may have nice things to say about you, employers don't place value on these kinds of references.

Obviously you do not want to offer as a reference someone who would not speak about you in positive terms or who doesn't know you well enough to give a strong reference. If an individual is neutral or has a reservation about serving as a reference for you, look elsewhere. This is one of the critical reasons for seeking permission from potential references in advance.

Getting permission from your references

DO contact each individual whom you are asking to serve as your reference. Secure his/her permission IN ADVANCE.

DON'T ever give someone's name as a reference without that person's permission. It will not advance your cause of becoming employed if a prospective employer calls or e-mails a person you have listed as a reference, only to find out the reference is surprised to be contacted. Before you give a name of a reference, make sure that person is comfortable with serving in that capacity. Don't assume anything. 

When you secure permission, verify all details of your references' contact information, including spelling of names, titles, addresses, phone numbers and e-mail addresses.

Give each person who agrees to serve as a reference for you a copy of your resume (or vita). This lets your references know about your interests, abilities and experiences. A faculty member may know your academic skills and an employer may know your on-the-job characteristics, but each may not be aware of the other facets of your background. Keeping your references well-informed will help them serve as better references for you.

Keep your references posted on your activities and progress. Tell your references the names of persons and organizations to whom you’ve given their names. When possible, give them a copy of the job description for the positions for which you are applying. This helps your references be prepared to be contacted.

Thank each reference in writing for his/her assistance.

DON'T view communicating with your references as bothering them. Brief, cordial e-mail or phone messages show that you are businesslike about your job search, and that you appreciate your references. Communicating makes it easier for your references to help you.

When to give your reference list to a prospective employer

Provide reference information when you are asked to provide it. If you reach the interview stage and have not been asked for references, you may offer your reference list.

Generally do not send reference information with your resume unless it has been specifically requested.

Contacting references is time-consuming, and most employers will do some initial screening of candidates — by reviewing resumes and narrowing the candidate pool, and perhaps conducting interviews — before contacting references.

For most undergraduates, employers will not be contacting references prior to interviewing you.

Where to list references

On a resume DON'T. It is unneccessary to state "References available upon request" — and is often a waste of valuable space — because most employers assume you can supply references. They expect them on separate page or submitted per their instructions (website, form, etc.) when requested.

On a curriculum vitae DO list references. It is customary practice to include your reference list on this document. 

Reference page

DO create a reference page to list your references.

For each reference person, include full name, title, organization with which the person is affiliated, complete address, phone number and e-mail address.

Salutations prior to names:
A person with a medical, Ph.D. or other doctoral-level degree is addressed as "Dr. (name)" regardless of gender.
Persons who do not hold a doctoral or medical degree are addressed as "Mr." or "Ms." (Marital status, reflected by "Miss" and "Mrs." are irrelevant to business and professional communication.)
While it is not required to place "Mr." or "Ms." before a person's name on a reference list, it can be helpful, especially if a person's gender is not obvious from the name (not uncommon). This simply helps the person contacting the reference to use the appropriate salutation. (Think about times you might have seen a job ad, with instructions to write to "Chris Jones" or "H. Walters."
You cannot tell from that information whether to address the person as "Ms." or "Mr." and you don't want to be wrong!

Make absolutely sure you spell your references' names correctly.

Your name and contact information should be at the heading of the page — just like it appears on your resume.

See sample reference page below.

What should references say?

If your references are not sure what to say, refer them to writing reference letters — on the faculty and staff section of our website — which lists professional resources.

Encourage references to mention:

The capacity in which they know/knew you (i.e., you were a summer intern and she was your supervisor),

Time frame of the relationship (i.e., since summer of 20YY or has known the candidate for four years), and

Positive qualities demonstrated in the capacity in which they knew you (i.e., trained other employees, designed floor plans on CAD, and presented proposals to clients).

What about generic letters of recommendation?

An individual might offer to write a generic letter of reference for you, perhaps addressed "To whom it may concern" or something similar. Is this useful?

If a potential employer requires letters of reference with your application (typical for positions in academia, for example), it is preferrable for the reference letter to be written directly to the recipient, rather than a generic "to whom it may concern" letter.

An individualized letter is generally taken more seriously. 

However, if you are uncomfortable about asking a reference to write a number of personalized letters, or if your reference will be out of reach (on sabbatical, assignment abroad, etc.) during your job search, a "to whom it may concern letter" could serve your purposes.

Be aware that in general, employers will consult references after screening resumes and interviewing. Some potential employers prefer to call your references and speak directly with them. So while a letter written in advance by your reference, and offered to the employer by you at the time of the interview (along with your reference list), doesn't hurt, it is not neccessary to solicit these.

Legal issues relating to references

Be aware that some employers have a policy of not giving references. They might confirm dates of employment, but otherwise be unwilling to comment about a former (or current) employee for legal reasons.

This could be due to concerns about litigation if there are any negative consequences arising from a reference statement.

Before you assume that a former (or current) employer will serve as a reference for you, ask.

If organization (agency, company, etc.) policy prohibits a formal reference, consider if you had a supervisor or coworker in a higher level position who clearly valued your contributions, integrity, and work ethic. Perhaps he or she would serve as a reference speaking for him/herself as contrasted with speaking officially for the organization.

More on this topic offsite:

Do references really matter? Wall Street Journal


Sample reference list

Marianne Boles
(301) 555-1234
College Address
400 C Hunter Ridge
Blacksburg, VA 24060
Permanent Address
2054 Lancaster Street
Baltimore, MD 21216

Dr. Pat Doe
Associate Professor
Biological Sciences Department
Virginia Tech
XXXX Derring Hall  (0000)
Blacksburg, VA 24061
(540) 231-5555

Mr. Chris Castellano
Advisor, Student Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists
Department of Communication
Virginia Tech
YYY Shanks Hall  (0123)
Blacksburg, VA 24061
(540) 231-5555

Ms. Aruna Rajan
Assistant Store Manager
Macy's Department Store
1234 Appleton Drive
Baltimore, MD 21216
(301) 555-8211



Keep in touch with people who have been supportive of you in the past, including work supervisors, former professors and teachers, coaches, advisors. Drop an individualized note once or twice a year so they know what you are doing. Then when you might want to ask for a reference, you'll more easily be able to get in touch and explain why you are asking for this favor.