How to Ask for a Reference

by Ruth Kitchin Tillman, former Head Editor, INALJ Maryland

previously published 10/16/13

How to Ask for a Reference

ruthtillmanAsking for references can be as nerve-wracking as applying for a job. But if you collect yourself and prepare beforehand, it shouldn’t be.

From a boss:

Most hiring managers will want to talk to at least one person who has managed you before. Think flexibly. It’s ideal to get someone who’s managed you in a formal work situation, but consider the places where you’ve volunteered. In most cases, the person who supervised your volunteer work will also be willing to give you a reference as having been your supervisor.

  • Talk with or email them to make sure they’d be willing to be a reference.
  • Give them some information (ideally in email, so they can find it again later) about what kinds of jobs you’re looking for, what your interests are, what projects you’ve done on the side. None of this may be needed for them to give the reference, but it will help them get a better picture of what you’re doing professionally.
  • Let them know when you’ve had interviews, in case they’re called/emailed as a reference. 

From a coworker:

If you’re low on relevant managers or ones for which you have contact information, consider asking a coworker to provide a reference for you as well. Choose carefully. Is there someone at work who’s encouraged and supported you in your career? Ideally someone a little older and at a somewhat more senior level? If you’re a circulation assistant, for example, consider asking a reference librarian with whom you have a particular rapport. Don’t make the mistake of just asking another circulation assistant because you two get along well.

Once you’ve determined that they’re willing to be a reference:

  • Talk with them about what you do at your current job. They probably have a general idea, but they may not be aware of everything you do. Try to round it out a bit.
  • Give them similar information as in step 2 with your boss. Introduce them to the future you that you’re planning to be and tell them how you’re getting there.
  • And keep them aware of any times when they may be called. 

From a professor:

When you’re first getting out of school, or applying to a graduate program, you may have few connections within the profession and decide it’s better to get a reference from a library professor or adjunct working in the field than from the ice cream store where you worked in high school. It’s an especially good idea to pick a professor from a class where you showed your passion for the field, even if they’re not as impressive on paper as another professor in a class you found less interesting.

  • Email them ahead of time to ask if they’d be willing to be a reference.
  • Unless you are currently in, or recently finished, a class with them:
    • Remind them of the grade you got during your class
    • Reference or send them a paper or project of yours which stood out in this class and tell them what grade you got on that particular paper/project. Even for students they like, professors may only have a blurry idea of the specifics of a student’s performance.
  • Tell them any relevant personal projects you’ve been working on in the meantime. Build a tag library? Tell them about that. Volunteer at your local historical society? Let them know. Show them your passions.
  • Give them an idea of the kinds of jobs you’ll be applying for and keep them updated if you get interviews–since most references will only be contacted after the interview.
  • Clarify whether you’re asking them to be a reference (generally receive a phone call) or to be a recommendation (generally involving writing a letter and/or filling out a form).