Spring is nearly in the air and millions of college students are looking ahead to graduation day. If they are getting prepared for life after they walk off campus for the final time, this group of millennials is also engaged in serious thinking about what they want to do next.
Here’s something else that students and early-career professionals should start thinking about: Building a portfolio of job references and taking the time to cultivate them.
For most employers, hiring an entry-level employee is a leap of faith. Without much of a workplace track record to judge by, employers are forced to depend on what fits on a piece of paper (a resume) and whatever can be gleaned from brief first impressions (interviews).
Is it any wonder that many entry-level job applicants from comparable schools and backgrounds are indistinguishable?
A few glowing job references can set a candidate apart from the crowd. Knowing that, how should a job seeker build out a killer roster of references? Here are seven key tips for putting together a top-notch reference list. These apply to first-time job seekers, but also to anyone who’s getting ready for the next move in their career.
1. Look for ways to cultivate your references. Check in regularly. Keep them up-to-date on your career successes. Talk to them about where you want to take your career. Not only will you build a base of supporters you can rely on for guidance, you will also have a group of people to turn to with confidence when you’re gunning for the job you want.
2. Get a sense of what your references are likely to say about you, especially your areas for improvement. This can be slightly tricky, but it’s doable. Ideally, your references are people you’ve gotten feedback from in the past, so you should have a feel for what they’ll say. To get clarity, it’s important to test your assumptions. It comes down to having a candid conversation with the people you’re planning to use as job references. Try to talk in a more casual, informal setting – at lunch or over a cup of coffee. Explain to them why you’d appreciate their help, and ask them to share their honest perspective on how they would talk about you during a reference check. Most times, references will be flattered by your request.
3. Don’t be afraid to serve as your own strongest advocate. It’s important to make sure that your professors, managers and other potential references know about your capabilities so that they can speak clearly with potential employers about you and your work. While this step is important, don’t be too aggressive when doing it.
4. Don’t hesitate to show off your strengths in the classroom and the workplace. Job references need to see what you can do, so they can tell prospective employers about it. Look for opportunities to demonstrate progress and smart work, so others can observe it. This doesn’t mean you should be a shameless self-promoter. It’s important to share how confident you are but do so while acting with a sense of humility. Still, if no one knows what you can accomplish, no one can tell your future managers why they should hire you.
5. Let your references know that they might be called upon and have their current contact information. If your references are readily available when an employer asks for them, it indicates that you’ve informed and prepared them to take a call or an online request – all good signs that you’re someone who is focused, thorough and motivated.
6. In addition to professors, try to have some former managers as references, even if they’re from internships. Input from people who have seen you perform in the workplace counts for a lot. Professors are great – and you should use them – but employers are thinking about how you’re going to perform once you’re walking through their doors. Feedback from managers at internships, summer jobs, work-study or any other kind of employment is key.
7. Be grateful – and show it. Your references are doing you a favor. They’re going out of their way to help you build your future. And they’re putting their own reputation and credibility on the line when they vouch for you. Be sure to thank them. A hand-written note or a warmly worded email can mean a lot. At the same time, these are folks whom you may want to ask for help again. Use the opportunity of thanking them, to keep cultivating the relationship and to ask what you can do to help them in the future.
So, whether you’re a college senior or someone getting ready to look for that next job, don’t lose track of your references. Good references don’t just happen. Your reference roster has to be cared for, nurtured and maintained. High-quality job references can make the difference between getting that job or wondering why your phone isn’t ringing.