How to Choose the Right Job References


As you apply for tech jobs, a highly customized resume and cover letter are absolutely essential; depending on your targeted role, you may also want to have a personal website and/or Github repo showing off your best projects. But there’s another element that can make or break your chances of landing the job: references.

A solid reference will help reinforce your skills, work ethic, and potential to really help an employer complete their projects and carry out their strategic goals. But which references will actually help you land the job? Let’s dig in!

What Does a Reference Do?

In simplest terms, references are trusted individuals who vouch for your professional capabilities and qualities. The ideal reference will give employers an incredible picture of your capabilities and previous experience, and hopefully tip the scales in your favor.

Who Can I Use as a Reference?

In theory, you can use anyone as a reference. In practice, different references will help you out in different ways.

Professional References:

  • Who: Former or current supervisors, colleagues, project managers, and clients.
  • Benefits: They can directly speak to your work experience and skill set, as well as provide concrete examples of your achievements and contributions.
  • Example: “John consistently exceeded expectations, developing innovative solutions that saved us 20 percent in operational costs.”

Character References:

  • Who: Professors, mentors, community leaders, and volunteer coordinators.
  • Benefits: They can showcase your integrity, responsibility, and leadership qualities. They will also offer insights into your work ethic and adaptability in non-work settings.
  • Example: “Sarah demonstrated exceptional leadership during our university entrepreneurship program, inspiring her team to develop a social impact app.”

Academic References:

  • Who: Professors, research advisors, and graduate program directors.
  • Benefits: They can highlight your academic achievements and intellectual acumen, and demonstrate your research and analytical skills.
  • Example: “Mary consistently performed at the top of her class, demonstrating a deep understanding of complex algorithms and innovative problem-solving approaches.”

Integrating References into Your Job Applications

If you’ve never asked for references before, keep in mind that it’s totally normal to be a little nervous, even if you know your reference well: after all, you’re asking someone to serve as your advocate to a potential employer.

But if you choose your references correctly, they’ll be only too happy to help you out. It’s a little bit like selecting a mentor: you want someone with whom you feel comfortable. When you actually make the ask, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Always ask permission before listing someone as a reference. No exceptions.
  • Provide your references with your resume and job description. This will help them speak to your skills and background in the context of a specific job.
  • Keep your reference list targeted. You don’t want to list 10 people on your resume; keep it to 3-4.
  • Update your reference list regularly. Add new ones whenever you make a solid contact or jump jobs.

A great reference will help you stand out in a crowded field of applicants. Once you have your references in place, simply list “references available upon request” on your resume and other application materials (you need the space to list your skills and other critical information); if a recruiter or hiring manager wants them, they’ll ask.


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