You’re sailing through the completion of your job application, confident that you have what it takes to land this job, when you reach the end and screech to a halt. Some lines or maybe a blank space stares at you. It is physically small, but in every other way it’s huge. It’s the reference section.

On almost every job application you’ll complete in your career, you will be asked to provide references. Employers ask for these because they’re a vital part of the hiring process. Checking references will tell a prospective employer volumes about you. References bring a two-dimensional application to life, and they either confirm what you say in your interview or refute it.

Sometimes, employers check references to select candidates for interviews. Other times, they wait to check references after the interview process is complete. Either one helps inform their hiring decision. If an employer calls your references at any time, congratulations. Your application has impressed the hiring manager enough to investigate you further.

You’ve made it this far, and you don’t want the references part of the job application process to destroy your chances of employment. References can make or break a potential job offer. Who you list as your references is vital to your success. What these people can say about you is as crucial as who they are and the role they’ve played in your life.

Employers want to talk to people who can speak to who you are, what you do, and how you do it. Therefore, you want to choose your references wisely. These insights will help you select the right references for the job for which you are applying.

Types of References: Professional and Personal

Boss and employee shake hands

Your references provide endorsements for you. In general, there are two types of references from whom employers may want to solicit information about you: professional references and personal, or character, references.

Professional References

Professional references tell your future employer what you’re like as an employee. A professional reference will talk about your abilities beyond what you can describe on a short job application or even a resume. Professional references fill in the blanks to help the person hiring you to determine how you’ll fit their company and needs.

You want to select professional references who worked at least somewhat closely with you so they can speak to your strengths. Your application tells a potential employer that you worked in customer service, for example, but it doesn’t reveal how you treated customers, handled conflict, took criticism, and got along with coworkers.

Professional references supply other crucial information. Your references can talk up those areas in which you excelled. Are you reliable? Punctual? Do you go the extra mile for coworkers and customers or clients? Choose references who have observed you in action and can provide examples.

The odds are high that an employer checking your references will also ask frank questions about areas in which you struggled or your areas of weakness. That’s okay. Everyone has both strengths and weaknesses.

A good reference is one who, in your time with him or her, provided constructive criticism to you rather than petty, unreasonable, or harsh feedback. Someone who sees your weaknesses as growth areas rather than faults is an excellent person to use as a reference.

Who are these people who can verify your job qualifications? And how do you list professional references if you are applying for your first job? Whether you’ve worked previously or this is your first time, broaden your concept of “professional.”

When it comes to listing references, “professional” can refer to anyone with whom you’ve had a relationship where the balance of power wasn’t equal. You weren’t on even friend- or family terms.

Professional references can include, but aren’t limited to,

  • Current or former supervisors
  • Coaches, directors, activity directors/supervisors
  • Supervisors of any volunteer work you’ve done (and if you’ve been helping your elderly neighbor care for her lawn, pets, or anything else, you can list her)
  • People you’ve supervised
  • Coworkers, co-volunteers—if they can talk about your work and how you operate rather than how fun you are after hours
  • Professors, teachers
  • LinkedIn connections (if you haven’t started a profile and building a network, now’s a great time so you can find references in the future)

People with whom you’ve had a more formal relationship and who have witnessed your work ethic, ability, and interactions with others are considered professional references.

Who do you list if your application asks to you provide personal or character references? This one is trickier, but with the below information you’ll be able to include the right kind of personal references.

Personal, or Character, References

A personal reference is someone who knows you in a different way than do your professional references. When an employer checks your character references, he or she is looking for information about who you are as a person. Compared to professional references, your character references can provide a broader perspective on your skills, attitude, personality, and achievements.

Personal references speak to who you are and what you’re like outside of the work environment. Employers care about this because your work attitude, ethic, and abilities greatly influence what type of an employee you’ll be.

The tricky part about selecting personal references is that they must be close enough to you to know you, but they can’t be so close that they’re biased. Typically, relatives—especially parents—are partial. Either they can’t see your weaknesses, or they won’t admit them to a reference checker. Therefore, avoid using family (including domestic partners) as references.

Who, then, can you select as a personal reference? Carefully consider who can discuss your strengths with someone who might hire you. Think of people who can be detailed and thorough. Who can tell your potential employer about who you are, not just what you do?

An example might clarify the muddy waters of personal references a bit. Pretend, for a moment, that you’re a cyclist, and you belong to a cycling group. You are considering listing a cycling friend (or close acquaintance) as a reference. He or she might emphasize one of these things:

  1. You should hire this guy. He’s so funny. When we’re done with a long tour, he’s the one who gets everyone to relax by handing out the beer and telling jokes. They’re inappropriate, and they’re hilarious.
  2. You should hire this guy. He always pushes himself to be the best. He wins almost every race, and when he doesn’t, he pushes himself hard to win the next one.
  3. You should hire this guy. He pushes himself to be the best, but he’s a team player, too. He encourages all of us to do our best. He is driven to succeed, but not at the expense of our team. If he needs to stop to help someone, he will. And if he doesn’t win, he’s not a sore loser.

Take time to imagine what your reference might say in a conversation. If it’s anything like A, choose someone else. Personal reference B is okay, but somewhat imbalanced and could give the wrong impression about you, that you’re driven in an unhealthy, individualistic way.

Ideally, choose someone like reference C. This person knew you well enough to provide a broad perspective, sharing the many strengths he or she knows about you.

Consider the following people as character references:

  • Friends who have spent enough time with you to answer questions and provide information
  • Members of your religious organization
  • Group members from class projects
  • Teammates, people with whom you’re involved in activities
  • Parents of friends (this one is questionable because even parents who aren’t yours can be biased, so use this one only if you have exhausted all other possibilities)

Tips for Finding References: Dos and Don’ts

employee meeting

You now know what the difference is between professional and personal references as well as how to find them. These bonus tips will further help you find and select references for a job application.

When choosing references:


  • Include people you’ve known for at least six months (longer is better)
  • Select people who have witnessed the skills you need for this job
  • Provide professional over personal references if the application doesn’t specify
  • Inform your references what position you’ve applied for, what skills your employer is seeking, etc.
  • Follow up with your references, thanking them and letting them know your job status)


  • Choose people from your distant past with whom you’re not in contact (Your second-grade teacher may have adored you, but she knew you when you were seven—presumably you’re a decade or more older than that now)
  • List anything other than what the job application asks for (three- to five references is typical; never list more or less than what the employer wants)
  • Use someone as a reference without their permission
  • Select a reference who has a bad reputation or a sketchy past; just as employers often search online to check up on job candidates, they often search references, too, to see if they’re credible

Knowing who to use as a reference on your job application can be stressful, but it doesn’t have to be. Consider the purpose of both a professional and a personal reference, and think carefully about what various people have to say about your strengths and skills.

When you take the guesswork out of choosing references, you can rest assured and with confidence that your references will provide strong endorsements. You’re one step closer to getting the job.