References can make or break any graduate job application - so get yours in order now.
There is a lot to consider when it comes to references, but the basic premise is simple: employers want confirmation of claims made in your application, and they want to learn more about you as an employee from someone who has already worked with you. The trick is finding the right person for the task.
Choosing your references
Most employers looking to hire new graduates will require two references: one academic and one professional. You can choose to include your references at the end of your CV (names and contact details), or to note "References available on request." If you opt for the latter, be sure to have all the contact details at the ready in case the employer asks for them.
Academic – Arguably the easiest of the two for recent graduates, you should have a plethora of tutors and academic mentors to choose from. Make sure you select someone who knows you personally and will be able to speak to your abilities - not a lecturer who can't pick you out of a room full of students. University academics are often approached by employers as referees, but make sure you ask in advance anyway - it's only polite.
Professional – Selecting the right person to be your professional reference is a little more difficult. Ideally this would be your most recent and relevant employer - but for graduates just entering the workforce, this can be tricky.
The key to choosing the right working reference is to try and get the best outcome for yourself. You should aim for someone who holds a respected position at a well-known company, but who also knows you as an employee. There is no point using a manager from your taster week at a FTSE100 company, as they might not know who you are.
If you have to rely on a manager from a part-time job, don't worry. While they may not seem impressive at first glance, supervisors from part-time jobs can actually provide great references as they can highlight your ability to handle tangible skills outside of university, such as customer service, sales and work ethic.
When you have chosen and received permission to use your two referees, make sure you stay in touch. Both academics and professionals can move jobs swiftly and you need to be on top of their current contact information. Don't be afraid to use them as a resource, either - ask their advice about your chosen career path and job hunting.
But I don't have anyone…
Some of you may be scrolling through your contacts, panicking about who to pick - don't worry! There is always someone you can ask. If you don't have a previous employer in any form, think about who else may be able to offer you a professional or character reference. It is not unheard of for graduates to list contacts from community projects, such as church groups, local societies or sports teams. While not entirely ideal professional references, these contacts can still provide valuable confirmation of your character and reliability.
Whatever you do, do not make up a reference or put a family member down. You would be better off providing one academic reference and one character reference.
What are they asking?
By now you should realise there is a trick to picking the right reference for the right role. Part of knowing who to approach is understanding what your employers will be asking.
Different employers approach references in different ways. Some opt for a scoring system, in which your referees will be asked to rate you on qualities such timekeeping, performance, team working skills, attendance, honesty and flexibility. Other employers prefer to ask specific questions geared towards a specific role, or more open ended questions which will require your referee to pen a full appraisal of you.
The important thing is to select references who know enough about you to answer these questions in detail - and whose responses you feel certain will be positive.
Some employers will throw in the clinching question "Would you re-employ this person? If not, please state your reasons." There is nowhere to hide with a question like this, and your referee will simply have to answer truthfully. In principle, anyone who has agree to be your reference should only do so if they are willing to speak positively about you, but it is not unheard of for hiring managers to cold call previous employers listed on your CV. All you can do is try and leave a good impression at every job you have.
Unless you detested your previous work position and went out in a blaze of glory, telling everyone exactly what you thought of them, you shouldn't be too worried about your references. While they are important and can be the determining factor for employers choosing between a handful of hopefuls, they are more often a formality used to root out mistruths and exaggerations. Be honest, chose wisely, and you'll be fine.