Careers

How to Find References If You've Never Worked Before

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You have the polished online profile and application documents, you've spent time cultivating meaningful relationships and expanding your network, you've prepared for interviews and are ready to ace them. What may still be missing is a list of references to share with employers so they can confirm you are an all-around qualified and wonderful person to work with. You'll need to list at least two or three names, but what if you have limited or no prior employment?


Before you identify people who might be able to serve as references, consider the purpose of references. Doing so ahead of time can help you clarify who in your network can become a reference and how to build up to having strong references in the first place.

Why Do Employers Ask for References?

For employers, any hire is a risk, and job seekers with limited to no experience are even a higher risk. As a candidate goes through the interview process and reaches the final stage, employers contact references for two reasons: to confirm abilities and inquire about character. References allow them to learn more about your qualifications, your personality and work style, your potential to perform well, and your motivation to pursue opportunities in a specific field.

The three common categories of references are academic, personal/character, and professional. Knowing what types of references employers may seek, consider the five groups listed below and identify at least one or two people for three of the categories.

Instructors | Professors

If you are applying for jobs while you're still a student or soon after you graduate, a professor is an obvious choice for a reference. For some entry-level positions, you may specifically be asked to provide one or more academic references. Asking a professor may be a no-brainer if you have been a research or teaching assistant. But what if you haven't had a formal role with an instructor? Not to worry! Think about faculty you've engaged with beyond the occasional raising of the hand in class or question about a grade. Here are three possibilities.

1. Favorite Professor

Before you start searching for internships, jobs and other opportunities, pay attention to instructors who engage and motivate you and make an effort to connect with them, especially those teaching content you are curious about or that you like to explore outside of the academic environment. Do you have a favorite professor whose courses you look forward to? A professor you asked to be your academic advisor? A professor who has inspired a curiosity about a subject? Reach out to them, ask them questions about their field, especially if they have industry experience complementing their academic credentials, and have them get to know you.

2. Student Club Faculty Advisor

One way to engage with a faculty member beyond the classroom is by becoming an active member of a student club or organization, especially one started under the guidance of a particular instructor. The experience would be even more valuable if the organization's focus relates to your career aspirations. What's an issue, a topic or a subject you are curious about? What on-campus student clubs, organizations or honor societies focus on topics aligned with your interests? If no organization grabs your attention, no worries! You have the option to create your own, collaborate with a faculty member and secure a reference.

3. Independent Study Supervisor

Working on an independent project presents an opportunity to show initiative and engage with an instructor one on one. The reason could be a required thesis, a capstone project or an independent study of your choice. Whether you have the option to choose your instructor or an instructor is assigned to you, having to work with them closely could be an ideal setup for a meaningful relationship and a subsequent reference.

High School/College Staff

As a career coach at a higher ed institution, I interact with hundreds of students each year, and at times, some ask me to be a reference. I'm happy to do so in cases when I've engaged with the student outside of the confidential one-on-one coaching appointments. For example, students who have joined my team as interns or have collaborated with me as student leaders are more than welcome to use me as a reference. I can speak both to their character and to their performance in the role.

What staff members at your school or college have you worked with closely? Even if you didn't have a formally established role, if you worked on a campus initiative; volunteered to support a project, a program or an event; or joined activities led by staff, you could identify some of the collaborators as references.

Community Leaders

Community involvement doesn't simply allow you to give back and gain valuable skills; it's also a great way to expand your network with potential mentors and allies who can become character and professional references in the future. Think about any activities you've been part of within your faith community, at local nonprofits or in your neighborhood.

Have you helped with a fundraising initiative at your place of worship or at the local animal shelter? Have you supported classmates, younger students or neighborhood kids through tutoring and mentoring? If yes, reach out to someone associated with the experience and ask them to be a reference. In addition to speaking about you as a person, they could share insights into what makes you an invaluable contributor and a leader.

Competition Mentors

Competitions provide students with opportunities to apply acquired skills and knowledge to solve real world problems. Most competitions assign a mentor or mentors to support each team through the process of evaluating a case, coming up with strategies to solve it and preparing to present conclusions in front of judges. If you participated in any project-based learning, contest, or competition as a high school or college student, and you worked with a mentor who guided your team through the process of addressing the assigned challenge, you have a person who can become a reference.

Athletic Coach/Supervisor

Do you play sports? Volunteer to help your school's team? Work as a lifeguard during the summer? Assist a coach to teach others how to play? A coach or supervisor who's had close interactions with you and can speak about your ability to deliver outcomes can be another good option for a character or a professional reference.

Final Thoughts

For people to be able to speak about your character, motivation and skills, they need to have seen them in action. Be active, be visible and be engaged. Most people would be happy to serve as references as long as they honestly know you well and can comfortably respond to questions about your abilities and traits. To secure references who not only speak about your qualifications but are willing to advocate for you, take action -- bring initiatives, execute ideas and offer to help with activities or projects.

Don't forget to first check with those you've identified as potential references and ask their permission. It's common courtesy. If you've chosen a person you haven't interacted with in a while, be sure to first update them on what you've been up to since they last saw you. They'll appreciate it and be more willing to help!