What are references?

References are professionals who can vouch for your experience, abilities, character, and work ethic.

Who asks for references?

Applications for jobs, university and college programs, and even extracurricular activities will often request references.

Employers require references to determine if you, as a candidate, are hard working and reliable. They also want to see if you have experience in the field, or alternatively are a fast learner and up to the challenge of acquiring new skills.

Schools require references to determine if you, as the applicant, have a genuine interest in the program, and a strong academic and practical background in the field. Usually graduate programs will require references, but sometimes undergraduate programs may request the same as well.

Extracurriculars will require references for different reasons. For example, if you want to provide crisis support, program coordinators will want to make sure you’re up for the challenge and are sensitive to the needs of people with vulnerable people with traumatic experiences. 

How are references used?

Employers, schools, and other organizations need to thoroughly assess applicants to make sure they select the right candidates, and references help them make an informed decision.

You can advocate for yourself and your capabilities through your resume, cover letter, transcripts, etc. However, it still goes a long way when a reference can confirm and elaborate on those capabilities. 

Wherever you apply, you’ll be competing with many other applicants and your references are one of the things that can make your application stand out from the competition. 

It’s important to choose references who have strong, professional relationships with you. This can be challenging for newcomers who haven’t been in Canada for very long, but you’d be surprised who you can turn to in your network.

How can a reference vouch for me?

The application process will instruct you how references can provide their feedback. Generally speaking, references can:

  • Verbally vouch for the applicant, usually through a call. After your interview, hiring managers may ask you to provide the contact information of one or more references to call with questions about your professional relationship/history. . 
  • Write a recommendation letter. Post-secondary school programs tend to require these and provide instructions on how references can submit them on their application portal.
  • Answer pre-set questions. Many jobs, schools, and extracurricular programs opt to ask references to submit their responses to questions about the candidate, instead of generally speaking on their behalf. 

As an applicant, you most likely won’t have access to what your reference says about you, but there is nothing wrong with asking. The way you can do this politely is by asking your reference what they think your skill sets are, and what you can improve on. You can also ask them if they'd feel comfortable sharing a copy of their recommendation with you. Usually references are open to letting you know what they’re sharing, but don’t pressure them to disclose the information. 

How do I choose a reference?

A reference needs to be able to speak on behalf of your work skills, character, and work ethics. You must choose people who have worked with you in a professional capacity, and who you have positive, productive relationships with.

When choosing a reference, also consider:

  • How long you’ve known them
  • How closely you’ve worked with them
  • Whether or not they played a supervisory role in your work
  • The reference’s credentials 
  • The position or program you’re applying for

Generally speaking, a good reference is someone you’ve worked closely with for a significant period of time. Their recommendation will hold more weight if they have a lot of experience in their field.

For example, if you’re applying to school programs, you may want to ask a teacher who taught a course that is relevant to the program, and who can attest to your performance in class. 

If you’re applying to a job, your first choice should be your supervisor or manager. 

It is not recommended that you ask your family or friends to be your reference, or a peer or coworker. A reference should have overseen your work and provided you training or feedback.

How do I ask someone to be my reference?

When approaching someone to be your reference, keep in mind to:

  • Give them plenty of time to gather their thoughts. Let them know as soon as you begin applying to jobs or schools, and follow-up when you’re getting documents ready for your school application or after you give an interview.
  • Provide them with the information they need to recommend you (e.g., the job description, the program requirements, etc.).
  • Make a list of qualities or examples you’d like them to highlight and share it with your reference.
  • Send your reference a thank you note after.

Asking someone for a favour can be awkward, but be confident in your approach and try to understand that this is a part of networking. Good leaders understand that part of their responsibility is to support your growth and will be more than happy to write you a recommendation.

One day, you’ll be writing reference letters for someone you’re guiding, too!

More Resources

Settlement.org’s resource on what are references

Canadian Immigrant’s resource on where and how to get work references

Algonquin College’s resource on who to use for references as a student

Youth Employment Services FAQ on references

Job Skills resources to help you get started on a new job 

Referee requirements for Ontario Rehabilitation Sciences Programs

Referee requirements for Ontario Law Schools

Referee requirements for Ontario Medical Schools

Government of Canada's resources on opportunities for youth