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Professional References: Who, Why, and How to make them work for you

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As you begin your job search, you may find yourself wondering about references, letters of recommendation, and how to most effectively use both throughout the process.  Following are some tips to help you better understand the purpose of each and how to use them most effectively.

 Letters of Recommendation

  • Who:  While your references can write letters of recommendation, it is not necessary for every reference to do this.  Consider asking 2-3 professionals who have observed you in a teaching/educational role to write a letter of recommendation. 
  •  Why:  When submitting applications to various schools, you may have the opportunity to upload letters of recommendation as a portion of your application packet. While the letter won't get you the job, it can provide an overview of the qualities and skills someone else has recognized in you which can only help you as applications are being reviewed.  
  • How:  Be sure to provide the writer several weeks to write your letter, and provide the writer a copy of your most up-to-date resume and information about the types of positions you are specifically targeting so he/she can tailor the letter as much as possible.  Ask your writer to sign the letter and put it on letterhead if possible, then convert the final copy to a pdf for submission to employers.  When submitting your application materials, select the 1-2 letters most connected to the position for which you are applying and include them.  Quality and relevance are more important than quantity. 



  • Who:  Consider those who have seen you in action either teaching or in an educational setting.  Those who have supervised you and witnessed your work ethic, creativity, dedication, interaction with students, and heart for teaching firsthand are especially good potential references.  While it is important to have references who can speak to your teaching abilities, additional references can include faculty, supervisors, advisors, coaches, and more.  Ultimately you will want 3-5 references with at least 2 connected with Education.  Focus more on those who can say great things about your abilities in the classroom and less on their title.  For example, it may sound impressive to have your principal as a reference, but if he/she can't speak in depth about your abilities in the classroom, they won't be a strong reference for you.
  •  Why:  Employers like to have a conversation with someone who has worked closely with or supervised you in a previous role to gain additional insight as to your qualifications for the position and fit within the school.  It is common for reference checks to occur toward the end of the selection process, after interviews have taken place.  Sometimes a reference check will help an employer to decide between two excellent candidates, while other times the reference will help them confirm their choice to select you for the position. 
  •  How:  Always ask someone to be a reference before listing them on your reference sheet, and be sure to ask what contact information you should list for them.  It is recommended that you list your reference's name, title, employer, phone number, and email address on your reference sheet, and to list your references in the order in which you would hope that they be called - in other words, your strongest reference should be listed first.  While anyone you ask to be a reference should decline if he/she cannot say glowing things about you, never list a questionable reference.  If you are not confident that they will say great things, don't list them.  Be sure your references get a copy of your most updated resume as well so they will have a good grasp of all of your experience, accomplishments, and activities at their fingertips.  Finally, keep your references updated on your job search progress, including the jobs for which you have interviewed and when you secure a position.  Keeping these relationships strong throughout your job search and after will serve you well as you enter your first professional position!

Valarie Jacobsen

Assistant Director, Career Development

Xavier University


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