Preparing a List of References: Five Things You Should Know

View Worksheet

Preparing a list of references is an essential part of your job search. Most prospective employers do not ask (or want) a reference list until the interview process has started or after the actual interview. The preparation you take in advance not only saves you time when it matters the most, but it ensures you take the right steps.

There are five things you should know about preparing a list of references:

  1. Have the list made in advance
  2. Know how many references you want to include
  3. Decide who to use as references
  4. Obtain permission from your references in advance
  5. Discuss your resume and the position(s) you applied for with your references

Have a list of references prepared in advance

Since most prospective employers ask for a list of references immediately before or after an interview, staying prepared is in your best interest. Being ready to hand over your references when asked means you can spend the necessary time doing it right.

Choose the number of references to put on a list of references

In most cases, having 3-5 people on your list of references is sufficient. If you have worked for a period of at least one year, include at least two professional references. Professional references are usually previous employers and people with whom you have worked closely.

Decide who to list on a list of references

Deciding who to include on your list of references is as much about the position you are applying for as it is about your relationship to each person. Ideally, you want references that know you in the same context that is required for the position. For example, if you are applying for a research assistant position, using previous professors or advisors is a good choice. For a non-educational position, supervisors, advisers, colleagues you worked under or individuals you reported to in community involvement situations are good choices. Never list members of your family as personal references.

When deciding on references, focus on people who know what kind of person you are personally and professionally. You want every reference to provide accurate information about you that shows your value as a prospective employee. Always choose a good mix of people for your list of references to represent yourself more dynamically.

Ask permission before putting references on a list of references

Once you decide who you would like on your list of references, contact each reference in advance with a letter, phone call or email. If it is not someone you stay in close touch with, this step is even more important. You want to make sure of two things:

  1. Each person is willing to serve as a reference for you.
  2. Each person has positive things to share about you.

Not contacting references in advance leaves the door open to potential disaster, and any reference that is even mildly negative can hurt your shot at an interview. Contacting references in advance addresses both of these issues.

Discuss your resume and the position before adding a reference to a list of references

Once you have contacted people to use on your list of references, supply each reference with a copy of your resume, and tell each a little about the position you are seeking. Taking this extra measure gives your references a chance to think about what they want to say about you as it relates to a specific position.

Whenever you use someone as a reference, send them a thank you letter showing your appreciation and to maintain contact for a relationship that allows you to contact the same people for future reference lists.

Taking these steps before preparing a list of references helps you create a stronger reference list. Ultimately, you need to market yourself first with a resume that gets you noticed, but having a solid list of references handy when a prospective employer asks matters. By creating the list wisely and with care, you give yourself the best chance at being asked for a call-back interview or offered a position.