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How to select the best references for your resumé

Choosing great references can be key to moving from applicant to interviewee and finally to HIRED.

Just because the references normally go at the end of your resumé doesn’t mean they’re not important. If you opt not to include references, at the very least, you should include a “References available on request” line, or I like to write “References gladly furnished upon request.”

If a job posting specifically mentions supplying references, make sure you do.

If you choose not to include them on your resumé, or if you don’t have room to fit them in, at the very least prepare an additional page with your references. Your references page should follow the same style as your resume in terms of font, layout and colours. Make sure it includes your name, in case it gets separated from your resume.

How many references should you include?

First, consult the job posting. It may specify an exact number or a minimum number. Always follow instructions in the job posting.

If there’s no mention of references or of how many, aim for two of three good references. They should be people who can speak about the things that will be most important to whoever might be calling them. Only listing one might suggest to a hiring manager that you can’t find even two people to say nice things about you. (Uh oh.) And if you list more than three, a potential employer is unlikely to call them all. That means they’ll pick two, three or even just one. Choose the best people to represent you.

Who should you NOT include as a reference?

Before we look at who makes the best references, let’s consider who should never be listed as a reference.

  1. Family members. Always avoid using family members if at all possible. Even if they’re the most qualified to discuss your work habits, reliability and personality, the interviewer will assume they have an automatic bias and may be hesitant to trust what they say.
  2. Dishonest people. Just like it’s important to be honest on your resumé and at the interview, it’s important that the people you choose to speak about you are truthful as well.
  3. People who don’t like you. This one should be a no-brainer. If they don’t like you, they probably won’t say great things about you. It may not be possible to leave out an employer, but you may be able to choose someone within the organization where you worked who will at least give an honest assessment of you, even if it’s not glowing.

What people make the best references?

  1. Relevant people. An appropriate reference for one job might not be the right person for another. Consider what questions are likely to be asked about you and who is best suited to answer those questions.
  2. Well-spoken people. A potential employer may judge you based on the impression they get of your references. After all, when you list a reference, you’ve determined that he or she is a good person to represent your interests.
  3. People who know you well. If you just met them recently, if you haven’t seen them in a while or if you’re just casual acquaintances, they may struggle to provide depth in their answers to questions. List people who know a lot about you.
  4. People who know the right things about you. Just because someone knows you well, doesn’t necessarily mean they have the information an employer wants. A family friend who you volunteer with might be a good reference, or might not. If you’re applying to work as an accountant, can they speak about your ability with numbers? If you volunteer as treasurer of a non-profit you both work with, they might make a great reference. But if your volunteering role involves selling hot dogs at little league games, an employer might find your mad barbequing skills less than relevant to the position.
  5. Expected people. Depending on what stage you’re at in your career, employers will expect to see different types of references. For a professional with a lengthy career, they’ll want to speak with current or past employers. If you’re fresh out of university, list a professor who can speak to your knowledge of relevant subjects. If you’ve only held smaller jobs, consider listing direct supervisors versus corporate management.

Regardless of who you choose as a reference, always give them a heads up. If you’re applying for more than one job, let them know that. Don’t assume just because they’ve served as a reference for you in the past or that they’ve agreed to serve as a reference for one application, that they’re OK with being used again. Always ask.

Also, find out how they would prefer to be contacted and make sure they’ll be easily reached. If a reference can’t be reached quickly or doesn’t have time to talk right away, the potential employer might just move along to the next person on their list.


Choosing great references can help drive your job hunt straight to the finish line. One bad reference can send you back to the job boards to find other opportunities. They key is to find people who know you well, will speak positively about you and can provide relevant information.

If you need help selecting your references or laying them out on your resumé or on a separate references page, reach out to me. I’ll be happy to help!

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