How to Choose the Best References for your Resume

Many job seekers put little thought into their references, instead preferring to concentrate on their resumes and cover letters. This is an easy mistake to make—after all, few employers will carry out an extensive background search, and the cover letter and resume are the bread and butter of the application process.

However, some employers, even “most” if they request references on the job posting, will contact at least a couple of people on your reference list, so it is definitely worthwhile putting some time into making sure your references will “work” for you if called to action.

1.) Use only Current and Specific References

Employers who want to see your references don not want generic recommendation letters from people who aren not available for immediate contact. With the exception of educational or personal references (who won’t necessarily discuss your professional attributes), all of your references should be people that an employer can contact any given business day (Monday through Friday, 9AM-5PM) to talk about your professional skills and qualities.

If your references are international make sure you state so and also provide an international number where they can be reliably contacted. If providing a company number make sure to provide the party’s specific extension as well.

2.) Choose the Right People

Naturally your references should be people who will say good things about you. That is not the only consideration, however. You will also want to choose references who can discuss the professional qualities that make you a good candidate for the specific position you are applying for. It pays to have as extensive a list of references as you can manage, so that you can tailor your references to the job. This is one reason why your reference list should not be part of your resume. Keep the list separate, but make sure it has a similar format and look.

If you do not have a list going no problem, simply use your online network on LinkedIn to sort and filter potential references as needed. You can also shoot people a “heads up” message letting them know you’ve used them or are considering using them as a reference.

3.) Separate your References into Categories

Most of your references will be work-related, but you may also want to include an educational reference (if you have recently graduated) and a personal reference. If this is the case, your reference list should reflect this—each of your references should be clearly marked, so that an employer knows what type of reference they are contacting.

Depending on the job and the industry the need for varying types of references will fluctuate. For some jobs technical references will suffice, while for others such as more security-related government jobs might require both professional and personal “character” references as well.

4.) Get Permission from your References

This may be a fairly obvious point but it is worth mentioning. The people you select to act as references must be prepared to speak on your behalf, so they must know in advance that you would like them to do so. There is nothing worse than having a reference be completely unprepared for a phone call, causing them to incorrectly remember or forget critical attributes you were counting on them to share with a potential employer.

You will also need detailed information from each of your references—their name, company name and job title, and business address, as well as contact information. By contacting them to ask for permission you can also use the opportunity to double-confirm their contact information is up to date and accurate.

5.) Make sure your References have Up-to-Date Information

All of your references should have a copy of your current resume, and should be familiar with your professional skills and achievements. The best references are people who know you well and can speak positively about you. You will thus want to avoid using references that are more than 5 years in age unless they are a very very good acquaintance like a former business partner or academic mentor.


There you have it, the top 5 things to keep in mind when composing your references list and sorting who to keep and who to cross off. If you have any specific questions please let us know in the comments below or in our Q&A community forum!

About Rudeth S

I'm currently a Senior Talent Acquisition Specialist for a leading Fortune 500 company, a mother of 3 and herbal tea lover!

6 thoughts on “How to Choose the Best References for your Resume”

  1. Great post and great detail. So many resume experts and career coaches just skim over things and only touch on the macro-level. Nice to see more particulars covered in detail.

  2. I’ve been hopping between jobs for about 6 years now due to personal circumstances. Is it worth applying to a full time position anymore or should I just stick to temp work?

  3. This is great. Definitely bookmarking and sharing on LinkedIn.. every time I see one of my friends resumes I cringe. They only want proofreading but I usually end up revising the entire document. Next time I’ll just send them here to Copy My Resume instead.. saves me the hassle!

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