How to Ask for a Professional Reference


Professional reference asking tips from Granite State College.

For adult students considering their next education or career move, a professional reference is an important part of the process. Whether applying to a new job or master’s degree program, ensuring you choose the right individuals to be a professional reference for you is a crucial part of the process. You will want to choose professional references who can speak to your qualifications, skills, and abilities. The individuals who’ll serve as your references can vary depending on whether you’re applying to a job or a degree program.

You’ll want to pull together your references as soon as you decide to initiate a job search or start choosing a graduate program. Having this information up front will make the entire process easier.

Here’s How You Can Kick Off the Process!

Who Should I Ask? Who Shouldn’t I Ask?

Professional References for a Career Move

Your professional references for a career move should be people who can speak to your work ethic, technical skills, abilities, and experience such as current or former supervisors. If you don’t have at least three or more prior supervisors to call upon, co-workers and peers are also an option. If you do not want people at your current job to know you are looking, you can ask someone from outside your company, such as a former colleague, professor, or faculty member. Additionally, an academic advisor, mentor, or even someone you met through volunteer work would be great references. The most important thing is to choose those who are familiar with your abilities and have worked closely with you. Ensuring you have several quality references can be key in landing a job, so putting some time and effort into approaching your potential references and following up with them can help you succeed.

Professional References for a Degree Program

Your professional references for a degree program can be helpful to make your application stand out. Some graduate programs look for multiple letters of recommendation, while other programs ask you to provide the contact information for each reference so these individuals can complete a brief online evaluation form. You don’t want to let this important component of your application delay an admissions decision, so having a list of references pre-determined will help you streamline your application process.

Appropriate references to use for a degree program may include supervisors or colleagues at work, former professors, or an advisor from your undergraduate degree program. Don’t be apprehensive to reach out. People are often happy to recommend others, so long as they can attest to your experience and credibility. If it’s been quite some time since you completed your undergraduate education, references you’ve gained through your career experience are appropriate (and expected!).

Inappropriate Professional References

When thinking about past or current coworkers who can serve as a reference, avoid individuals who you’ve managed. Even if you have longstanding history and worked as peers for many years before you ascended to a supervisor role, these individuals aren’t appropriate and can even signal a red flag for those screening your application. Remember: the dynamics behind your connection aren’t visible on paper. Even if this individual offers a fair perspective on your qualifications, an outsider will interpret things differently and may think that you’re pressuring a subordinate into an uncomfortable situation.

You should also avoid asking a spouse or relative to provide a professional reference. While they will certainly have insight into how earning a degree will help you pursue your dreams, their feedback will be considered biased. Those from outside of your family will be better poised to provide the impartial perspective that your future employer or graduate school is looking for.

If you work for a family owned business, this can be challenging but get creative! Many small businesses have a network of vendors that they use regularly and collaborate with on a professional level. Are there vendors or subcontractors that you’ve worked closely with in the past? Family owned businesses are often pillars of the community and take an active role in local groups, such as the Chamber of Commerce, Lions Club, or Rotary Club. If you’ve worked with these organizations and contributed as a volunteer, fellow committee members will be knowledgeable of your skills and talents.

How Many References Do I Need?

Create a list of five to seven recent references, with the understanding that you usually need just three. This way, if someone you ask is unable to serve as a reference, you’ll be prepared to secure at least three.

You may want to categorize each reference by the type of information they know about you such as industry knowledge, leadership, initiative, work ethic, tech skills, etc. If you don’t have a recent reference that can speak to the kind of work you’re looking to do, using someone from further back in your past should work, but you’ll certainly want to be diligent in reaching out to them and refreshing their memory.

The “Ask”

Once you’ve selected several connections who you think can speak positively on your behalf, you’ll want to approach each individual to ask their permission. Giving them a call is always the gold standard, but if you’re unable to do so, an email will suffice. Be sure you ask your references for their support in such a way that they are able to decline gracefully. Not everyone feels comfortable or qualified to give a reference. If they do decline, be courteous and move on to another choice on your list.

Another reason it’s essential to reach out to your potential references is that it gives them a heads up that they may be contacted and you certainly don’t want them to feel unprepared. Second, it gives you the chance to re-establish a connection with them and explain your current career and educational interests. Making sure you’re connected on LinkedIn is also key! When you reach out you’ll also want to send them your current resume and job search goals.

References for jobs and graduate school applications will vary slightly, so customize your “ask” to your references to align with your goals. Below you’ll find sample language for both a career move and an admissions application!

Sample Message – Requesting a Reference for a Career Move

Dear [name of professional reference],

First, I hope that all is well with you.  I have begun my job search and recently interviewed for a [job title] position with [company name] and it strongly aligns with my career goals.

As we’ve worked together in the past [briefly describe how/where] I wanted to see if you would be willing be a professional reference for me. In particular, I was hoping you could speak to the following skills and abilities:

– [insert a critical skill / ability]

– [insert a critical skill / ability]

If you are available to speak on my behalf, can you confirm for me your contact information so that I may provide it to the appropriate hiring managers? I have attached a recent copy of my resume.

I’ll reach out again if I believe you may be contacted with the job description and the hiring manager’s information.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


[Your Name]

Sample Message – Requesting a Reference for an Admissions Application: Degree Program

Dear [name of professional reference],

First, I hope that all is well with you. I am writing with an exciting update: I have made the decision to apply to [program name] at [institution name.] This degree strongly aligns with my goals, as well as the emerging trends and workforce needs in my field. [Add specific language about why program interests you.]

As someone who with insight into my education and career goals, I wanted to see if you would be willing be a professional reference for me as part of my application. I was hoping you could speak to the following skills and abilities:

– [insert a critical skill / ability]

– [insert a critical skill / ability]

 I have attached a recent copy of my resume.  If you are able, I will send further instructions from the application materials. I appreciate your time and I look forward to hearing from you.


[Your Name]

Create a References Sheet

Once your references have given you the greenlight to share their contact information, prepare your references sheet, which is a separate document from your resume but should share the same formatting and heading information. You may be asked to upload this document to an admissions application for graduate school, or the potential employer’s hiring portal. Having this document formatted, updated, and prepared in advance will help you move through your application with more ease and confidence!

Pro tip

Always bring a printed copy of your references sheet when you have an in-person interview so you can seamlessly offer it to the hiring manager.

Have Confidence!

If you’re serious enough about your professional goals to consider a more challenging position or a graduate degree program, those around you have likely taken notice. What feels like an “out-of-left-field” request from your end, may not come as a surprise to your references: they’ve probably observed your motivation and drive already and they’ll recognize how serving as a reference will benefit your master plan. Also, it’s always extremely flattering to be asked, so have confidence and know that you just may make their day.

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This blog was originally published in November 2018 and was updated to reflect emerging best practices in job search strategy and graduate admissions.