What’s in a Reference? A Guide for Recent College Grads

by Sharon Elber | April 28, 2022


Providing a list of two or three references is a fairly standard requirement for attaining a job after college. A strong reference can give you an edge over your competition, and a weak one can spell disaster.

This guide will give you the ins and outs of how to identify your strongest references, and how to go about getting them lined up to speak to your strengths to any potential employers.

1) Professional and Personal References: Know the Difference

In general, there are two types of references that you can use as part of the job search after college. The first is a personal reference. This may be someone you have known for many years in your personal life who can speak to your character, personality, and other qualities that would make you a strong contributor to the team in your future job. An example might be the pastor at your church or a family friend.

Second are professional references. These may be from a previous work experience, academic coursework, or extracurricular activities such as sports. These references can speak more directly about your performance under pressure whether it was on the job, in a classroom, or on the team.

Professional recommendations are more highly valued for most potential employers. While a very strong personal reference from someone you have known since high school can demonstrate a consistent positive character, you should not include more than one personal reference with your application materials for jobs after college. And, if you have three professional references that are strong, it would be better to avoid personal references altogether unless you are explicitly asked to provide one.

2) How to Choose the Best References

Some references are better than others. There are several factors to consider when it comes to choosing the best people. Start by making a long list of the contacts you made while in college. Include people that you met throughout your coursework, at jobs you held, and any extracurriculars you participated in. Then, narrow the list down to the top five or six using the following criteria:

You Are Sure That They Think Highly of You

The very first consideration to make is the quality of the relationship you had with the person. Were your interactions positive? Did you sense that the person was not only happy with your work, but showed a special interest in your learning or professional advancement? The people most likely to provide you with a strong, positive reference are those who have previously demonstrated that they are invested in your success.

You Worked Together Closely

The more you have worked with someone, whether it was a research project or a volunteer opportunity, the stronger the reference they can provide for you. The more they can speak to your various talents, skills, and work ethic, the stronger the case they can make to your potential employer.

Many college graduates make the mistake of assuming that they can list a professor as a reference just because they earned a good grade in a single class. The fact is that a teacher has a very limited view of who you are as a person. While they may be able to speak to your passion for a subject, or even your ability to handle the workload in their classroom, it is not a broad enough view to provide the kind of strong reference that can become a powerful aspect of your application to jobs after college.

They Hold a High Position in Their Field or Institution

One of the important ways your references will be evaluated is their level of professional development. For example, a strong reference from a tenured and senior professor tends to have more weight than that of a teaching assistant (usually a graduate student). Although it is more important to have positive references from people you worked with closely, choosing the best of your references may come down to picking those that are more advanced in their career.

Their Relevance to Your Career

One of the last things to consider when making your reference list is the relevancy to your chosen profession. Ideally, at least one of your references can speak to your aptitudes and passion for the field you will be going into.

Some people make the mistake of thinking all of their references need to be in their specific field. However, employers don’t expect every reference to be topically related to the work you will be doing. Instead, make sure you have strong references from well located people with whom you worked with closely first before you add references that can speak to a more limited view of your performance in your specific discipline.

Try to Have at Least One Reference from a Previous Employer

If you have worked a part-time job during your college experience, then at least one of your references as you look forward to your first job post-graduation should be from one of your supervisors. Even if your work was not relevant to your ultimate career goals, a past employer can speak to some of the most important qualities that a future employer is looking for.

For example, a previous employer can speak to your work ethic, ability to work with others, and reliability as an employee in ways that few other references will be able to match. In other words, they can provide a window into how you perform on the job that can round out your reference list in an important way.

3) Create and Maintain a Reference List

The odds are good that you will be applying to multiple jobs (or internships) as you approach the end of your college years. Save yourself some time and energy by maintaining an accurate reference list of your top five or six references. Even though you will only use at most three of these references for a given job, you may find that some fit a particular opportunity more than others.

Here is what you need for each potential reference:

  • Name, including degrees such as M.S. or Ph.D.
  • Title
  • Professional address
  • Professional email
  • Phone number
  • Some notes (for yourself) about what qualities they will be able to speak to should they be called by a potential employer

4) Contact Your References in Advance

As you enter the job search for your first job after college, it is likely that you will be applying to several jobs before you find employment. It is important that your references are aware that they may be contacted by potential employers. Giving them a heads up is a good opportunity to provide them with some background about the position and confirm their contact information.

To that effect, it can help to send each of your references your resume and a brief summary of what you are hoping they can provide for you. Here is an example of what that might look like in an email:

Dr. Jones,

Thank you for agreeing to serve as a professional reference as I transition from my college experience to the work force. In particular, I hope you will be able to speak to my strong leadership abilities, my passion for chemistry, and my fastidious research skills from our time working together on the XYZ project.

I have attached my resume to this email so that you can gain a better understanding of what I have been up to during my college experience. If you have any questions or feedback, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Thank you for your time and mentorship which has helped to shape my perspective and inspired me to pursue a career in chemistry. The chemistry students at ABC University are lucky to have you!


Sarah Smith

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