9 Top Tips for How to List References the Right Way

A solid cover letter and resume are both important, but a stellar list of references is like an ace in the sleeve for any job seeker. It lets your potential employer breathe a little easier to know that previous employers, co-workers, and even personal references can vouch for your experience and confirm you'll be a great addition to the team. 

While we may appreciate the purpose of a good reference, it can be hard to know how to list them. That’s where having a reference template comes in handy. Whether you want to know how to list references on a resume or are simply excited for a reference list template, I’m here to help. Today, I'll address a few common questions regarding the reference list, provide you with formatting tips, and offer a few ideas of who can potentially make the best references. 

9 Quick Tips on How to List References

Times change, and so do hiring strategies. To help you with the latest tips and tricks for how to list references for that stage of the job application, I’ve made an updated list of tips on how to format reference templates:

1. A reference page should be short and sweet with pertinent details and nothing more. 

2. Your list of references should always list your best references at the top of the page.

3. Here's an example of a reference list template. The format is similar to the below list, but you should match the font to your resume.

The format of your reference template should follow this order: 

  • Professional reference's full name
  • Job title 
  • Company name 
  • Company address 
  • City/state/ZIP code
  • Phone number 
  • Email address 

4. Always get permission from your personal references and professional references before providing their contact information.

5. Double-check that all the information provided is complete.

6. Always double-check that contact information is up to date. You can usually confirm this with a quick Google search.

7. Use an appropriate title at the top of the page, or follow one of these references templates.

8. Always include your own contact information at the top of the page.

9. If you write it in Microsoft Office, convert it to a PDF. This looks more professional and also prevents additional edits to your personal documents.

Who Should My References Be?

Woman looks at colleague while holding cup of coffee

Whether you're starting a job search after a long time or are just a little rusty about what kind of contacts make a good list of references, I’ve got you covered. Take a look below for some inspiration on who to ask to be your job reference.

If You're a Student

  • Mentor or coach: This can be someone who has mentored or coached you academically or athletically. They should be able to speak to your personal achievements and growth.
  • Professor or teacher: Teachers can see aptitude in their students clearly and typically want to see you succeed.
  • A character reference: This can include friends, a landlord, or a leader at your church or other volunteer organization. The character reference should know you well enough to vouch for your good qualities and work skills. They should never be a family member.

If You're a Freelancer

  • Former employer or client: Look for those who are in the same industry or can understand the new role well. They should be able to make connections between your past contributions and your new job.
  • Recruiter: It helps if you have a long-standing relationship with a reference, but recruiters are great subject matter experts who speak the hiring manager's language.

If You're a Seasoned Professional

  • Former hiring manager: If you have a few to choose from, go with the hiring manager who is most closely aligned with your prospective employer.
  • Co-worker: Even if they're your co-worker/friend, be selective with whom you ask to represent you during a reference check. Always choose eloquent former colleagues who can speak to how your skills will transfer to your new job.

How to Ask for Professional References

Let me answer some common questions I get from job seekers about how to ask for professional references. Knowing the best way to collect professional references will help to put your best foot forward on each job application in your near or distant future and ultimately optimize your job search.

How can I grow my list of references?

Sometimes, your working experience may be limited or your professional references could start to appear dated. That can be the case if you list references you worked with over 18 months ago. In that case, it can help to engage in ongoing education, mentorship, or volunteer activities. This can help you engage with contacts who can help you expand your reference list.

How do I ask for references if I’m still employed?

Many job seekers are stumped when it comes time to provide references while still employed. That’s where Searchlight really shines

Since the platform encourages referencing as an ongoing practice and houses them in your profile, you only need to ask for the references once.

Can I ask for a reference from my first employer?

While there is no expiry to the great contribution you likely made to the companies you worked for in your earlier positions, it could be awkward to revisit an employer for a reference if you haven’t worked together within the last three years. 

They may not remember you well if so much time has passed and that could result in a lackluster reference and hurt your chances at attaining the position. 

How soon in the hiring process should I contact references?

Many employers are used to waiting until the end of the interview process before they request your reference list. Most recruiters or hiring managers won't take the time to review references for other candidates.

However, when I hire for my team, I love having virtual access to applicant profiles in Searchlight early on because it gives me a complete and vivid picture of who the candidate is. Companies who rely on Searchlight early in the hiring process over traditional referencing methods appreciate that they have access to references from the start. 

How should I phrase an email requesting a professional reference?

In order to get the best possible reference, it helps to specify that you’re looking for a positive reference and be overt that you’re emailing for this purpose in the subject line. 

Here’s an example:

Subject: John Smith Reference Request

Hi Marianne,

I hope all is well on your end! It looks like some exciting things have been happening over at XYZ company — congrats on the growth!

I’m writing to see whether you would be comfortable providing a positive reference for me. If you could vouch for my experience as a leader and speak further to the new hire training I helped develop while I worked for you at XYZ company, that would really help me out. 

I have applied for a new position as head of HR and a positive reference from you would really make an impact. Please let me know if you have any questions or if I can provide any additional context regarding the role. Feel free to contact me by phone at 999-999-9999.

I appreciate your consideration,

John Smith

Always be sure to follow up by sending your professional references a handwritten thank you card to show you gratitude. 

Do LinkedIn endorsements count as job references?

While LinkedIn recommendations can certainly add to your credibility and online clout, they don't serve as professional references. You should always include your LinkedIn profile within your application, but most potential employers will also request a separate professional reference list.

What about a reference letter?

A reference letter (sometimes called a letter of reference or letter of recommendation) is a written endorsement that details the job seeker's previous employment. 

This can definitely be provided as a professional reference as long as the letter includes the reference’s job title and contact information. Any letter of reference submitted should be from recent work experience (ideally within the past 18 months).

What if my professional reference ghosts my potential employer?

It can happen and it’s not usually intentional. People are busy and the phone tag can be difficult to stay on top of. 

Searchlight helps by ensuring your references are ready to go on your profile. This avoids any potential delays and prevents your having to awkwardly follow up on that favor you asked for. 

Check out some more tips on how to ask someone to be a reference.

How ‘Searchlight a Colleague’ Helps

How to list references: Group of four co-workers stack hands

To maximize your effort using references and to gain momentum in your job search, check out Searchlight’s Support a Colleague initiative.

Setting the bar with Searchlight gives potential employers unique access to your candidate profile. The reference list is based on high-quality endorsements from recent work experiences that go directly to hiring managers. 

Get started by sharing the news about Searchlight a Colleague feature with your network and let’s get those references rolling in.

Want to hire more high performers and increase retention?

Serchlight’s Talent Intelligence has got you covered