How to get professional references when you don't have much work experience
Your job search isn’t a solo endeavor. These tips tell you whom and how you should ask for references.
You know that you’re an awesome worker, but prospective employers aren’t exactly going to take your word for it. That’s why providing them with your professional references is a key part of the job search process, as most employers will want to hear from your former supervisors to make sure hiring you is a wise move.
Asking for a professional reference can feel awkward, and since you’re just starting out in the workforce, you likely won’t have a list of former bosses all queued up and ready to sing your praises. Not a problem.
Monster spoke to career experts for advice on whom—and how—to ask for professional references even if your resume is looking a little thin. (Hint: Avoid family and friends.)
How to ask for professional references…
…If you haven’t had a job yet
Your teachers are a great resource, especially if you don’t have three or more work supervisors to speak on your behalf. However, it’s important that your teachers address your talents beyond your academic abilities. Prospective employers want to know what makes you a valuable employee, and good grades don’t.
“Ask [teachers] to focus on how you took a leadership role in class and the work you did in team projects and presentations,” says Corey Listar, director of staffing operations at Oldcastle, a building product manufacturer based in Rochester, New York.
Even if you think your teachers know you well, give them a detailed recap of how your leadership or communication skills shone through in specific situations. “This will not only help your teachers to cater the response,” says Alisa Carpenter, a millennial career coach in Philadelphia, “but it will also show how organized and prepared you are for your next professional step.”
…If you’ve only had one job or internship
If you’ve only had one internship or part-time job, it’s fine to double dip and ask for references from more than one person. Beyond your primary manager (a project lead with whom you worked closely), you could reach out to someone else in your department who was higher in seniority and can speak to your time as an employee or intern.
“Recommendations are not limited to skills, but can also include a person’s character,” says Crystal Olivarria, a career coach at Career Conversationalist, a career-coaching business in Clovis, California. So even if your second reference didn’t manage you directly, “they can at least speak to your work ethic,” says Kate Fairchild, IT recruiting manager at Addison Group in Chicago.
…Once you have your wish list
After you have a few great people in mind, don’t just assume they will agree to be a reference. Keep your request simple, and deliver it politely.
Susan Fan, founder of MANGO Connects, an online career-coaching tool, suggests asking like this:
“I’m seeking X position at X company. Based on your knowledge and experience of working with me [in whatever role/capacity], would you be willing to be a reference and speak to my skills and abilities as they relate to this role? If so may I provide your name, email, and phone number to X person?”
If they agree to be a reference for you, you should seal the deal by expressing gratitude.
“Asking is just the first step,” reminds Sharon Schweitzer, founder of Protocol & Etiquette, a business-etiquette consulting firm based in Austin, Texas. “Remembering to sincerely thank them afterward is just as important. Be sincere and express thanks for their time away from their busy schedules. A handwritten note is a sincere way to show gratitude and adds a personal touch.”
Saying thanks is more than just a display of good manners; you’ll likely ask them to be a reference for future job opportunities, too, so be sure to leave a good impression. The mature professional you have become will surely impress your former professors and managers.
Of course, there’s a chance the person you wanted to vouch for you can’t or won’t, for whatever reason. If that’s the case, don’t take it too hard. Thank them anyway. Respect their honesty; it’s much better to have a person decline than pass along lukewarm remarks to your potential employer. Chin up, and move on to the next person on your list.