Professional References - How Many to List, Samples [2020 Updated]

professional references

Wondering what a professional reference is? When filling out an application online the employer might ask you to list professional references that they can contact. Or attach your professional references as part of your resume PDF or Word Document pack.

We’re going to answer all the questions that you have regarding what professional references are, how to get them and how to include them as part of your resume.

Ready? Let’s jump right in!

Table of Contents

What Is A Professional Reference

A professional reference is someone your new employer can contact regarding your prior work experience. A professional reference doesn’t only have to be a previous colleague. If you are a recent graduate or if you haven’t had prior job experience, listing a reference from a professor or mentor is an easy way to ensure you qualify.

Pro tip: In a 2018 HireRight survey, 85% of employers surveyed uncovered a lie or misrepresentation on a candidate’s resume or job application. Meaning the use of professional references, letters of recommendation or referrals are vital to increasing your chances of employment.

New employers often ask if they can contact your previous employer. If you reply to them saying that it’s okay, they’ll contact your professional reference list first. So it’s important that you think through who is on that list and what they might say.

Professional reference lists usually contain a few data points for your new employer:

What’s The Difference Between A Professional Reference And A Personal Reference

The difference between these two types of references is that one may be for a home mortgage or when you go to rent a home. And the other is for when you’re applying for a job. A personal reference is someone that’s close to you who can vouch for the responsibility that you might be taking on (again, home mortgage or home rental).

Professional references are people who can speak highly about you regarding how you might be able to perform in the industry and job function you’re applying to.

Who Makes The Best Professional References

Here are the best professional references you can find ordered by most impactful to least impactful for your new employer:

It’s advised that you don’t use friend and family members for professional references. But in the case where one of your family members is someone in a high responsibility position, like a VP of Sales, then that family members professional reference can be impactful.

Be sure to pick references that you know will be able to speak about the industry and job you’re trying to apply for. And ensure that you feel confident in their abilities to express skills or qualities about you that are fitting.

How To Ask For A Professional Reference

Before you list someone on your professional reference list, it’s vital that you speak with this person and ask for their permission to list them. There are a few reasons why you want to speak with the person you’re going to put on your references list before doing so. Some of those reasons include:

When asking someone for a professional reference, the steps are quite simple:

Curious what an email looks like when asking someone to be a professional reference? Here’s an example of what that might look like:

Dear John,

I really enjoyed working with you and it would do me an incredible service if I could list you as one of my professional references. It’s important to know that my next employer could potentially call you regarding applications in the Software Engineering role that I’m seeking.

Would it be okay to list you as a reference?

Thank you so much,
Steve Ryan

How To Provide References To Your Next Employer

When integrating your professional references list into your resume, what you’ll want to do is make sure that it’s included in your pack but not inside your resume itself.

Create a brand new page and ensure that your professional heading (your name, your email, your phone number, your address) is at the top. Ensure that your footer is also part of this page, which might include a minimal version of your contact information once more.

Then, include your professional references in order of priority. Be sure that you include their name, their contact information (email and phone number), relationship to you (like previous colleague — if so, list their title as well).

Be sure that your professional references list is only one page at a maximum. Anything more than one page is potentially too many references to list.

If the job you're applying for doesn't ask for professional references on the job application submission portal, it's recommended that you print out multiple copies of your reference list and bring that with you to the interview.

How Many References Should You Have?

Ideally, anywhere from 3 - 6 references is perfect for a reference list. Be sure that you include only the most impactful references that you have. For instance, if you have the approval to list both your previous CEO and your previous peer as part of your references, choose your previous CEO.

Professional References On The Resume (Template, Sample)

Here’s what a single professional reference should look like, as well as what a list of professional references look like ready for your resume package.

Here’s what a single reference should look like. Use this as a resume template:

John Smith
Previous Employer (VP of Product)

And here’s what a list of references should look like:

John Smith
Previous Employer (VP of Product)
Company, In.

Ryan Starver
Professor of Economics
Harvard University

Here’s a simple sample template you can use to include your reference list as part of your resume. Know that if you have a professional heading and footing on your resume, use that instead.

