At some point in the application process, you will be required to submit references. Sometimes the recruiter may ask you to submit contact information of your referees and the references are sourced directly by the recruiter. Here’s my quick thoughts on referees and reference letters:
- You want to be intentional about who you make your referees. Great referees do not happen all over a sudden. Do not just pick them anyhow. Great references are a result of a relationship you and your referee have cultivated over time. A relationship that you should be intentional about. At the back of your mind, you should be clear about who you would like to make your referee at your work place, at your academic institution, and in your social or extracurricular circles. If you did not do this yet, now is a great time to identify a short list, even if you are not applying for anything. Pick your referees nearly as carefully as you do your mentors.
- You want your referee to be invested in your journey and your aspirations so much that they are (nearly) eager to put in a word for you. The reason I recommend cultivating a relationship with your referees is so that you can keep them in the loop of what opportunities you may be looking into. Referees have their own busy lives, you are not a priority so you definitely do not want to be a stranger to them. Once in a while, check in with them to let them know the latest career or academic highlights that you have, make them aware of what you are up to and help them to understand why you are looking for the next job or next academic qualification. Especially when you will be requesting reference letters frequently, it will help you a great deal to just drop them a line if you cannot see them in person, and tell them what you are up to and that you will be needing their help.
- You want your referee to know you so well so that when they write a reference letter for you, it should be from a point of their personal reflection of your character, your commitment to what you do, the diligence with which you deliver and your excellence. You do not want your referee to sound like a score card. You definitely do not want your referees to edit out a letter they wrote for someone else whose content does not relate to your persona (this happens a lot!). You also definitely do not want your referee to simply fill out a template. The recruiter will notice this. Find you referees who will truly put in a good word for you, people who are truly invested in you and take some sort of pride in pushing you forward.
- You want to give your referees a head start. The relationship and the conversations you have are a great place to start. But a practical step is to always make the zero draft of the reference letter for you referee. It is actually to your own advantage that you do this. You can be able to signal to your referee which of your achievements are most relevant to this particular application. Your draft should not be the same for all your referees; highlight different things to different referees. The idea is that between all the referees that will put in word for you, there should be a coherent, holistic story that introduces who you are in action and what truly sets you apart from the rest. You do not want one referee speaking so highly of you and the other one is barely breathing any life into the reference they make for you. Recruiters will pick this up.
- You want to be courteous! Never, ever forget that references letters are a favor that people do for you. They could choose not to. Which is why I encourage you to maintain even a loose relationship with your referees. When you ask them to make a letter for you, ask them politely. In the email you send, include the first draft you have already made for them (you do not have to wait for them to ask). Also include a short summary- 3 to 4 lines- about what you are applying for and why you are the best candidate for it (not hyperlinks only, because they may not read that). When you have to follow up, do it gently (but firmly). Referees are doing you a favor, do not grow entitled.
Finally, do not underestimate the significance of a reference letter to your application. A reference letter is someone putting in good word for you. Recruiters will take that more seriously than when you tout your own horn. They will also use the references you make to balance out the things you say in your CV or during your interview. So make sure that the same effort you make in preparing your application or your interview is that same effort you put into engaging your referees. You want everything to be one whole package, the letters about you should be a joy to read!
Think of it this way, when it comes down to two candidates who are are similarly good with similar grades, similar qualifications, similar level of expertise and similarly suited for the opportunity; the recruiter will look into the references to pick out the distinguishing factors between the two personalities.
You want your references to be candid, personal and a true testament of who you are.