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How to Find, Ask For, and Develop a Reference

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When you are new to the job market, it can be a challenge to know how to obtain a reference for a job application. It is not a good idea to ask just anyone or to ask people at the last minute either. Whether you get that wonderful job will be based primarily on your own merits, but a shining recommendation that highlights your great credentials can be the tipping point between you and your competition.

Great references are not found just anywhere. They must be cultivated and developed. Someone from Human Resources whom you have never seen is not a good reference even though he or she might have access to your employment records. Friends, even though they may know you well and can speak to your personal qualities, are often not the best references because they often do not know you on a professional basis.

The best references have a professional history with you. Ideally, you need to have worked directly with the person in some capacity. This could include supervisors, managers, or directors. Ideally, pick someone who is ranked higher than you, preferably not a coworker. For example, one of the best references to cultivate is the person who supervised your teaching practicum. This person has direct knowledge of how you work or teach. He or she watched you develop lesson plans and interact with students. These are crucial elements a principal would want to know when considering you for a position.

Another good reference might be someone who understands how you learn and can speak about your potential as a budding professional.  For example, one of your education professors might be a good reference, especially if you have developed a good working relationship and have taken several classes with him or her with good results. The professor will be able to discuss your ability to learn, your organizational abilities, projects you have done, and communication skills.

It is best to approach potential references in person during office hours with a current resume, a few reminder paragraphs of what you have done with them, and exactly what you wish from them (to act as a reference). If you detect any hesitation on the part of the potential reference, it is best to politely thank them and move on. If possible, develop a list of five to seven references you can confidently use depending on the particular job. Usually, you will need only three to five for each position for which you apply.

Whenever someone agrees to be a reference for you, provide the person with:

  • Your current resume
  • Paragraph or two of any additional pertinent information about the job search  
  • Reminders of things you have done with the reference

Provide your references with updated information as it changes. For example, if you change your job search parameters or change your resume significantly, send the references the updated versions. Keep in mind that professors, supervising teachers, principals, and other professionals tend to be very busy people. Always allow plenty of time (several weeks at least!) when asking for a letter of reference.

Every school district is a little different in what they require. Read the requirements very carefully!  Most districts ask for an electronic copy of a letter of reference; however, if the letter is to be mailed, provide a stamped, addressed envelope to your reference. Sometimes, the district will just ask for contact information of the references and will call or email directly. Whatever method the employing district requires, the idea is to make it VERY easy for your references to be informed and knowledgeable about you.

Always thank your references and keep up the positive relationship you have built with your references. These contacts could become wonderful mentors for you as you build your career. Send them a note or drop by once in a while and let them know how you are doing. If you obtain a position, be sure to share the good news with them!

Leanne Ralstin, Career Advising Specialist

Career Center, University of Idaho

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