3 Tips for Building a Strong Reference List

3 Tips for Building a Strong Reference List was originally published on Idealist Careers.

When a hiring manager asks for your references, it’s usually a sign that you’ve made it to the final stages of the hiring process. So how can you choose references that will help you seal the deal and not give the hiring manager pause?

The first step to picking the right references is following directions. If a hiring manager asks for two or three specific references (such as a manager, colleague, professor, etc.), it’s better to give them exactly what they ask for so you don’t hurt your chances.

Next, you’ll want to pick references who can rave about your diverse skill set and experience—we share some tips for narrowing down your options below.

Choose references who can speak to your variety of skills

Your reference list should always include at least one direct supervisor, if not more. That’s because a direct supervisor usually knows the most about your job performance, which is what a hiring manager wants to hear about.

If your boss doesn’t know you’re job searching, list a supervisor from a previous job or a trusted co-worker who can be discreet about your job search. That way, the hiring manager can still talk to someone who is familiar with your current work.

To round out your list, consider the skills and roles you’ve had that are most relevant to the job for which you’re applying. If you’d be managing someone in the new job, ask one of your previous direct reports to be a reference. If you would be planning galas and other major fundraisers, ask someone with whom you collaborated on an event-planning committee.

Ask references who will rave about your performance

Your references need to be more than good; they need to be great. You want references who will rave about your job performance, your work ethic, your dedication, and any other relevant skills or traits. If you left a job on bad terms, for instance, forgo listing a former manager who may still harbor negative emotions about how things ended.

When you’re ready to ask someone to be a reference, be sure to connect with them before passing along their contact info. You’ll want to be clear about what you’re asking them to do, so we recommend saying something like, “Can I count on you as a job reference to offer a recommendation and vouch for my work?” instead of “Can I list you as a reference?”

Sometimes people reflexively agree to serve as a reference, without thinking about whether they can give you the kind of strong, glowing reference that you’ll need to get a job. A simple yet specific request encourages them to consider whether they can offer a strong recommendation.

Pro Tip: Use our email template for advice on how to ask a former co-worker to act as a professional reference.

Stay in touch

Once you’ve confirmed that a reference will say great things about you, staying in touch with them can help keep those references strong. The key is to stay connected in ways that strengthen your relationship, such as reaching out when you see your reference quoted in a positive news article, sharing new things you’re working on that may be of interest to them, or genuinely connecting in person every now and then. Each time you reach out, you’ll be deepening your relationship and reinforcing their positive feelings about you.

It’s also important to keep your references posted on your job search so they are ready for a hiring manager’s call. You don’t need to tell your references about every job you apply to because not all of them will result in an interview and reference-checking. Rather, wait until a hiring manager asks for your references list and then alert your references that they may be contacted.

Send them a link to the job posting, any relevant information about the job, such as why you’re interested or the skills that you think are most relevant to the position, and your updated resume. All of this information will help your references give you a strong recommendation.

And finally, let your references know how it all goes!


If you’re just kicking off your job search, you may be nervous about interviewing for a new position. We have you covered with 3 Tips to Calm Your Pre-Interview Nerves and overcome any pre-interview anxiety you may be experiencing.