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By being your best self, you can build good relationships with people who might serve as references for you when you have the need.

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. These should be individuals with whom you have put in effort to maintain a relationship. Asking someone to serve as a reference is not a business transaction; it is representative of a relationship you have with the person through school, or work, or extracurricular pursuits.


  • 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.

  • Contact each individual whom you are asking to serve as your reference. Secure his/her permission in advance. 
  • When asking someone you don't see routinely, email is a good method to reach out so you give the person time to consider your request. You could offer to follow up with a phone call to share more information.
  • If asking someone you see routinely (for classes, work, etc.), it could make a great deal of sense to have a verbal conversation.
  • 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 emails 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.
  • How much time in advance to ask for permission: 
    • If you want a reference person to be contacted by a potential employer, ask at least a week or two in advance, so the person can be prepared to receive a phone call or email asking about you.
    • If you want a reference person to write a letter for you, ask at least three to four weeks in advance. You are asking the person to devote time and thought to doing a favor for you. Never assume that someone can do this on short notice. That will not help the person think positively of you. Think beyond yourself; the person you are asking likely has a full work schedule, and that person might be getting requests from others in addition to you.
  • Verify all details of your references' contact information, including spelling of names, titles, addresses, phone numbers and email addresses.
  • Give to 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 email 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.

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. Therefore 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.

  • On a resume:
    add your references to your resume. It is also unnecessary 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 a separate page or submitted per their instructions (website, form, etc.) when requested.
  • On a curriculum vitae:
    list references. It is customary practice to include your reference list on this document.

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 email 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 incorrect.

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.

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).

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 preferable 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 necessary to solicit these.

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.

Marianne Boles
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Biological Sciences Department
Virginia Tech
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