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The Step-By-Step Guide To Getting A Bomb Reference

Photographed by Nicolas Bloise.
The process of interviewing for a job can be like getting the keys to an amazing house, only to find out that every door inside is locked. You may have gained entree, but you'll have to hunt for the keys to the other rooms before the place is yours.
So, even after you make it past the interview process, have said your thank-yous, and have been asked for references, the job isn't yours until you sign a contract on the dotted line. References can play a huge role in landing a job — it can make or break an offer if you're on the final shortlist — so make sure the ones you ask for are strong.

Make The Ask

Contrary to some advice, you don't have to always ask for a reference in person. (Depending on where your work has taken you, you might no longer live in the same state — or country — as a previous employer, making that rule unfeasible.) You should, however, do your best to give your references adequate notice. Don't ask someone to serve as a reference with a turnaround of one day or two. And don't list someone as a reference without asking them first. If they agree, they may need time to recap your previous work in order to give you the best recommendation possible.
Contact about three people when you start applying for jobs and ask them if they would be comfortable being used as a reference later on in the process. Monster suggests having at least three or four references for mid- to entry-level positions, and five to seven references for more senior roles. It takes time to build a network of reliable references, so don't worry if you only have about two solid people to ask.
You might also think outside of the box. References don't always have to be direct supervisors, especially if you've only had one job and can't ask your current boss. Widen your scope and select people who are intimate with your work and skills, Monster says. Christina Murphy, an adjunct professor at Touro College's Graduate School of Business tells the job site that "individuals with whom you have worked closely can make excellent references, including former clients, teammates, professors or community leaders."

Provide Background

A survey from staffing agency OfficeTeam found that the two most important things hiring managers want when speaking to references is a description of past job duties and experience, and a view into an applicant's strengths and weaknesses. So, give each person you are asking for a reference from some information about the job you're interviewing for, including the title, position, and a brief explanation of the role.
The Muse offers one way of presenting that information, especially if you'd like your reference to hone in on a few things. Ideally, they might touch on what the hiring team is looking for, what about your projects or work you're hoping they'll talk up, or one unique thing you'd love it if they mentioned. Don't make any demands, but do provide some context.
Also, be sure to ask your reference when they would like to be contacted, and give them an idea of who will contact them. Some references might prefer that you share their email address, while others would prefer that you share their phone number. You should also ask when they prefer to be contacted — before noon or after 3 p.m. EST? Not at the beginning of the week, but fair game any day after Wednesday? Not at all after a certain date because they'll be out of the office and unavailable?
They're allowed to set those terms, and it's perfectly acceptable to indicate that to the hiring manager. Your reference and recruiter will likely coordinate much of this out of your sight, but you want to make it as easy as possible for them to connect.

Customize Your Request

The way you ask someone for a reference may change depending on your industry. The Balance has a few great reference request templates, whether you're asking a professor, an advisor, or a former employer.
If you are asking over email, you should keep your request brief and professional. You can be friendly of course, especially if you've developed a closer relationship to the person you are asking. But you don't want to assume they will give you what you want, or that they have the time.
As suggested in this template, give the person you are asking an out. Be gracious if it turns out they don't feel comfortable about it or don't have time. (A crucial thing to remember is that if someone you reach out to declines to be a reference for you, it's probably a good idea for you to leave them off the list.) You already (ideally) believe they can "attest to your qualifications" — or else you wouldn't be asking, but thinking about how the other person feels is important. Maybe they don't feel comfortable speaking on your behalf for whatever reason. Before you get too insulted, appreciate the fact that they let you know in advance, instead of secretly giving you a lackluster recommendation.
If enough time has passed that your reference isn't fully aware of what you've been up to since you last worked together, you could also help them out by including your résumé or a brief description of what you've been up to in your professional life.

Follow Up

Someone who agrees to be a reference for you is actively supporting your success, so don't leave them hanging. Thank them for their time (each time, if you use them more than once), and then let them know how the process went, or is going.
If you get the job, you absolutely want to let them know in a timely manner. Offer to take them to lunch, buy them coffee, send a gift card, or just a simple thank-you card. Whatever works for your budget, but serves as a thoughtful gesture. (No one is expecting you to break the bank with a thank you, especially if you're early in your career.) Just remember that if they find out you got the job from someone else first, you risk making them feel used.
If you didn't get the job, don't ghost your reference out of embarrassment. One person getting a job always means that many other people didn't. Your turn will come. Getting to the reference stage means you came very close to landing the position, so take the opportunity to thank your interviewers again, ask if they can share any feedback or information about what led to their decision, and consider sharing some of that intel with your reference to see if they have any suggestions or advice — especially if they were a former boss.
As a previous observer of your strengths and weaknesses, a reference might have valuable insight. Plus, you may need to call on them again in the future.

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