Art of Asking for a Reference

It can be difficult to work up the courage to ask someone for a reference, whether you want to list them on a job application or need them to write you a letter of recommendation. But strong references are incredibly important: they increase your odds of getting that new job or being admitted to your dream program.

Here are our answers to some FAQs about asking for a reference, with an explanation of everything from who to ask to how to say thanks.

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Who should I ask for a reference?

First and foremost, make sure you choose someone who both thinks positively of you and knows you well. If possible, try to pick people who can speak to different strengths of yours; all of your references don’t need to be employers. While a family member isn’t a good person to list, a professor, mentor, or volunteer coordinator all might be able to vouch for your abilities.

Also, keep in mind that even if you have a great relationship with a former employer, they might not make the best reference for a particular job you have in mind. For instance, if you worked at a grocery store and are applying to law school, your manager might not be as good of a reference as your academic adviser.

How many references do I need?

When looking for jobs, you can expect many potential employers to ask for three references. Make sure to have at least that many on hand—but it doesn’t hurt to have references from more than three people, either.

Some graduate or scholarship programs may actually require more than three references, so make sure you’ve thoroughly studied the application requirements well in advance of the deadline.

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How should I ask for a reference?

When you’re asking someone if they can serve as a reference, make sure not to ask simply, “Would you be willing to be a reference for me?” but rather, “Do you think you would be able to write me a strong recommendation letter?” or “Do you feel as if you’re familiar enough with my work to be my reference?”

Another tip: Be appreciative of your references’ time. In a letter asking for a reference, make sure to acknowledge that they may not have time to write a letter for you. This way, a potential recommender will have an easy out if they feel uncomfortable being your reference—and you’ll be free to reach out to someone else who might have more positive things to say.

In your initial ask, make sure to give the potential reference all the information they would need in crafting a letter. Don’t be afraid to write out bullet points to serve as a reminder of your work together. Tell them where you’re planning to apply and who they might need to speak to there, and send a copy of your most updated resume.

How do I thank my references?

It depends. If you’re simply asking a reference to be available for a potential employer’s phone call, a letter—aim for handwritten, but email is fine—expressing your gratitude should suffice.

If your references need to write long letters speaking to your skills and strengths, you should write a handwritten letter on stationary thanking each of them. A small gift—like a candle or homemade cookies—would also be appreciated.