How new grads can get job references with little work experience
What if you've just graduated and never had a real job? Find out what recruiters are really asking for when they request references.
New college graduates, picture this: You're going on job interviews for the first time, which you pass with flying colors, only to get tripped up at the end when the interviewer asks for a few references. Where are you—a student who might not have ever had a “real” job before—supposed to get references from? Will a prospective employer really want to hear from the manager at the sandwich shop you worked at during the summers, your biology professor, or your swim coach? The answer may surprise you.
What do employers really want to know?
Most hiring managers and recruiters know from your resume (and from common sense) that their college grad applicants aren’t going to come to the table with extensive industry experience. However, professional references are still a useful tool for them because it can shed light on who you are as a person and responsible job seeker.
“From the professional evaluation stance of a recruiter, it’s more about whether you have references and can get them quickly,” says Mike Ruggiero, senior recruiter at Lionbridge Technologies. “They’re really looking for people who can offer insight beyond, ‘I gave Molly a task and Molly completed it,’” he says. In other words, think about who in your life can vouch for your work ethic, your problem-solving skills, and your team mentality—not just that you can do a job, but that you are a stand-out in all that you do.
“Employers want to know that someone coming off their degree isn’t just about skills,” Ruggiero adds.
Hiring managers will be most impressed if you have a list of references ready to go as it will show that you came prepared.
Who should you ask to act as your reference?
A reference can really be anyone that can speak about your abilities and performance. “It can be a boss during your summer job, a coach, a professor. But it should be someone that has a professional type of experience with you,” says Wes Perry, SVP and chief talent officer at Leader Bank, N.A.
In other words, you don’t want to ask Uncle Dave or your next door neighbor to give you a reference. “I’ve seen that happen a lot, and it shows that you don’t get it,” says Perry.
To figure out who the best references are for a particular position, simply ask your recruiter what types of references they want, suggests Ruggiero. “Ask your recruiting team, how can I get you the best information?” For example, if they want someone who can discuss your ability to be a work on a team, who better than a team coach or activity adviser?
“Recruiters love sports players because they have to be part of a team, be dedicated, and stay focused on training,” says Ruggiero. If you’re not an athlete, that’s fine—you could be the chair of your math club, or the director of your drama group. “Those types of references can be valuable if they can speak to how you have shown teamwork, professionalism, and the ability to meet deadlines,” he says.
Again, it’s expected that the entry-level grad might not have that many professional references, says Perry, but do the best you can to explain why you chose the references that you did. Something like: “I’m giving you this professor because they can talk about a research project that we worked on and how I contributed.”
Most important is making sure that the references you provide will speak highly of you. “Sometimes a reference might say, ‘I’m surprised this person picked me,’” says Perry, and that can be a kiss of death. That’s why you want to make sure to vet your potential references beforehand. “They’re going to either say they would or wouldn’t be a good reference with you—most will be upfront,” says Perry.
How should you ask for a reference?
If you’re asking someone to take the time to say something good about you, you want to make sure that they first of all remember you, and that they know a little something about the position you’re seeking. You might ask via email, phone, or in person, depending on your current relationship with the person. An old professor would work best over email, whereas a current boss at your part-time job would be just fine in person.
Be upfront about what you need from your reference, and be humble. You can say something like: “I’m applying to a very exciting position, and was hoping you had five minutes to chat about potentially being a reference for me since you’re highly respected in the industry.” This approach offers them a compliment and is respectful of their time, says Ruggiero.
Speaking of time, don’t get frustrated and give up if you don’t hear back from someone immediately, says Perry. “People are busy, so it’s OK to give a little nudge,” he says. Once you do hear back, provide them with the job description, and share a few bullet points reminding them about your accomplishments, especially if it’s been a while since you worked with the person.
And don’t forget: Send along thank-you notes every step of the process, says Ruggiero. “You want to show that you always appreciate people so they’ll know they’re not just being used,” he says.
What about written references?
The majority of employers will want to speak to references so they can ask specific questions, but it doesn’t hurt to have a couple of letters in your back pocket, says Ruggiero.
This is especially helpful if you have a great experience with a professor who you know is retiring, or you can ask your supervisor at the end of an internship just in case they move on before you start your job search.
“I’ve done that where I had a VP who I knew was retiring, so I asked if they would mind writing a letter of reference for me,” says Perry. Students can do the same. Say: “I’m going to graduate next year, but I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind writing a letter of reference on university letterhead.”
“It’s always good to be able to say, 'I do have several written letters that I can provide immediately, and I can provide you contact information as well,'” says Ruggiero. It shows that you had the foresight to be prepared, and are handling your job search in a very professional way.
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