Job searching is nerve-wracking. We want our resume to leave a good first impression on hiring managers and don’t want to waste applying to positions we won’t hear back from.
Some trial and error is inevitable when applying for jobs. There’s always a learning curve if you’re entering the workforce or switching industries. But one piece of advice will help ease the process: always tailor applications to the job posting. This includes references.
Choosing whether to include a reference section on your resume depends on several factors, including your work experience and the job ad. We’ll discuss how to list references on a resume and when to include them.
We’ll also note how to write and format a reference list and include templates and tips to get you started.
Should you include references on your resume?
In most cases, including references on your resume isn’t necessary — but that doesn’t mean it’s always a bad idea.
When hiring managers look at a resume, their main focus is auditing your skills and work experience to see if you qualify for the role. Based on that information, they’ll decide whether or not to invite you for an interview. Contacting references usually happens after you move past this first meeting.
Resumes are most effective when they’re clean and concise. They get through applicant tracking systems more successfully and are easier for hiring managers to read.
When you submit a resume online, it often goes through an applicant tracking software which detects specifics the employer has outlined. If it notices these specifications, your resume moves to the next stage.
According to Jobscan, 99% of Fortune 500 companies use applicant tracking systems, so it’s worth simplifying your resume by omitting references to successfully move through these.
But that doesn’t mean requiring references for a job is obsolete. You should always prepare to provide references to a potential employer by creating a resume reference list, should they ask for one.
A resume reference list is a separate document with all your references’ contact information. Recruiters, hiring managers, or direct managers may contact people on your resume reference list to verify your work history and job performance or ask behavioral questions to understand your character.
While in most cases you should only offer references when a hiring manager requests, if you’re a university student, recent grad, or a candidate applying to an entry-level position, providing references will help bolster your application.
Even if a recruiter doesn’t call your references before the interview, including them is a great way to demonstrate that you’ve taken initiative to build professional relationships.
Choosing the right references
Some of the best career advice to take in earnest is to tailor your resume to each job posting. This is the best way to align your skills and experience with the company culture and job description.
Using similar language to the job description when advertising your hard and soft skills makes it easier for recruiters to immediately notice you qualify for the position.
The same rings true when sending references.
Imagine you’re a graphic designer applying for two positions. One is client-facing, while the other requires you to work exclusively with an internal project manager.
In the first scenario, you’ll want to include a former client that can attest to your work ethic and ability to meet deadlines and manage projects. In the latter, you’ll want to include former managers and direct supervisors to vouch for your ability to work in a more collaborative setting.
When narrowing down your choices, consider people that’ll give good character references. Choose contacts who will sing your praises and highlight your strongest qualities, skills, and qualifications.
These are the best people to include as references:
- Current or former manager or direct supervisor
- Current or former colleague
- Current or former client
- Academic advisor, professional mentor, or career coach
Make sure you’re comfortable with your references knowing you’re actively looking for a job, especially if they’re people you currently work with. Asking a present colleague or manager might create unnecessary tension at your job — especially if you aren’t committed to leaving.
It’s also essential to ask people if they’re willing to be a reference for you before giving their information out. Confirm people’s preferred mode of contact before sending reference information.
Some companies require a lengthy phone call with your reference, while a brief email is enough for others. Be sure you respect your references’ time and preferences by giving them time to prepare and a heads up if an interview goes well.
It’s also nice to send a thank you note to those who accept being your reference, especially if a potential employer contacts them, to express gratitude and strengthen your connection.
What information do you need for a reference?
Writing a reference on a resume or reference sheet differs slightly. With a reference sheet, you have more room and should include the following:
- Reference name
- Company name and their current job title
- Brief description of your relationship (former colleague, previous employer, ongoing or past client)
- Number of years you worked together
- Company address, including professional phone number and email address
The way you include references on your resume will be sparser, as you’ll have less space. Here’s how to format references on a resume:
- Reference name
- Company name, job title, relationship
- Preferred form of contact
If you’re really tight for space, just add “References available upon request” at the bottom so employers know you have some prepared if needed.
Include 2–3 references on a resume and 3–5 on a reference sheet. Never submit your reference sheet with your resume — save it for employers that ask. You can prepare one and bring it to an interview in case they request it in the moment.
You should also have an easily editable file to send with a follow-up email to the hiring manager if you’re asked for references during a phone or video interview.
Tips and tricks for creating a reference sheet
A reference sheet is a valuable way to prepare for an interview. Here are three tips so your document persuades recruiters:
1. No personal info
Only include your reference’s professional contact information, like a company email, address, and phone number. Don’t give away a contact’s personal information unless they’ve explicitly asked you to.
Giving away someone’s private information without their consent will likely catch them by surprise and could affect how they talk about you. It also looks less professional to employers.
2. Keep it short and professional
Keep relationship descriptions short and sweet and avoid personal anecdotes or oversharing.
Here’s a good resume reference example:
Sheryl Dove, Head Project Manager
Sheryl was my direct supervisor at [company name] from 2019 to 2022. She oversaw my work on backend software development for more than 25 apps for 12 clients.
Why it works: The description gives all the appropriate, specific information (relationship, business, and years) with number-driven information that will tie into the skills and references on your resume.
Here’s an example of what not to write:
Sheryl Dove, Manager, [company name]
I loved working with Sheryl. She is an amazing project manager and I got to enjoy three great years with her. We worked together on lots of projects for many clients. I loved working on apps with her, and she also has the cutest dog.
Why it doesn’t work: The description is unnecessarily personal and sounds like a recommendation for Sheryl rather than you. It also forces the hiring manager to do too much work to understand when and where you worked together.
3. Provide variety
The ideal set of references will show the breadth of your career. Try not to include too many individuals from one company or only your direct supervisor in each role. Instead, provide references that reflect the variety of experiences you’ve included on your resume.
A resume Rolodex on the ready
Unless you’re new to the job market or industry, it’s best to keep references off your resume and instead include a reference sheet for requests. No matter the avenue you take, you should know how to list references on a resume or prepare a reference list for when you need one.
Scour your professional contacts and reach out to people you’ve worked directly and had great experiences with.
Feel free to request certain information from them, like asking a reference to mention how well a specific project went or how quickly you were promoted. Your application will stand out thanks to your initiative and preparedness.