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References: What You Need To Know

You had a killer resume that helped you land an interview last week. You aced the interview, but today, the recruiter called and wants your references, the final part of the process, before they can offer the job. In a panic you responded, “Sure, no problem. I’ll get them to you right away.” You hung up the phone and realized you don’t have a clue about how to handle references.

References are an important part of the hiring process for the employer, but are often neglected by the candidate until the last minute. Keep some of these key suggestions in mind for an effective job search.

List of References or Letters of Reference?
When you are asked for “references,” it’s best to clarify what the person means by “references.” There is a big difference between a “list of references” and “letters of reference.”

A “list of references” consists of the name, job title, company name, employer address, phone number and e-mail of three to five people who can speak about you and your work record. Recruiters can contact these individuals to ask questions and perform background checks before hiring you.

A “letter of reference” refers to a formal document written by an individual commenting on your qualities, work ethic, academics, and future growth. Your letters are often stored in a “Credentials File.”

What’s a “Credentials File?”
Your college career center may have a fee or free service that allows you to maintain a “Credentials File” for your reference letters and other official documents. Once established, you may request that the File be reproduced and sent to potential companies or graduate schools that review recommendations for a candidate’s academic performance, experience, skills, and personal character.

Employers in a few fields, such as education and human services, expect the Credentials File as part of the hiring process. Recruiters are interested in knowing about your intellectual capabilities, principal achievements, potential for success, and your personal dimensions, i.e., what kind of a colleague you would make, how well you get along with others, and your level of reliability and responsibility. Generally your File is not requested by employers in business and industry.

If you are applying to graduate school, the letters should speak about you as a potential graduate student (academic ability, research ability, attitude towards study), as a future original contributor to the field of study, and as a person (your character, your outlook, and your interests). Since policies and procedures at many schools differ, it is important to determine what exactly is required for each. Most schools require that letters of recommendation be confidential. Some will only accept letters written on the forms provided by their office; others will accept letters of reference contained in your Credentials File in the career center. For prospective college graduates delaying application to graduate school, it is recommended that a Credentials File be established during the senior year.

The benefits of a Credentials File include:

  1. Centralizing the storage of your important letters of reference and related documents
  2. Precluding the need for individual reference letters to be written for each application
  3. Ensuring credibility of the letters and documents submitted for consideration.

Credentials File Do’s & Dont's:

  1. Do meet with a Career Center staff member to evaluate what documents are appropriate for your use.
  2. Do request an official transcript from the Registrar’s Office for inclusion in your Credentials File.
  3. Do keep a list of all information in your File and update your File on a regular basis.
  4. Do request in advance that your File be sent to the employer or graduate school to arrive on time.
  5. Do ask your supervisor for a letter of reference for your File anytime you leave a job or internship.
  6. Do consult with your campus career center staff member periodically for a review of your File.
  7. Don’t send your Credentials File to prospective employers if it is not required.
  8. Don’t request that your File be sent to a graduate school until after you have submitted the application.
  9. Don’t assume a college career center will keep your letters of reference on file indefinitely.
  10. Don’t forget to call and confirm that your Credentials File has been mailed as you requested.

Should My Letters of Reference be “Confidential” or “Non-Confidential?”

This is a difficult question that requires some background information in order for you to make a wise decision. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 states that you may have access to any documents in your Credentials File which were submitted after January 1, 1975 unless you voluntarily waive your right in writing for access to such information.

If you waive your right of access, your File will be considered confidential, i.e., you will not have access to its contents. Some employers and graduate schools believe confidential letters are more valid, frank, and thus more weighted. If you do not waive your right of access, your File will be considered non-confidential, i.e., you will have access to its contents. All information contained in the File will be available for your review so you can pick the best and most appropriate letters to send out.

Whatever you decide, both the reference writer and you must know whether or not you have chosen to be able to read it. Typically, the mailing of your Credentials File may be requested directly by you, a prospective employer, or a graduate school admissions officer. Usually, requests are accepted in writing, by phone, or in person. Contact your career center for details on your school’s procedures.

Choose your references carefully. Consider which faculty members and professional supervisors know your work well enough to be able to describe your capabilities in an articulate and credible way. Academic and professional competence and potential are the most appropriate areas for them to address. Do not seek out writers who know you, but who do not know your work, i.e. avoid letters that are only character references. Ask quite frankly, if the person can give you a positive reference.

Reference Letter Dos & Don’ts:
  1. Don‘t wait until the final hour to request your letters; give your writers plenty of time (several weeks).
  2. Do arrange to meet with each of your potential references to discuss your background and future goals.
  3. Do explain the purpose of the letter, i.e., employment or graduate/professional study.
  4. Do provide your resume, a list of your courses, and other accomplishments for the writer to review.
  5. Do ask your reference to write factually and specifically with examples to back up any generalizations.
  6. Do have your reference writer address the letter to a particular person at the organization, if applicable.
  7. Do request that they shape the letter to the type of position or graduate school you are applying to.
  8. Do clarify the nature of your relationship to the reference writer (professional, personal or academic).
  9. Do have work supervisors indicate your job title(s), and the time period involved.
  10. Do make sure your writer comments about your career potential and commitment to the field.
  11. Do ask to have included a closing paragraph summarizing your outstanding strengths and abilities.
  12. Do thank each person who writes a letter for you with a note of appreciation.

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