A reference is a person who will give a strong positive statement about you and your work-related qualities and experience. This statement is usually shared via email or phone. Occasionally, a reference may be written in letter format (e.g., written references are often used in the field of education). The most common way to share references with potential employers is with a reference list. A typical reference list includes three to five references.

A letter of recommendation is a written statement supporting your application for a specific internship program, fellowship, or graduate school. It differs from a reference in that it is always written and is addressed to a specific program. Many organizations that require a letter of recommendation will provide a form that will include a confidentiality waiver.

Choosing an Advocate

When deciding whom to ask for a reference or recommendation, consider the following:

  • Is the individual willing to provide strong, favorable information about you?
  • Is the individual’s academic or professional area relevant to your work or area of study?
  • Does the individual know you well enough to say substantive things about you?
  • Does the individual have the time to serve as a reference or write a letter?

Do not simply drop off a reference form in a professor’s box or send her or him a casual email. If special circumstances mean that you are forced to ask for a reference or recommendation on short notice, be sure to ask if the individual is willing and able to meet your tight deadline.

Good reference and recommendation sources include people who have a favorable impression of you in the workplace, classroom or on campus.

  • Current or previous work supervisors
  • Faculty, especially if you have taken more than one course from them
  • Campus administrators, advisors, coaches
  • Business colleagues, vendors, customers
  • Leaders in organizations you’ve volunteered for

Reference Tips

  • Always ask the person before you list him/her as a reference. Make sure your reference knows what to talk about and that it is positive.
  • Provide references with
  1. An updated version of your resume.
  2. Some background on the experience or situation you shared so they can speak intelligently about you. You might say something like, “as you may recall, I supervised all sailing lessons for campers and wrote the weekly newsletter during the summers of 2013-14.”
  3. The job description and name of the organization to which you are applying.
  • It is wise to give someone at least two weeks’ notice to serve as a reference and one month to prepare a letter of recommendation.
  • Use the same color/quality of paper for the reference sheet as you do for your resume.
  • Put your name at the top of the page in case it gets separated from your resume (or use the header from your resume).
  • Describe how you know your reference with a short phrase, for instance, “Ms. Mitchell was my manager at XYZ Company and can describe my customer service and social media achievements.”
  • Keep references informed of your progress including when and to whom you have given your reference sheet, especially if the interviewer indicates he/she will be contacting them.
  • Send a thank you note to each person who has worked on your behalf.
  • For more information, review our Reference List Sample.