Career Tip of the Month: Earning a Great Reference

We have written in previous issues about the “dos” and “donts” of references and recommendations, such as making sure to ask people before including their name as a reference on a job application or resume. This time, we’d like to provide some information about common questions we are asked to address in telephone references or letters of recommendation, as well as the ways we might assess those things in students. Think coming to class late doesn’t matter? Read on!

  1. How long have you known this person and in what context? The first thing employers and grad schools want to know is how well you know the person you are recommending. They will use that to decide how seriously they can take the recommendation. Worked with the student in two classes? Okay – maybe you know something about him or her. Worked with the student in two classes and as a research supervisor? Excellent – tell us more! On the other hand, if the faculty member has only worked with you in one class and that was some time ago, the employer or grad school may not take that reference letter as seriously – and the faculty member may be reluctant to provide one because he/she just doesn’t know you well enough.
  2. How responsible is this person? Employers want to know if you will be a responsible employee. How can we address this issue? We have to think about ways you have shown responsibility as a student. Have you submitted assignments on time, or have you asked for extensions? Have you arrived to class on time, or are you chronically late? Are you attentive and engaged in class, or are you passing notes, texting, or sleeping? Are you proactive about your learning (e.g., seeking feedback on drafts of assignments, clearly proofreading assignments and submitting neat and complete final products, asking good questions)?
  3. How would you rate this individual’s interpersonal skills? Leadership skills? Particularly if your professor has only worked with you in a traditional classroom, he or she might not have a lot to say about this issue. What he or she has observed is how you interact with your instructor and with your classmates in that setting. That means that your participation in class is important. In addition, your group work skills are something we observe and may then comment upon. Did your group work well together? Did group members complain about you? Did you complain about them? Did you seem to take a leadership role? How active were you during in-class group work? These things do matter. 
  4. How does this person deal with stress or deadlines? Nobody likes stress, and deadlines aren’t usually high on people’s list of favorites, either. That said, employers need you to be able to work with both effectively, and they want to know you have those skills. Again, professors will likely remember if you have had to ask for extensions, or if you have typically turned in assignments late – or if you have come running into class with your paper at the last moment asking for a stapler and holding a document printed out in green ink (because that darn black cartridge is out of ink again!). They will also remember if you have dealt with things that are often challenging – such as getting feedback that a paper or test could have been better and then working hard to do better the next time. Life happens. It happens to us, too, and it’s not that you can’t make mistakes or have bad days, but remember that you will likely benefit from providing an overall impression of someone who cares about their work, who completes work on time, who does so cheerfully, and who submits work that is complete, neat, and professional. That’s what your employers will expect. 
  5. How would you assess this person’s writing skills? Public speaking skills? Speaking of papers, they are the major way that we can assess your writing skills, and employers frequently rate communication skills (written and oral) as among the most important qualities they seek in job candidates. Keep in mind that the content of your papers matters, but so does the way you write, as does whether you are able to follow instructions. Your oral presentation skills also matter, whether they are demonstrated through formal class presentations or via general class participation.

This information isn’t intended to scare you or give you the impression that we are always judging you – we aren’t. And, again, we all have bad days. However, it is important to think about the impression you give to your peers and to your professors not only with your grades, but with how you approach your work and your role as a student. We are trying to help to prepare you for the world of work, not only through the content of classes, but also by setting expectations and creating learning activities (e.g., group work, presentations, papers) that require the same skills you will need on the job.