References are Key

two people talking during an interview

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By Deborah F. Cohen, MS
Career Development Specialist DFC Consulting, LLC


Whether you are applying for a job, internship, fellowship or for graduate and/or professional school, you will need references. Determining who you ask to provide a reference (verbal or written) is key to the success of your application process, and could make the difference whether you are chosen in preference to other candidates. Having worked with colleagues in several different settings (advising, committees, federal government and nonprofits), I have often been asked by many prospective candidates to provide references. These requests have been made by individuals seeking jobs in the government, academia, and nonprofits as well as for graduate or medical/dental school admissions, and/or internships. If I know the person well and I have warm words to say about them, I respond that I would be honored to do so. If I do not know the person well enough or do not feel comfortable giving honest feedback, I politely decline. Below are some do’s and don’ts to help you choose your references wisely:

Do’s

  • Ask teachers/professors/collaborators/your Principal Investigators, and others with whom you have a strong professional relationship.
  • Always ask these references if they can provide you with a positive recommendation. Be sensitive to hints of reservations and ask someone else.
  • Speak with your potential references as early as possible, even months in advance, so they are not caught off guard. You do not want them to drop everything for a deadline you knew about earlier.
  • Provide your potential references with a copy of your most recent resumé/CV.
  • Inform the person providing the recommendation why you are seeking this letter so that s/he can customize it accordingly. Arrange for him/her to receive a description of the fellowship, job or internship description, graduate or medical/dental school program overview, award criteria, etc.
  • Verify that you have the person’s correct contact information and know how they want to be addressed (Ms., Mrs., Dr., Mr., etc.). I personally have had individuals contact me who have been upset that they are being identified as Ms., Mrs. or Mr. when they have doctoral degrees.
  • Prepare the reference that they may receive an e-mail with instructions on how to submit a letter on your behalf. Inform your reference about the type of format that will be required. Online applications often require references to submit their letters in text boxes, others have allowed the references to be uploaded as an attachment, and some, rarely these days, will allow faxes or letters sent via the US mail system, FedEx, UPS, etc. Some, for example, medical schools, require faculty letters to be printed on school letterhead.
  • If a phone call is required, ask the reference for the phone number they wish to be used to be contacted. When possible, try to find details for him/her when he/she should expect a phone call.
  • Follow-up politely with the individuals so, when it gets closer to the deadline that they have submitted a letter on your behalf.
  • Have a backup plan: be prepared to ask an additional individual in case there are any holdups.

Don’ts

  • Have a family member or a neighbor serve as a reference. Hiring managers and admissions officials are looking for objective sources who know you in a professional setting.
  • Delay contacting a person to ask for a reference.
  • Ask someone you have not been in contact with in recent years.
  • Request to see a copy of the reference letter. Confidentially is key!!
  • Forget to inform him/her if you no longer need a reference.

Bottom line, your references are taking time to write you a letter or verbally vouch for your skills. It is up to you to make the process as simple as possible.


Deborah F. Cohen, is the owner of DFC Consulting, LLC and is a certified Global Career Development Specialist. For further information on Ms. Cohen please visit her on LinkedIn.