What is a professional reference? You may see a notation in a job posting to provide professional references with your resume or on a job application, or you may be asked for a list of references after you have interviewed with a company. Who should you use to provide those references?

What a Professional Reference Is

A professional reference is a recommendation from a person who can vouch for your qualifications for a job.

A professional reference for an experienced worker is typically a former employer, a colleague, a client, a vendor, a supervisor, or someone else who can recommend you for employment.

Recent college graduates might also tap professors, coaches, and college personnel who were advisers for your activities. The key is picking references who have observed you acting in a productive capacity where you displayed your skills and credentials for employment.

These differ from personal or character references because the professional reference is speaking mainly to the applicant’s employability and work-related qualities, as opposed to their personal or character traits.

The Ideal Reference

Consider the qualifications for your target job as you are choosing individuals to act as your references.  Ask yourself who can vouch for the skills and attributes in your background that are most critical for success in that job.

So your mix of references might differ based on the varied requirements of the positions for which you are applying.

The ideal reference will be able to speak in a very specific way about your assets and back up her assertions with examples from your work.  An individual who can only provide vague positive references to your strengths may be less convincing.

So you want to place a priority on people who know your work quite well as opposed to picking the most prestigious or highest ranking individual.

Think of your most successful roles first and consider individuals who can attest to how you engineered those achievements.  For example, even if you had a close relationship with your academic adviser but took four courses with her and only got C and B grades, you might not select her as a reference. Instead, you might opt to tap another professor for whom you earned two A’s, as long as she knows you well enough.

Make sure that the individual you select is comfortable providing a positive recommendation.  Many candidates make the mistake of assuming a person will provide a strong endorsement when they are only prepared to provide a somewhat positive evaluation of your performance.