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Advice / Job Search / Networking

4 References You Can Nail Down—Even if You Don’t Have a Lot of Experience

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Look at you! You’ve got the perfectly polished resume, a cover letter for every job you want to apply to, and a personal website outlining your creative pursuits. Your LinkedIn profile’s complete and you’ve cleaned up your social media accounts. You’ve read up on interviewing and have a list of questions to ask at the end.

What you don’t have is a solid list of references, not because there’s anything wrong with you, obviously not. You’re a delight: smart, talented, confident.

The problem is you don’t have a lot of experience. You had exactly one real job that came with a paycheck, and you wouldn’t know how to track down your former manager even if you thought he’d want to talk about how your sundae-making skills have prepared you for the real world. You’re feeling screwed. Your mother would, of course, love to sing your praises, but you doubt that’d go over well with a prospective employer.

What to do then?

First, understand that you’re hardly alone. Plenty of people are facing the same dilemma: They had one summer job but focused on their studies throughout the year and didn’t, gulp, have any internships. There aren’t any former colleagues to put on the list, let alone former bosses.

That’s OK. Any potential employer is going to recognize that you’ve just graduated and aren’t in a position to list a bevy of impressive names.

Here’s who to include instead:

1. Your Favorite Professor

Depending on how big your graduating class was, you may have a few professors you can think to ask, or you may have just one.

Good news, friends: One is all you need in this category.

Is there someone you worked particularly closely with? Did you write a senior thesis or complete a capstone project? Did you have regular meetings with an advisor who counseled you in career direction? Was there simply a professor whose office hours you attended regularly? What about someone you took more than one class with? Or one whose course you participated in without fail each and every week?

Of all the references for someone with not a ton of experience, this is the most obvious one for sure, so don’t overlook it. Professors are used to being references. It’s similar but easier and less time-consuming than writing a personalized letter of recommendation.

2. The Family Member or Friend You’ve Done Work For

This, too, is an easy, go-to reference—assuming you’re not thinking you can put your dad on here.

My brother used to help my uncle with yard work every summer. He could’ve done it himself or afforded to hire professional help, but he knew my brother could use the cash—and to stay out of trouble—so he enlisted his assistance annually.

The pay wasn’t guaranteed until the work was complete. My brother had to show up on time and not mess around. He got good at taking instructions, practicing reliability, and engaging in sometimes tedious tasks. All of these things can speak to how he’d be in a professional work setting.

Do you have someone in your life who could fits this description? Obviously, you don’t want to lie or stretch the truth, but if you can think a little bigger, you might come up with someone to add to your list.

3. An Older Student You Shared a Class With

When I was a sophomore in college, I had several seniors in my class. Because I was generally in awe of them anytime they spoke, I made a point to strike up conversation with them after class, complimenting them on the excerpt of the paper they’d shared in class.

Think about your own experience. Was there anyone older you connected with? Worked with on a group project? In fact, it’s not even necessary that the individual be older than you. So long as the person can speak to your intellect and capabilities and you’re confident that he’d make a good reference, count him in.

Before you ask the reference if he’s cool with it, consider sending him a sample of your work. He might remember you from Philosophy 101 and Logic with Professor Hayes, but you want to give him something to work with. Explain your career goals and the kinds of jobs you’re applying to, and, if it makes sense, send him a copy of the assignment you’re most proud of. Give him something to work with in the event that he’s unaccustomed to serving as a reference for a peer, which he probably is.

4. A Leader From Your Past

Were you in a youth group? A part of the church choir? A boy scout? President of the Environment Club in high school? If, at one point, you were close with a leader or group organizer of this sort, this person could be a great addition to your reference list.

Sure, this person may have been in your life a long time ago, but if you’re in touch in any way—Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram—consider re-establishing a relationship. All it takes is a few words about your time together and what you have your sights set on now. If the connection four or 10 years ago was genuine, it won’t come as a huge surprise that you’re reaching out now.

But keep in mind that if you do touch base and he or she is willing to give you a reference, you’ll want to loop her in on what you’ve been doing since your time as class secretary. Offer insight as to how that youthful experience has shaped your vision for your future. If you can do that sincerely, and if you made a mark, it shouldn’t matter that some time has gone by.

One of the key components to devising a list of job references is to be certain that the person you’re asking has not only good things to say about you, but sufficient items. That might mean providing background or offering gentle reminders about what you’ve done and how and why you came to ask that particular person (we have the perfect email template right here).

Set the stage well, and it’s unlikely that your list will be lacking.