[Today’s Date]

[Your name]
[Your phone number]
[Your email address]
[Your address]

[Position you are applying for]

[Reference name]
[Reference title]
[Reference company or relationship]
[Reference email address]
[Reference phone number]

At the end of it, your reference list should look something like this:

Tips Before You Submit Your Reference List

Before you submit your reference list, try to speak with those who are going to talk to your new employer. Mention to them what job you might be interviewing for and provide them a few ideas on skills they can speak to. For example, communication and organizational skills.

Try to vet what your reference might say regarding yourself and the position. If you can, have your reference go through a “dry run” with you to practice what they might say. From there you can help calibrate what they might say with suggestions.

When you're finished gathering all of your references and you secure your new job, don't forget to come back to your references and thank them for their hard work. This will ensure that when you ask something of your professional network that you show gratitude and uphold those great relationships.

Professional Reference FAQ's

Below are common questions job seekers have when creating a list of references.

Should I include my previous job title in the reference list?

No it's not necessary to include the job title you had while under the management of the person in your reference list. Though, the job title of the person mentioned in the reference list can be very impactful.

Is a supervisor a good person to add to a reference list?

Absolutely. Any previous supervisor, manager, or boss that can speak to your work ethic or particular functions of the job that you excelled at would be perfect to include.

What about a recommendation letter? Is it better to have that?

A letter of recommendation will always be a powerful tool. If you don't have one, then use a reference list instead. But if you had to opt for one or the other, go with a recommendation letter.

Should I present my reference list in the interview?

Job seekers feel they need to print the reference list and hand it to the interviewer during the interview. This isn't necessary. Instead, have it included as part of your job application assets and avoid handing paperwork to your interviewer during the interview.

Why is a professional reference helpful to my prospective employer?

It can expedite the hiring process and assist in providing you a more accurate job offer. The professional reference is a way to ensure the validity of what you mention in your resume, cover letter, and more. This can help a hiring manager to assess and determine your quality and fit as a candidate, very quickly.

Should I include my references social media account?

Including their LinkedIn profile might be okay. But avoid other social media accounts. LinkedIn is the best professional network and shows the validity to your reference. While Instagram and Facebook do not.

What should I tell my reference to say about me?

Have them speak to your strengths and tell the new employer what is was like when you worked together.

How helpful is a professional reference list in my job search?

It can make your application feel whole. Thus, as an applicant, it can make you stand out. And it can help the interview process exponentially. Meaning, including a reference list is a great way to increase your chances of landing a job interview.

How many professional references should I have in my career?

As your career develops, you'll have new references to list and those you want to remove. It is natural. Your career will advance in this way. Your references should always be professional individuals who you've had the most recent contact with. Meaning, this should coincide with your resume and cover letter contents.

Is it better to list colleagues I've worked with or bosses and managers?

Hiring managers will prefer bosses and managers. But if you don't have any to list, your colleagues will do just fine. Any human resources department will appreciate your willingness to be open about contacting a prior employee to validate your professional resume.

Should I have a reference from my current employer?

You probably won't. That's because you will probably be employed while seeking a new job. Most job candidate applicants won't list a current employer reference on their reference list during their job hunt.

Should I tell my reference to validate my soft skills?

Yes, absolutely. If you feel you have strong verbal communication skills. Influence your references to speak to that.

What's a way to ensure that my references make me sound like the perfect fit for the job?

Read through the job description, decipher what the employer is looking for. Then tell your reference what the job requires. Detail each of the job functions. Then try to tell your reference to speak to those qualities in you.

What types of questions is the recruiter or hiring manager going to ask my reference?

They will be open-ended questions that allow the reference to tell stories about you. This is why it's important to provide some guidance on what your ideal storytelling experience looks like to your reference. Simply put, tell them to communicate what it was like when you worked together.

author: patrick algrim
About the author

Patrick Algrim is an experienced executive who has spent a number of years in Silicon Valley hiring and coaching some of the world’s most valuable technology teams. Patrick has been a source for Human Resources and career related insights for Forbes, Glassdoor, Entrepreneur,, SparkHire, and many more.


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