Choosing and Listing References for Your Internship

Updated: August 6, 2023

After reading this article, you’ll:

  • Recognize the importance of selecting the right references and understand how they can significantly bolster your job application.
  • Grasp the etiquette and best practices of asking for references, ensuring that your references are informed, prepared, and able to vouch for your qualifications effectively.
  • Understand the added value of a recommendation letter, how to solicit one, and how to properly maintain relationships with references over time to benefit your professional journey.

In this competitive internship and job market, you’ve got to use every tool at your disposal, and that means having great references at the ready. References are people who can attest to your skills, experience, and attitude, providing an outside perspective on your professional performance. Because however many times you toot your own horn, it means a lot more when someone else does it.

Why Companies Ask for References

Understanding the rationale behind employers’ requests for references can help job seekers better prepare for this crucial step in the hiring process. Here’s why companies value references:

Verification of Employment History

References provide a way for employers to verify the accuracy of the information you’ve provided on your resume and during interviews. They can confirm your job titles, responsibilities, and the duration of your employment.

Assessment of Skills and Abilities

While your resume and interview can showcase your skills, references offer an external perspective on your actual performance. They can attest to your strengths, areas of expertise, and how you’ve applied your skills in real-world situations.

Understanding Your Work Ethic

A reference can provide insights into your dedication, punctuality, and commitment to tasks. They can also comment on how you handle challenges, deadlines, and pressure.

Evaluating Interpersonal Skills

Employers are keen to understand how you interact with colleagues, superiors, and subordinates. References can shed light on your teamwork abilities, communication skills, and how you handle conflicts.

Cultural Fit

Every company has its own culture, values, and work environment. References can help employers gauge whether you’ll be a good fit for their organizational culture.

Reducing Hiring Risks

Hiring a new employee is an investment, and there are risks involved. By speaking to references, employers can reduce the chances of making a hiring mistake. A positive reference can reassure them of their decision, while a lukewarm reference might prompt them to reconsider.

Gaining a Holistic View

References complement the picture painted by your resume and interviews. They provide a more rounded view of you as a potential employee, covering aspects that might not have been evident otherwise.

References are not just a formality in the hiring process. They play a pivotal role in helping employers make informed decisions. As a job seeker, ensuring you have strong, reliable references can significantly boost your chances of landing the desired position.

Selecting references

You should keep a running list of four or five references that you can list on any internship or job application. Often, an employer will ask for a list of references immediately following an interview, but some like to get a head start. Either way, you want to be prepared. References are all about quality over quantity, so select them carefully. You don’t need a binder of every person you ever worked with—you just need a few people who really know and appreciate you.

Generally speaking, it’s better to select professional references over personal ones. If you happen to be friends with a former teammate, that’s totally fine, but you should have worked with each of your references in some capacity. Consider professors, former supervisors, teammates, customers, and people with whom you volunteer or participate in extracurricular activities. They should be able to speak to your work ethic, skill set, and professionalism—and if they know and like you as a person, that’s all the better. Because references are typically contacted by phone or email, try to choose enthusiastic people who are strong writers and speakers.

Asking for references

Once you know who you want to ask, it’s time to do the actual asking. Your references are a valuable resource in helping you stand out from the competition, and they’re taking time out of their busy schedules to help you. So, show them that they’re valued by picking up the phone and making a personalized ask. Yes, an email will do in a pinch, but a phone call will really help you seal the deal. Even better than a call? A video chat. Just schedule it at their convenience, not yours.

Not only are you priming a great reference, but you’re nurturing the relationship and honing those networking skills. During this time, catch your reference up on what you’ve been up to, why you’re applying to the job, and how your skills mesh with the job requirements. Afterwards, send them a current copy of your resume, as well as a copy of the position description. If they know what the employer is looking for, they’ll be better able to tailor their responses to the job at hand.

Once you have a solid list of three-to-four references, be sure to stay in touch. If you apply to a new position and are planning to list them, at least give them a heads up via email so that they’re not caught off-guard. Tell them the name of the company and the role to which you’re applying. Better yet, provide a life update and ask if you can hop on a quick call for a catch-up date soon. Never provide a reference to an employer without contacting them first. Your former professor has had hundreds of students, and if you haven’t spoken in two years, they might respond to a reference request with, “Who?”

Getting a recommendation letter

While most potential employers prefer to speak directly to your references, having a recommendation letter (or three) at the ready can certainly make you stand out, especially now. Asking for formal recommendation letters is nearly identical to asking for a general reference. You’ll up your odds of getting a great letter if you ask early—two weeks before an internship ends or you move on to the next job. Then, you can leave with your head held high, knowing that you have a concrete testament to your awesomeness.

If you can, get letters from a variety of perspectives—that means asking people at different levels, who know you from different organizations or activities. When you’re interviewing for an internship, you might ask your favorite professor, your coach, and the manager at your part-time job for a recommendation letter. For a job, ask a former supervisor, a colleague, and a direct report. A standard recommendation letter includes your reference’s contact information, how they know you, how long they’ve known you, and 2–3 of your key strengths that differentiate you from other candidates.  If you can, ask for them

You can also go the more casual route and ask for recommendations via LinkedIn. To learn more about LinkedIn recommendations, check out our in-depth LinkedIn guide.

References that sell

In your final reference list, include all necessary information for each of your references. For each contact, include their full name, current title and company name, phone number, email address, and relationship with you. Be sure to save the document with a recognizable file name in case your potential employer misplaces it.

You can submit your reference list as a standalone document, or you can accompany it with a written statement describing which aspects of your experience and skill set each person can address. This strategy allows you to communicate your strengths in writing yet again, emphasizing the specific areas discussed in the interview.

One more thing: Keep in mind that some employers will never contact your references, while others will just reach out to one or two. Regardless, your references are doing you a big favor—so say thank you. Whether or not they’re contacted, and whether or not you get the role, write a nice email or, even better, a card. You want this to be a lasting relationship, from internship to first job to future job, so maintain it properly.