How to Provide References With a Job Application

Woman working on laptop adding references to a job application.
••• Mladen_Kostic / iStock

Typically, if you're asked for references, it's a good sign for your job search. That's because, in many cases, employers only request references from applicants once they are considered serious contenders for the role at hand.

Occasionally, however, companies will request that applicants provide a list of references when they initially apply for a job. This tends to happen more in conservative industry sectors like the legal profession, jobs in childhood education, in the building trades, and on federal job postings. Academic roles may also request references with the application. 

What Are Job References?

References are people who can answer questions about your education, work history, skills, abilities, and work style. References can include former employers, managers, colleagues, teachers or professors, professional and personal connections, and others who can attest to your ability to do a job.

How Companies Ask for References

If companies want references with the job application, they'll note it clearly. For example, the job posting may read as follows:

Required Applicant Documents

  • Cover Letter
  • Resume
  • List of Three References

Alternatively, the announcement may state, "To be considered for this position, please fill out an online profile and attach the following documents: cover letter, resume, and a list of three references."

It's very typical for employers to request three references. 

When providing the company with references, don't list your references on your resume. Instead, include a separate, attached page with a list of three references (or whatever number the company asks for) and their contact information.

Who to Use as a Reference

Your list of references should include professional connections who can attest to your qualifications for the job.  

Your references don't have to be people who work at your current job; in fact, you shouldn't use references from your current manager or co-workers if the company isn't aware you are job searching. The last thing you want is for your boss to learn from one of their competitors that you have approached them regarding a new job.

Here are some good candidates to provide you with a reference: 

  • Colleagues from previous jobs or internships
  • Professors 
  • Clients or vendors 
  • Former employers
  • Connections from volunteer roles

You should only use someone as a reference if you are on good terms with the individual, and feel confident that the person will provide a positive reference. It's also ideal to choose references who you have worked with recently.

If you are short on references because of a limited work history, use a personal reference who can attest to your character and abilities (such as a teacher, pastor, or club sponsor). 

Permission and Confidentiality

It's always a good idea to ask for permission to use someone as a reference in advance. Do this before you share the person's name and contact information.

Asking permission allows you to determine by their response whether they feel like they could provide a positive reference. If they (or you) have any doubt as to the strength of the reference they might provide, look for someone else who would be more willing to vouch for you. Plus, asking beforehand is the polite thing to do. 

If your reference responds enthusiastically to your request, here's what to do next: 

  • Confirm your reference's contact information. Verify that you have the correct contact information and ask them how they want to be contacted—phone, email, etc. 
  • Inquire about availability. Check in with your reference to see if there are specific times during the day when they would be willing to be contacted, should they allow you to provide their phone number. 
  • Share details on your job applications. If possible, give them a list of the jobs you have applied for so that they are aware ahead of time which employers might be contacting them. Finally, ask if you can send them a current resume or any other information they might need in order to be prepared to provide a glowing description of your work and of your character.
  • Request confidentiality. If you're currently employed, make sure to let your reference know you'd prefer them to keep your job search confidential. That way, you can avoid your current employer finding out from a third party that you're looking for a new role. 

By doing these tasks, you'll make it easy for individuals to serve as a reference for you. 

What to Include on a Reference List

The reference list should contain full contact information for each reference, including name, job title, company, address, and contact information. 

Reference List Example

Janine Mercantile
Manager
ABD Company
12 Demonda Lane
Hartsville, NC 06510
555-555-5555
j.mercantile@abdco.com

Sylvia Kiley
Chair, English Department
Acme College
123 College Street
Charlotte, NC 28213
555-444-4444
slyvia.kiley@acmecollege.edu

Cedric Lee
Account Manager
Callista Consultants
232 Jeames Road
Calumet, NY 11523
cedric.lee@callista.com
222-333-4444

If you are selected for an interview, print out copies of your list of references to bring with you, along with extra copies of your resume.

Don't Forget to Say Thank You 

Keep in mind that asking for references is a key part of professional networking and that the favor goes both ways. If you ask someone for a reference, offer to stand ready to reciprocate should they ever need it. 

Always write a formal thank-you note or email both after they’ve agreed to serve as your reference and after you’ve landed a job. People like to know that their efforts have contributed to another’s success. 

Keep Your List of References Updated

It's fairly common nowadays to change jobs frequently. Creating and maintaining a reference list that impressively reflects your career strategy can be a key job strategy to a successful job search. 

Networking (through both your own personal circle of contacts and through sites like LinkedIn) can be very valuable in building a reference list.

Keep your reference list current and ready to apply for jobs by touching base with your references now and then.

Remember to let them know when you've applied for a job or have been selected for an interview, so they are aware they might be contacted.