As you begin your professional career in the United States, you will need to create a resume to present to potential employers. An important aspect of this document is a reference list, which can be confusing if you have not dealt with the process before.

A reference is a person whom you have asked to act as a source of information for a prospective employer. Employers use references to obtain information about your experience and ethic in the workplace. Some employers prefer references and interviews over resumes when deciding whether to hire an applicant.

Before you begin:

Before you enter the American workforce, it is beneficial to understand the differences between similar well-known documents used globally.

Reference List and Letters of Recommendation?

A reference is significantly more detailed and relevant than a letter of recommendation. Employers consider letter of recommendation untrustworthy because they are often very general and give vague, impersonal descriptions. References are often people who have worked with you and can give you valid information in regards to your work ethic and ability to accomplish tasks.

How Many References should I have?

Try to have 3-5 references with a balance of professional and personal references. Your references page should cater to each other employer specifically; you will have to use careful judgment when matching references to the needs of a possible employer.

How Do I Choose Someone to Be a Reference?

Choose people who will speak well of your specific qualifications, accomplishments, and character. Recent references are preferable because they are more or direct supervisor are generally considered suspect.

People Who May Qualify As a Reference





Supervisors (Internships, Volunteer projects)

Advisors (Academic, International)

People Who DO NOT Qualify As a Reference





Anyone who only knows you in a social context.


How Do I request a Reference?

1. If you have not spoken to a potential reference recently, give a brief reminder of who you are and what you worked on together.

2. Inform this person of you current career direction.

3. Frame your request in a away that allows the reference to refuse gracefully.

- “Would you be comfortable serving as a reference in my upcoming job search?”

- “Will you have time in the next few weeks to serve as my reference?”

4. If your potential reference shows any hesitation, politely accept the answer, thank him or her, and move on to the next person on your list. Never pressure a reluctant reference.

5. After someone agrees to serve as a reference, describe the position you are applying for and the skills and qualities you would like to showcase.

6. It is also helpful to email your resume to your references, along with other information to remind them of your successes, such as projects you worked on or reports you created. Try to keep it brief – your reference is busy.

How Do I Work With References Throughout This Process?

• Be sure to show appreciation to your references for their contribution, perhaps with a handwritten note. Remember, they are doing you a favor.

• Notify them when you have used them as a reference so they can prepare. This can be done by email.

• Inform your references of the outcome. They are invested in this process too!

Maintaining good relationships with references makes it more likely that they will be willing to serve as a reference in the future.

Where Do My References Belong on My Resume or CV?

Never have your references on your resume or CV. Respect the privacy of your references by displaying their information on a separate page.

When Do I Give My Reference List to a Prospective Employer?

Only after they request it. Never volunteer a reference page spontaneously; if they do not ask for one on their own, there is no reason to complicate the process. However, you should always have one available, just in case.

How Do I Create a Separate Reference Page and Display It?

• For each reference, include full name, title, affiliated organizations, complete address, phone number, and email address.

• Salutations are listed before the name:

- Regardless of gender, any person with a medical, Ph.D., or other doctoral-level degree is addressed as “Doctor (Name)”.

- People who do not hold a doctoral or medical degree are addressed as “Mr.” or “Ms.” (Martial status, reflected by “Miss” and “Mrs.” Is irrelevant to business and professional communication.)

Although you are not required to place “Mr.” or “Ms.” before a person’s name on a reference list, it can be helpful, especially if gender is not obvious from the name (not uncommon). This simply helps the person contacting the reference to use the appropriate salutation.

Make absolutely sure you spell the names of your references correctly. Your name and contact information should be at the heading of the page 

– just like it appears on your resume.

Are There Legal Issues I Should Be Concerned About?

• Some employers have a policy against acting as a reference. They may confirm dates of previous employment, but otherwise be unwilling to discuss a former (or current) employee for legal reasons. If a reference statement has negative consequences, the company could face litigation. Some businesses consider it easier to avoid the possibility entirely.

• Never assume that a former (or current) employer will serve as a reference for you; always receive permission beforehand.

• If organization (agency, company, etc.) policy prohibits giving a formal reference, always consider your options thoroughly. Is there a supervisor or coworker in a higher-level position who clearly values your contributions, integrity, and work ethic? Perhaps he or she would be willing to serve as a personal reference, even if they could not speak officially on behalf of the organization.

Page last modified July 22, 2014