The question of who to put down as a reference can be difficult at any point in your career, but never more so than when you’re just starting out.
The dream reference will come from a former manager at a successful company where you aced every task and gained experience that makes you perfect for the new role. For most graduates, references like this aren’t a reality, as their work history is – naturally – so limited.
So if you’re applying for internships or graduate jobs and are asked to provide references, who should you put down?
First and foremost, don’t be tempted to provide any false references. According to one survey, over 80% of employers report that they regularly conduct reference checks. The chances that you’ll get caught out are far too high. Remember, any employer looking to hire a graduate will be aware that you may not be able to provide employment references. If you are asked for these specifically, just be honest and open about it, and they should accept an alternative.
When picking your first choice for referee as a recent graduate, the answer will almost always be a tutor. After all, they’re well placed to be able to comment on your work ethic, communications style, ability, and all sorts of things the employer will want to know about.
However, it’s worth putting some thought into which tutor you include; you should only choose one you’ve actually had a reasonable amount of contact with. Ideally, you should put down the tutor who supervised your dissertation or an equivalent project, or whose seminars you were particularly active in.
Tutors are used to being put down as references, but it’s important to ask them first all the same. For one thing, it’s a matter of politeness, but it also gives you a chance to assess what kind of reference they’re likely to give. Not everyone is guaranteed to be as positive as you might hope. If you handed work in late or were caught out in seminars for not doing your reading, your tutor may feel duty-bound to be honest about your shortcomings.
Even if your tutor has given you blanket permission to use them as a reference, you should get in touch with them if an employer plans to contact them. As well as giving them fair warning, you can tell your tutor a bit more about the job in question. That way, they can tailor their reference to the job specification – just as you would tailor a cover letter.
Part-time work and volunteering
Putting down a contact from a part-time job might not feel ideal – after all, your time spent waitressing or sweeping up popcorn might seem irrelevant to the position you’re applying for – but are still certainly worth including when you’re lacking alternatives.
Employers aren’t just investigating your duties and experience when contacting a reference. If fact, according to one survey only 36% of employers consider this to be the most important aim of a reference check. Learning about your strengths and weaknesses, your accomplishments, and your preferred work culture are also important.
Talking to your former manager can answer a range of questions an employer has about you, as an employee and as a person. As well as specific queries about your soft skills, the simple point of whether your old colleague sounds positive when they talk about you will help make up a hiring manager’s mind about whether they want to bring you on board.
A reference related to a volunteer role can serve a similar purpose. If you completed a significant amount of volunteer work and are in contact with someone from the charity or project, you should consider putting them down as a reference. Ideally, this will be someone who had a senior role, so their statement has the weight of experience behind it.
As a rule of thumb, you should never include relatives or partners as references. The same goes for your close friends. Your potential employer wants to hear from someone who can tell them about your work ethic and give a balanced assessment of you.
If employers request a more personal character reference, you could put down a family friend – someone who knows you well and can give an assessment of your character but isn’t so close to you that the employer can’t trust their opinion. Your personal tutor, sports coach, or the neighbour you babysat for might also be suitable, so long as you genuinely know them well.
If the employers want a reference from anyone closer to you than this, which is very rare, they will give you specific guidelines as to who they want you to put down. Otherwise, avoid putting down any references that are too personal, even for a character reference.
Should you include referees on your CV?
Having figured out your references, you can now consider whether you want to proactively give them to employers, or wait for a reference request.
Adding references to your CV may feel like a great way to bulk it up, but it’s unnecessary. If your employer wants to talk to a referee, they probably have specific questions that they want to ask that a generic spiel about you being a hard worker is unlikely to answer. Unless the CEO of Facebook has provided a quote about how amazing you are, references on a CV are unlikely to make much impression, or even to be read by a busy recruiter.
A common alternative is to include the line ‘References available upon request’ in your CV or cover letter instead. This can be a good idea if you’re sending off a speculative application, as you want to have every opportunity to persuade the employer they have a place for you, but otherwise even this line is fairly unnecessary. If your new employer wants you to provide references, you can be sure they’ll ask for them whether you offer them or not.
Claire Kilroy is a content writer for the UK’s leading graduate recruitment agency, Inspiring Interns. Check out their website for listings of internships and graduate jobs in London and beyond, or find graduate careers advice on their blog.
This article has been provided by an external organisation, as such the views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Careers, Placement and Experience Centre.