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How to Get Your References in Tiptop Shape

Lindsay Olson

Excited about your first job interview? You should be! It's your first step toward getting a " real adult job" after college. And while you've polished up your résumé and practiced interview questions, you may not have given much thought to references. After all, if you've had little to no experience in your industry, they can be a challenge to gather.

Leveraging References With Little Work Experience

Employers know you just graduated and don't expect you to have pages full of professional references. In fact, they might not expect you to have any references at all, so wow them by providing a list of quality people who can vouch for your skills, enthusiasm and passion.

If you haven't worked much, consider your professors or career counselors viable reference options. Ray Bixler, CEO at SkillSurvey, a company that uses confidential, science-based reference assessments to help employers make better hiring decisions, says how you conduct yourself in class can be a good indicator of your potential at a company as an employee. "We know based on thousands of reference reports that some key behaviors that spell success in the workplace -- such as showing up on time, completing assigned projects, working and communicating well with others, and paying attention to detail -- will be evident to your professors and can convince hiring managers that you'll be successful." he says.

If your references aren't sure what to put in a letter about you, guide them. If you ran your biology club for four years, encourage your biology professor to talk about your leadership skills there.

Matching Up With What Employers Seek

Ultimately, an employer wants to get a sense that you will be a good culture fit and succeed at the role. That means your references should vouch for you coming to class/work on time, taking initiative and going the extra mile.

But Bixler says employers are also looking for red flags -- indications that a candidate will not succeed. "We've found that when references mention that a candidate has a temper or is moody, or something along those lines, those candidates typically do not succeed on the job," he says.

If you know you didn't show up to class on time frequently, don't ask that professor to be a reference. If you didn't put your all into a volunteer position, hesitate before using your supervisor as a contact.

So before jotting down personal references, consider what that person would say. Would she first remember your hard work on a project, or that time you stormed out of class?

Creating Your Reference Page

This should be a separate file with three to five references (the potential employer may specify a number, so go with that if they do). It should include the person's name, job title, company, email, phone number and a brief note on your relationship.

Don't include your reference sheet with your résumé when first applying. You can save your references until you're asked to provide them.

Choose the Best References for the Job

As you get more work experience your reference list may change. As you develop more contacts, you may be able to zero in on ones that speak best to the job for which you're applying. Professional references trump personal references.

You'll want to provide references who have worked with you recently and who can provide specific insight into how you work. Most employers will want to speak with a manager or two and a colleague who has worked directly with you. If your position will entail managing people, the company will most likely value speaking with a previous direct report.

Keep your reference list updated to better reflect the right contacts who can help you get your next job.

Managing Relationships With Your References

Before you mention a reference to a potential employer, ask the reference if it's OK. There's nothing worse than being blindsided by a call from a potential employer and your reference isn't prepared. If you get the sense that the person is uncomfortable being asked, find someone else. You want people who will gush about you and help you get the job.

Stay in touch with those contacts, as you may need them down the road for future jobs. Keep them in the loop on what's happening in your career, and be sure to thank them for helping you get there. An easy way to stay in touch is through LinkedIn. That way, your reference contacts can see where you are professionally with a glance at your profile.

Lindsay Olson is a founding partner and public relations recruiter with Paradigm Staffing and Hoojobs, a niche job board for public relations, communications and social media jobs. Hoojobs was voted as a Top Career website by Forbes. She blogs at LindsayOlson.com, where she discusses recruiting and job search issues and is chief editor of the HooHireWire -- The Hoojobs Guide to Hiring & Getting Hired.

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