Recommendations & References

When interviewing candidates for employment or vetting candidates for graduate or professional school, interviewers often request references and letters of recommendation. Good references can elevate a potential candidate to a top choice candidate.

Letters of Recommendation

A letter of recommendation is a letter to a potential employer, organization, or program that emphasizes your strengths and casts your professional attitude or work ethic in a positive light.


A reference is a statement given by a person (known as a “referee”) to a potential employer, organization, or program. In giving a reference, the referee will share positive information about your former employment, internship, research, volunteering or other experiences.

Most of the time, you do not need to submit references when applying for positions. If the employer does ask you for references (usually toward the end of the interview process), list them on a separate sheet resembling your resume format.

  • Letters of Recommendation

    The employer, organization, or program to which you are applying will tell you how many letters you need to submit. The number of letters can range from one (1) to as many as six (6), with the typical number being two (2) or three (3).

    If the employer, organization, or program wants more than one letter, choose recommenders who can highlight different skills or strengths, or who can reflect on different kinds of work or study.


    Employers, organizations, and programs typically ask for three (3) references. A good rule of thumb is always to have three (3) referees available to speak on your behalf.

  • Select people who are able to provide first-hand examples of your expertise, character, and work ethic. Examples include professors, academic advisors, graduate assistants, internship/work supervisors, professors, coaches, or community leaders.

    You may ask the same people who are writing letters of recommendation to give you a reference.

    Letters of Recommendation

    Your recommender needs to know you well enough to compose a meaningful letter. We suggest that you meet with the writer, in person, to ask

    • whether the writer knows you well enough to be a recommender, and
    • whether the writer can draft a positive letter on your behalf


    References typically come from faculty members or professionals in your field. You may choose to request references from previous supervisors, academic advisors, or faculty who can speak to your knowledge of a relevant field.

    Use professional references (faculty, supervisors, academic advisors, etc.) rather than personal references (a friend’s parent, an uncle, your immediate family). Ask your reference if they are comfortable being listed and communicate if/when they may expect outreach from a potential employer or admission counselor. Be sure to verify their correct information (name, contact information, title, company or institution) before listing in any document or submitting online. 

  • Depending on your comfort level with the individual, you may choose to visit, call, or email. Ask them respectfully if they are willing to be your reference, and wait for their reply; don’t just assume they will say yes.

    Someone may decline to be your request because they feel they don’t know you well enough, or because they would not be able to provide a glowing recommendation of you. Keep in mind that you want a good reference, so if someone says no, it is probably for the best.

    Letters of Recommendation

    Get in touch with your recommenders as early as possible!

    • If you are requesting letters from faculty, we recommend that you make an appointment to meet with them at least two months before the deadline for submitting the letter
    • It takes time to write a good letter, and recommenders are often writing for many people
    • Please review the “How-to” Guide for requesting letters of recommendation. This guide includes an ideal timetable for faculty


    It is important to call or write potential referees to get their permission to list their names before you give their names to an employer, organization, or program. Referees do not like surprise telephone calls! If you are requesting a reference by email from someone you haven’t seen in a while (such as a past professor), jog their memory by naming the context where you met. You can even say why you are asking them, e.g., “I really learned a lot about XYZ in your course.”

    If the person says “yes,” ask what contact information (work vs. home) the referee would like to use.

  • Letters of Recommendation

    People writing letters of recommendation appreciate it when you follow the steps below:

    • Make an appointment to talk in person with your recommender
    • Explain your goals and why you would like the person to be one of your recommenders
    • Give the person information about the position(s) for which you are applying
    • Give the person a copy of your transcript, a resume, a copy of related coursework or projects, and/or a copy of a research paper to assist the person in commenting on your strengths
    • Bring any official forms for the recommendation — along with stamped, addressed envelopes for convenience if the application asks for a recommendation by mail


    Ask if you may share the following information to help your referee give a good reference:

    • Information about the position(s) for which you are applying
    • Your goals, including why you would like the person to be one of your referees
    • Discuss your strengths, weaknesses, leadership skills, and communication abilities with all references.
    • Copies of your resume, related coursework or projects, and/or a research paper to assist your referee in commenting on your strengths
    • Make sure you like what they have to say about you, otherwise you may need to obtain additional references.
    • Fill out this request for letter of recommendation to help you identify why you are choosing a recommender and to give the person critical information about your request
    • Give your references a time frame for when you will be conducting your job search and how soon you will need the letters of recommendation. Keep references updated on the progress of your job search and be sure to thank them for their support.
    • Review the LinkedIn Learning tutorial on asking for a recommendation
  • As you progress through the interview process, be sure to keep your references apprised of your interview status. Regardless of whether or not you were successful in obtaining the position, be sure to thank your references for their assistance.

    Your list of references should be in a separate document from your resume. Sample Reference Sheet

How do you prepare a references document?

When employers, organizations, or programs ask you for references, they want you to give them a written reference sheet. follow the steps below:

  • Start your references document by duplicating the heading from your resume: name, telephone number, email, and LinkedIn URL
  • Write the word “REFERENCES” centered under your heading
  • Write the name, title, company or school, phone number, and email address for each reference; list in alpha order by last name 
  • You may center your references on the page or align them with the left hand margin
  • Remove from your resume "References Available Upon Request" and create a separate document for your references 
  • Save your reference sheet as a separate document to be uploaded or attached if applying online
  • Organize your documents so that your reference sheet follows your resume; cover letter, resume, and reference is the appropriate order 
  • Be sure to upload or email in a PDF and review document beforehand 

Take a moment to review a Sample Reference Sheet