How to Collect Professional References

| Genevieve Carlton

As graduation day approaches, many soon-to-be college grads must scramble to start applying for jobs — and asking for professional references.

Recent grads know to list their education, work experience, and skills on their resume, but they might not know to include professional references, too. However, many jobs ask for at least one professional reference letter during the application process.

But what's the best way to collect professional references? Who should recent grads ask for reference letters? And how many professional reference letters are needed?

In this article, we'll walk through the process, including templates for requesting a professional reference.

What's a Professional Reference?

Job applications often ask for professional references. So do graduate school applications. But what is a professional reference? And what's the difference between a reference letter and a letter of recommendation?

A professional reference is a person who vouches for you and your qualifications. They offer insights to potential employers about your abilities and strengths. For example, a good reference can speak to your professionalism, ability to complete projects, communication skills, and strengths in team settings.

Common professional references include former supervisors, mentors, or professors.

Professional references come in different forms. In many cases, applicants simply list references on a resume or enter them on job applications. That way, the job recruiter can contact those references and speak to them directly.

However, some jobs also ask for a professional reference letter. This letter is the professional version of a letter of recommendation, like you would have on a school application. It's much like the difference between a resume and a CV: Professional references help candidates land jobs, while academic references help them get into grad school or earn academic positions.

How to Choose the Best Professional Reference

Who makes the best professional reference? The answer depends on the job.

For example, a business major who is applying for positions in both accounting and public relations might want to use different references. Maybe an accounting professor for the former, and a PR internship manager for the later.

Recent grads on the job market for the first time often struggle to identify potential references, as they haven't had many supervisors yet. That's why students should invest in building relationships during school, so they're prepared when it's time to submit job applications.

Spend time networking in college to begin connecting with potential references. Attending networking events, job fairs, and departmental events helps students build relationships with people in their field.

An internship is one of the best ways to gain professional references in college. Interns work closely with an experienced supervisor, who can serve as a reference. Even if the internship does not relate to your post-graduate career goals, a supervisor can speak to your professionalism and soft skills, like communication and time management.

Joining an alumni association, logging volunteer hours, and connecting with professors are all great ways to gain references, too.

Generally, students ask professors for letters of recommendation rather than professional reference letters, because professors are most familiar with the academic realm. However, a professor familiar who is with your research skills, analytical abilities, and organizational skills might make a good reference for students with little work experience.

However, avoid asking family members and friends to serve as a reference unless you've worked with them in a professional capacity. Most hiring managers would rather hear from a coach, mentor, supervisor, client, or even a coworker rather than family and friends.

How to Ask for a Professional Reference

Once you've put together a list of possible references, it's time to contact each person to ask if they're willing to serve as a reference.

This step can be intimidating for many students. When asking someone to serve as a reference, it's best to use clear language and be specific about exactly what you need. Make it easy for them to say yes!

Keep in mind that you want references who enthusiastically agree, so if you face any hesitancy from a potential reference, consider moving on to another person on your list.


Asking for a Professional Reference: Templates

Always ask before listing someone as a reference on your resume or a job application. Keep the request brief and explain why you would appreciate their professional support.

"Hello [Name], I plan to apply for jobs in the accounting field in the next few months. Would you be willing to serve as a professional reference?"


"Hello [Name], I appreciated your feedback as my internship supervisor. I'm applying for full-time positions this spring and I'd like to list you on my resume as a professional reference. Are you willing to act as a reference?"


"Hi Professor [Name], I'm applying for jobs in finance after graduation. Since I completed my capstone project in your class, can I list you as a professional reference on my resume?"


Asking for a Professional Reference Letter: Templates

Asking for a letter of recommendation requires additional work from your reference. Make it easy for them by providing specific information in your request and offering to send materials to review, like your resume. If you have a specific goal in mind, like demonstrating your software abilities, ask for that directly.

Make sure to specify whether the letter will go in your placement file or directly to a hiring manager. Reference writers also appreciate knowing whether to keep the letter general or focus on a specific job posting.

"Hello [Name], I plan to apply for graphic design jobs when I graduate in the spring. Since you supervised my graphic arts internship, I would appreciate a professional reference letter for my applications. I plan to use the career services placement file. Would you be willing to write a general letter that speaks to my graphic design skills and abilities? I can send my resume and portfolio. Thank you."


"Hello Professor [Name]. I learned a great deal as your research assistant. I plan to apply for research positions this summer. Would you be willing to write a professional reference letter for my applications? Thank you for your consideration."


"Hello [Name], I enjoyed working on web development projects for you over the past year. I'm planning to apply for full-time web development roles. Would you be willing to write a professional reference letter detailing the work I did for your sites? In particular, I would like to highlight my JavaScript abilities. I'd be happy to send my resume and a few sample job postings. Thank you."

How Many Professional Reference Letters Do You Need?

It's a good idea to secure 2-3 professional reference letters before applying for jobs out of college. In addition, aim for at least 4-5 people to include as professional references on your resume. It's fine to list the same person as a reference and ask them for a letter.

Some students benefit from having a longer list of references. If you're applying for jobs in multiple fields, for example, it's a good idea to customize your reference list based on the position you are applying for.

Start thinking about references early and continue to collect them throughout your early career years. In your first job after college, for example, cultivate relationships with supervisors and coworkers who might make good references. As you advance in your career, swap these professional contacts in for your college references. This keeps your resume fresh and up-to-date.

Genevieve Carlton holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern University. After earning her doctorate in early modern European history, Carlton worked as an assistant professor of history at the University of Louisville, where she developed new courses on the history of science, Renaissance Italy, and the witch trials. Carlton has published five peer-reviewed articles in top presses and a monograph with the University of Chicago Press. She also earned tenure with a unanimous vote before relocating to Seattle. Learn more about Carlton's work at genevievecarlton.com.

Header Image Credit: Luis Alvarez | Getty Images

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