What is a reference?

A reference is a person who agrees to talk to an employer or organization to attest to your qualities, characteristics, abilities, and achievements.

Some references will be needed when applying for jobs. You may also need professional references when applying to graduate or professional programs. References may be asked to submit a written letter, fill out a form, or simply be willing to speak to a department or potential employer.

How do I choose who to ask to be a reference?

References are typically someone who knows you in a professional or educational capacity, such as a professor, coach, supervisor, or colleague. When you’re choosing who to ask to be a reference for you for a position, follow the following steps:

  1. Make a list of people who you have had positive, professional relationships with. Think of people like professors, coaches, supervisors, colleagues.
  2. Write down phone numbers and email addresses. If you do not have this information, don’t worry about it for now–you can always gather this information if you ask the person.
  3. Begin to narrow down your list to a smaller group of people. To narrow this down, ask yourself the following questions:
    1. Have I worked with this person recently?
    2. Is there any chance this person would give me a negative review?
    3. Does this person usually respond to calls and emails in a timely manner?
    4. Does this person know me well?
  4. Try to choose between 5 to 6 people you can ask to be a reference generally, which you can then select from to ask to be a reference for specific positions.

How do I ask someone to be a reference?

When asking someone to be a reference, consider trying to ask in person or over the phone, so you can gauge their enthusiasm (or lack of enthusiasm) for helping you. Additionally, make sure to ask in a way that they would feel comfortable saying no to. If asking over email, here is an example of what you can say:

Hi [name],

I hope all is well! How have things been with you and [the person’s company, organization, or personal interest]?

I’m reaching out because I’ve been interviewing for a [position name] role at [company], and I’d love to list your name as a reference, if you’re willing. I thought of you because we’ve [ways in which you’ve worked together], and you could speak to my [key skills and abilities needed in the new position].

I’ve attached my current resume and the position description for your reference. I know the hiring team is particularly looking for someone who [very short description of key elements of the role], so specifically, I’m hoping you can talk about:

  • [1-2 skills, abilities, or talents that are key to the position]
  • [Specific project you worked on that’s relevant to the role]
  • [Key differentiator between you and other candidates]

Please let me know if you’d be willing to serve as a reference and, if so, your preferred contact info and any other details you need from my end. I believe the [call, email] will come from [hiring manager or recruiter’s name] at [company] around [time frame].

And, of course, if you’re busy or not comfortable, I completely understand. Thank you in advance for your time, and let me know how I can return the favor!

All the best,

[Your name]

Email template example excerpted from Adrian Granzella Larssen’s article in The Muse.

If they agree, you will want to share information with them, such as:

  1. The job description of the place that you are applying for.
  2. The resume and cover letter that you submitted to the position.
  3. What you anticipate the caller is likely going to want to talk about.
  4. Any information that you would like them to highlight.

Reference Documents

Click the “Sample Reference Document” button below to view a sample reference document, and make a copy of the Google document to make it your own!

For more information on selecting references, see this article, or make an appointment with a career specialist.


If your current boss is not aware that you are looking for a job–and you would like to keep it that way–do not list them as a reference. Consider seeing if there are a few trusted colleagues who would be willing to be your reference on the down-low. If you choose to do this, you can always explain to them that you are not wanting your current employment to know about your job search.

Technically, yes. However, we strongly suggest finding alternative professional resources if at all possible. Friends and family members are likely to be seen as biased sources, and likely will not be taken as seriously by the employer.

You can ask someone to be your reference generally toward the beginning of your job search, and then you can contact them in specific when you have begun the job interview process with a specific company for a specific position. You don’t need to tell them about every job you apply to–just be sure to let them know about specific positions if they are likely to be contacted.

Sample Reference Document