Managing an Effective Reference Process

Category: Search Process

Seeking and acquiring professional references is an important and critical part of the job search. Candidates should take a deliberate, thoughtful and strategic approach when asking someone to serve as a reference for them during the job search process.

Here we offer some key strategies for effectively managing the reference process.

Cultivate a professional network
Before you begin to apply for a position or seek professional references, you should have already begun to cultivate a professional network, from which to draw those references. Forge relationships with those whom you respect, admire, or work well with, seek out a professional mentor, and keep in touch with former supervisors as well as professionals that you have supervised.

Choose your references wisely
Consider a wide spectrum of references that can speak to different aspects of your skill set – for example, a colleague that you have worked on a project with, a faculty member that you have worked with closely, or a person that has worked with you in an emergency situation. Think carefully about whether a particular reference will be able to speak articulately about your skills, experiences, and what makes you a strong candidate for the position. All too often, candidates simply submit a list of prefabricated references and consider that part of the process complete. It’s important that your references can speak to your professional qualities which are specific to the job position for which you are applying. Be sure to have a balance in terms of current and prior professionals that can cover a variety of your skills, experiences, and strengths. While they may not be able to cover all of your strengths, can all of your references speak to at least two or three key leadership areas for you? Finally, make sure that everyone who has agreed to serve as a reference has done so earnestly. Reluctant or unenthusiastic references – despite their willingness – may unintentionally hurt your candidacy.

Approaching and Informing references effectively
Approach selected references by explaining why you would like them to serve as your reference, along with the type of position you are seeking, the reasons you are interested in the position, and why you feel you are qualified. If you have already acquired your references beforehand, make sure to inform them of your current involvement in the search process and update them as needed on your current responsibilities and accomplishments, as well as your current career goals. Include materials where applicable, such as your updated resume, reports, or articles you’ve written. If you are asking in relation to a specific application, send your references some background information about the position and institution. It may also be helpful to provide your insight on what you believe the search committee is seeking in a successful candidate. Ideally, you should alert your references well ahead of the time they must speak to an institutional representative, so that they will have plenty of time to update themselves on your current career goals, as well as review any information or materials that will help them to speak well on your behalf.

Providing reference information to the institution
Be certain to verify each of your references’ contact information before providing it to the search committee, and include information about the best way to reach your references such as their preferred methods of contact or availability. If your reference provides the number of his/her administrative assistant make sure that your reference has indicated to that person that they have agreed to serve as a reference on your behalf.

Follow up
Follow up with your references to see how their referral conversation went. Your reference may have a good sense of what the institution is focusing on with regard to your candidacy, including where the institution might perceive weaknesses or areas for growth on your part. You might also seek feedback concerning their impressions regarding the culture of the institution. Make sure to keep your references up to date with your job search progress and status. And when you do land that terrific new position, don’t forget to send a thank you note to thank them for their help in the process!

For more about the higher education job search, read our primer on Networking for Higher Education Professionals.

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Kendra Dane

Search Associate - Spelman Johnson

Kendra Dane earned her BA from Mundelein College (now part of Loyola University) and her MS from National Louis University. During a career in higher education that spans over 30 years, Kendra has most recently served as assistant dean and director of admissions at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota. Prior to moving to St. Paul, she served as executive director of admissions and marketing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), as well as the executive director of enrollment services at SAIC. Kendra began her career in higher education at National Louis University in Evanston, Illinois, where she served as an associate vice president for financial aid for many years. Kendra has been active in the Illinois Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (ILASFAA), held leadership positions in Midwest Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (MASFAA), and served in a volunteer capacity as a financial aid trainer with the U.S. Department of Education.