By Carly Smith, Associate Director, Career Readiness

This summer, I have been thinking a lot about references. Being at the same company now since 2011, it’s been a while since I’ve had to think about who I would use myself if asked to provide a list of 3-4 people who can speak highly about me to a future employer, grad school, etc. However, this summer reminded me why I should always be thinking about who these people might be. In my position at the Toppel Career Center, I have both given many references to those who have worked for me or with me. I have also been on the other side, calling references for those I am considering hiring. I had the opportunity this year to serve as a reference for someone who I admire and love working with, and it felt wonderful to know that my positive endorsement might help support that person in their goals. However, there have also been a few situations I encountered recently that made me realize that finding a great reference is tricky, and not everyone may know the best tips and strategies for finding the right person. So, here are my three major rules for finding the best reference for you.

#1. Make sure the person you are asking to be a reference knows you well enough to speak well of you.

I learned this lesson as a college senior. Not knowing who I wanted to write me a recommendation for graduate school, I chose some faculty members that I had taken classes with recently and performed well. Everything seemed all great, until one of those individuals turned me down. I was caught off guard. Why is this person saying no to me when I took the time to ask for a recommendation? Well, it was for one huge reason. This individual was a lecturer at my university and the course that I had taken with her was only a one credit course, so she felt her recommendation would not be as well received as from someone who I knew better and spent more time with. In the end, she was right, and I chose a professor who I had a better relationship with. I have carried this with me into my current job, and will sometimes turn down a reference request if I don’t feel that my recommendation will be able to be as great as I know it should be. These people usually agree and find someone much more knowledgeable about them.

#2. Make sure your reference will say good things about you. 

You’d think this would be an obvious rule, not even necessary to speak of here, but time and time again, I have called up a reference to receive feedback on a candidate and have not received positive words. There have been times when the reference check was all that was stopping me from hiring someone, and I changed my mind because what I learned. How horrible to think someone is going to sell you to a future employer when they are going to do exactly the opposite? We all have weaknesses and areas where we can improve, and your references will be asked about those things. And… they should be completely and totally honest about those areas of improvement. However, there is a fine line between speaking honestly about some weaknesses and not recommending you for a job/ grad school/ etc. Make sure who you choose as a references falls into the first category. And if you are unsure, it never hurts to ask. Better to get the hard truth now than the bad reference later.

#3. Make sure your reference knows that they are your reference.

One of the biggest red flags to me during a reference check is when the person who picks up the phone sounds confused as to why I am calling them or even says blatantly, “Oh, I didn’t know he/she was using me as a reference.” Think about it. I am about to take time out of this person’s day, probably about 10-15 minutes to talk about you. I am interrupting them from something busy they are doing. Don’t you think it would be wise to ask the person first who you’d like to have as a reference because they are doing this favor and taking time out of their day for you? I personally think so. Also, to give your reference the opportunity to speak the best they can about you, they will probably need time to prepare, to remember what examples of your strengths and skills they want to use, and to recall positive stories of you. This is much harder when someone is caught off guard. For these reasons, please ask your references first to be your references. Also, keep them in the loop. If you think they will be getting a call or email from someone soon, let them know.

So here you have it. These are my three major rules for finding an amazing reference. At Toppel, we can help you identify who the right people might be for you, so don’t hesitate to ask us during an advising session. Based on what you are applying for, the right person might constantly be someone new.  Now time for me to start thinking about who I could use as a reference… You never know when you might need one.