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Obtaining References

The 6 W’s of Obtaining Reference Letters for Prospective Employers


The opportunity to assess your job performance and personal achievement through the evaluation of others is very important to employers. Many employers will prefer a reference list of individuals who may be contacted on your behalf. Some employers, especially in sectors such as education and social services, will want written references. Some employers may ask for both. Employers may prefer references at different stages of the hiring process; however, most will require verbal and/or written recommendations at some time before a hiring decision is made.


The number of references required and preferred type of reference will vary from employer to employer. Generally, individuals who can speak to your ability to perform the skills required for the position are preferred. Employers, supervisors or faculty who have evaluated your work in an employment, classroom or volunteer experience are best. Often a combination of classroom and non-academic references provides the fullest picture. Character references from family, friends, politicians and personal health care providers are generally not solicited.


Your references will be able to write the most effective letter shortly after you have completed the experience. Some employers may have created reference forms which are considered to be a part of the application form. Your references will appreciate it if you can bring all of your reference requests in at one time. Keep your references informed regarding your search status.


Help your references to prepare your recommendation. Arrange to meet with them to discuss your goals and the purpose of the recommendation. Ask directly whether or not they believe they could provide a supportive recommendation. Provide information such as copies of your resume, transcript and course materials or work projects.


Some employers may have stated specific instructions on how to apply and what to include. Be sure to follow these instructions or receive specific permission if you need to make alternate arrangements. If the employer has not asked for references prior to an interview, be prepared to supply them at this time.


Some employers prefer recommendations which are confidential (meaning you have waived your right to see it) because they feel that the confidential letter may be more candid than the non-confidential letter. You may wish to discuss this with your recommenders. Some undergraduate institutions will act as a neutral holding center for letters of recommendation. UMA does not offer this service.

Reference Letter Content Suggestions

Employers have indicated a preference for the following information:

  • How long and under what circumstances have you known the applicant?
  • What are the chief attributes and deficiencies of the applicant as a potential employee of the organization?
  • How does the applicant interact with peers, co-workers, campus personnel?
  • To what extent is the applicant working to full potential?
  • How does the applicant compare with other students/employees?
  • How does the candidate handle feedback/criticism?
  • How strongly motivated is the applicant toward the position?

Skills and characteristics employers are interested in include:

  • quality of work
  • initiative
  • integrity/honesty
  • consistency of performance
  • social skills
  • maturity
  • communication skills – written
  • communication skills – oral
  • problem solving ability
  • computer literacy
  • management skills

Reference Lists

Many employers prefer a list of references rather than reference letters. Format your reference list to look compatible with your resume. For each reference include: Name, title, organization, address and day time phone number. If references are asked for up front, include this list with your initial application materials; otherwise, carry them with you to an interview.

University of Maine at Augusta