Students: Understand the purpose of a reference

“A leopard does not change his spots.” Most people believe that people can evolve and grow but do not change entirely because their basic values, temperament and judgement are stable qualities. A candidate can look good on paper and be completely charming in the interview, but be a poor fit for the company’s needs because their values, temperament and judgement are in conflict with the requirements of the potential position. A reference helps an employer or a graduate school learn about how the candidate has performed in the past.

Unless you have been asked for a character reference, do not suggest people you know exclusively in a social and community capacity. Employers perceive this as an indicator that you do not have any better references to give. Your social network will support you unreservedly no matter what. One of your references should always be your most recent supervisor. If you are still working for her and she does not know you are looking to make a change, you can stipulate that she not be contacted unless there is a job offer on the table.

Supervisors within the past five years are also good references, but presumably you have grown and changed over the past five years, so it would be of little value to go farther back. If you have little paid employment experience, another good “supervisor” reference would be volunteer program coordinators that you worked under.

Professors have spent time with you teaching you in a course or thesis, and potentially supervising you on a work-study project, and that is one reason why they are often asked for references. However the professor is not just being asked to comment on your marks. A reference is about the other performance qualities that the transcript does not capture.

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Author: Kathryn Woodcock

Dr. Kathryn Woodcock is Professor at Toronto's Ryerson University, teaching, researching, and consulting in the area of human factors engineering / ergonomics particularly applied to amusement rides and attractions (, and to broader occupational and public safety issues of performance, error, investigation and inspection, and to disability and accessibility.